"You must play not only what the composer wrote, but also what the composer did not write." That's a paraphrase of advice that's always stuck with me (but the source of which is long forgotten).

I know it relates to giving the music an interpretation beyond the mechanical adherence to the various notations given, but my memory is that the source was being literal about playing "what the composer did not write." Since there are infinite things the composer did not write, how is one supposed to figure out what's important to the interpretation?

Regarding the context of the quotation

To the best of my memory, the original discussion related to classical music (probably a specific piece under consideration) and balancing faithful adherence to the score with building an interpretation. More broadly, I've always accepted the advice in regard to any music where the composer/arranger intends the music to be played "as written".

  • 3
    Can we have some context on when this was said and in relation to what? Because out of context, this could mean just about anything. Like Lisa saying "you have to listen to the notes she's not playing" in that Simpsons episode.
    – user45266
    Apr 8, 2021 at 5:28
  • The managerial version of this is "think outside the box." Both are meaningless if not backed up with some deep though and acceptance of the unconventional or failure. Apr 8, 2021 at 21:18

5 Answers 5


There are a few different things this can mean, and they aren't always mutually exclusive. But they all relate to a fundamental weakness of musical notation: it's impossible to specify everything the performer should do without completely cluttering up the score.

  1. Understanding the implied style of performance. When Beethoven premiered a new piano sonata, that piano sonata was played in a very different style than a Bach fugue would have been performed when it was premiered. And the same is true all throughout history: there are performance norms for each genre and time period, and it's impossible to perfectly clarify these stylistic norms on staff paper. So part of "playing what isn't written" is knowing what these norms are. This is why history and theory classes are so important, as is listening to as much music and musicians as you can. Doing so will clarify what these norms are, thus informing your performance.
  2. Understanding compositional norms, especially when a composer deviates from them. Let's go back to Beethoven; when he wrote a piano sonata, he wrote it in the context of a musical culture that didn't yet have Wagner, the Rite of Spring, the Beach Boys, etc. Instead, he premiered any given sonata in a musical world that had particular compositional expectations. It's vital to know what these expectations are so that the performer knows when these expectations are not met (i.e., when Beethoven does something stylistically unexpected). Once again, this is why theory and history classes are so important: they help you understand what these styles were, and therefore when something is innovative and could be brought out in performance. As a very simple example: sonata forms are "supposed" to return in tonic at the beginning of the recapitulation. But what if Beethoven decides to write the recapitulation of an F-major piano sonata beginning in D major? That's something you need to be aware of!
  3. Performance nuances not given in the notation. If music only followed the expressive markings written on the page, it would be pretty boring. Bach would be performed without any dynamic markings (!), the overwhelming majority of all music would be completely metronomic, early music would have no diversity of articulation, and so on. But the best performers incorporate nuances not found in the sheet music: they'll slow down ever so slightly here, they'll use vibrato on all of their notes except for these specially chosen ones, they'll change their articulations as a given phrase progresses, etc. And almost none of that is ever written in the score.
  4. Playing a narrative. I believe the best analysis a performer can do is one that creates some type of compelling narrative based on that analysis. Often this involves particular musical figures—motives, chords, key areas, you name it—functioning as "characters" in the narrative, and these characters interact and influence each other throughout the work. Performing this narrative—what many teachers call "telling a story"—is a vital part of creating a compelling performance.
  • 1
    Honestly, ragtime played by computers (e.g. Musescore.com, RagtimeDorianHenry videos) doesn't sound so bad despite the loss of dynamics and articulation from playing only what is notated (at least IMO).
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 8, 2021 at 12:10
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    @Dekkadeci It's interesting you say that, because I considered mentioning the possibility of changing the notated score in jazz and ragtime. Apparently Joplin himself did it!
    – Richard
    Apr 8, 2021 at 12:13
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    Yeah, the Joplin piano rolls are full of him improvising on his own works. (I can't agree with him massacreing the introduction of "Magnetic Rag" to the point that the rhythms are no longer what is notated, though, and I suspect that its piano roll's lack of repeats is because the editors cut (fudged) content out.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 8, 2021 at 12:16
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    I believe Joplin was dying when he recorded his piano rolls. Also, I can't agree that RagtimeDorianHenry videos sound good compared to real ragtime! I think it's unfortunate that we associate ragtime with the mechanical player piano sound when it's not really meant to be performed that way.
    – Flounderer
    Apr 9, 2021 at 2:29

When I studied music in college, there was a term that was thrown around an awful lot: "intentional fallacy." The idea that the performance of a piece could be more authentic if you could understand the mind or intentions of the artist was very strongly resisted.

I'd agree with that about 70%. However, AS A PERFORMER, trying to figure out the mind of the composer is part of the fun of immersing myself in a piece.

I have one particular interpretation that is SUPER clear to me, but that not everybody has agreed with (in fact, nobody has!).

It's the beginning of Beethoven's 9th symphony. To me, it sounds like the instruments are tuning and rehearsing. The timbral density gets more intense, and the piece finally erupts in the famous unison melody.

This is not theme and countertheme. This is order erupting spontaneously out of chaos. If I were to conduct this piece, I'd actually make the orchestra's warm up merge directly into the performance of the piece-- no tap! tap! tap! and a few moments of silence to gather the orchestra's energy. No applause while the first violinist or conductor walk onto the stage. Just a few moments of eye contact, a count-in, and rehearsal gives way to performance without any artificial delineation of the moment.

If an undergrad theory student were to look at the piece through theory-on-paper eyes, they would probably say something like:

The piece begins with a pianissimo tremolo on the V, with the 3rd omitted. More instruments are added. Finally, in bar 17, the first theme in d minor begins.

How totally useless that analysis is in thinking about this great piece of music!

There's nothing new under the sun, and this is something very often said of the study of Western art music in particular. The notes of Beethoven's 9th will always be Beethoven's 9th. But by reading between the lines, or by gazing into the flames, or by peering into a crystal ball, eventually something will come out of the process, not of Beethoven, or even of the conscious you, but the universe of sound speaking THROUGH both of you.

My point is this (and I hope by now you've learned to look for the bold-face punchlines in any of my answer, Aaron!:

By playing what is unwritten, you may reveal what has been undiscovered. Whether the original composer intended it, or whether they'd even agree if they were alive, is irrelevant. There's no right or wrong (though uptight theory profs might argue that point). What there IS is music trying to burst forth from the chaos.

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    I have the impression it's like writing an essay on a book.
    – Clockwork
    Apr 8, 2021 at 7:52
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    I always thought that the beginning of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 sounded blatantly like a tuning exercise - more blatant than the start of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Movement 1.
    – Dekkadeci
    Apr 8, 2021 at 12:08
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    Pretty sure that "sounds like orchestra tuning up" opening was explicitly intended, that's not just your interpretation. Apr 8, 2021 at 16:44
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    @DarrelHoffman Concur, there is a thematic swell toward the opening Apr 8, 2021 at 18:49
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    @DarrelHoffman That's definitely how I've always heard it. But you really do have to hear it to "get it." Also-- I've heard some performances where they seemed to really want to bring that out, and some where they almost deliberately seemed to AVOID making it sound spontaneous. Apr 8, 2021 at 23:21

The are some artworks that use a kind of nothingness to get the supposed art object to redirect a person's attention to the surrounding environment. Or at least that's one way to interpret such art.

Rauschenberg's White Paintings or Cage's 4'33" are examples.

I suppose if someone goes hook, line and sinker for that kind of thing, they might apply it to 18th century style music, and suggest the content of the score isn't really the point.

...my memory is that the source was being literal about playing "what the composer did not write."

You didn't mention any musical styles so it's hard to know how far out of context the suggestion was. I'm going with your assumption they were not simply talking about variation in performance interpretation, but somehow to play something that literally wasn't in the score, and apparently apply to any kind of music.

Personally, I think you could take that approach with some music. Excluding indeterminate avant-garde scores, I think of Erik Satie and something like the Vexations. The score is conventional in the sense it's just quarter and eighth notes with accidentals, but it has a strange instruction suggesting maybe 840 repeats, or maybe even a long period of silence and immobility that might occur in front of an audience..? Seems reasonable to think Satie wanted something beyond what was written on the page.

If the case is a fugue by Bach, I think you're probably supposed to play the score and not bring into it something that Bach didn't write. Or, if you do, it will be regarded as your addition and not the original score. In other words, Bach didn't write a fugue as a point of departure for the performer and audience to experience some other thing the way the Rauschenberg paintings are intentionally "blank" deliberately turn our attention elsewhere.

  • I love 4:33, I wish I could actually "listen" to it proper but I cannot turn off the tinnitus, the stray thoughts, or the streaming flow of favorite tunes inside my head.
    – user50691
    Apr 8, 2021 at 21:03
  • I've never been to a performance. In college I would have been seriously tempted to get up and sit under the piano, or something like that, and make it a Happening. But, I would have been about 25 years too late for that kind of thing. Apr 8, 2021 at 21:05
  • I learned about reading the book 4:33, a biographical text on the tune and John Cage's life.
    – user50691
    Apr 8, 2021 at 21:35

I've always considered "play what's not written" in three ways:

  1. Why did the composer write X instead of Y? The composer wrote forte (for example). Why? Why not piano or mezzo piano or fortissimo or any other dynamic? Why, in the first place, was it important to be specific about any dynamic at that spot in the music? How does changing the dynamic to something else change the musical meaning?
  2. How much X did the composer intend? Most musical markings are vague. The composer marked a ritardando. But, how quickly should I slow down, and by how much? The composer did not write that aspect of the instruction.
  3. The composer was silent about .... Is it okay to ... here in the music? This seems like a climactic moment in the music, but aside from the notes and rhythm, there are no indications like a crescendo, accelerando, accent, or other point of emphasis. Can I put that in? Did the composer not mark it, because it should be "played as unmarked" (i.e., don't add anything not explicitly notated?)? Would the music support doing the opposite of what the notation otherwise suggests (e.g., an accelerando might be expected, but would a ritardando hold up musically?)?

To me, the "why" and "how" part of the piece is the part which was not written, and maybe more specifically where are the most important points in the piece, how does the music build to those points, how should the important points be ranked. In other words, how does the music function which then means one's performance must support that function.

The first piece I thought of in response to this question was Alban Berg's Piano Sonata, Opus 1. You can judge the two high points first by just the volume markings, ffff and then later fff. But more than that, the performer needs to understand how Berg has put this piece together. The first climax clearly has a stronger build up than the second.

A different example from the same time period is Scriabin's 4th piano sonata. Analysis shows that it is a rondo in 2 movements. So a performance would want to portray the similarities and the differences between the former and latter movements.

A different case altogether would be Bach's Preludes and Fugues. Some are magnificent, some are light hearted, some are somber and there are multiple ways to interpret them, due to that unwritten part. Commonly if the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is performed on organ, it has more of a magnificent quality. When performed on a piano (maybe the Siloti transcription), the introductory and final recitative sections often take on a lighter character (as well as the fugue).

So to me, the unwritten part is understood by studying the written part. I do not see it so much as putting it in its historical context, although I could see that with something like the Eroica symphony and Napolean. More than a historical reference, quite often music has a sexual reference, commonly cited with Scriabin but also in the case of the Berg.

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