I've come across this notation in the score of Gershwin's second piano prelude: a left bracket at the beginning of a chord. I have also seen it in the score of Rachmaninoff's C-sharp minor prelude, here and here. What would the meaning of these brackets be?

Edit. At first I thought it meant that the chord should be played arpeggiated. But in the recordings I have found they are usually played at the same time. Moreover, the recording of the Rachmaninoff prelude I linked is played by Rachmaninoff himself, and here he plays them at the same time (although not in here, since it is physically impossible even for him...).

Gershwin, Prelude #2, mm. 9–10


It's just a visual aid to show that widely (vertically) spaced notes or chords are to be associated with a particular voice/hand. The clearest example is in the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# minor.

In m. 52 it is impossible to play all four staves exactly as written. The brackets just clarify which hand is to play which parts.

Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# minor, m. 52

The same is true in the Rachmaninoff at m. 28. The bracket just helps the eye see at the same time both the whole-note C# and the B quarter-note two octaves higher and to clarify that both should be played with the left hand.

Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# minor, m. 28

The function is the same in the Gershwin. The notes can be played together (if possible) or separately (if necessary), but they are to be played with the left hand. Note the difference between m. 14, which includes brackets, and the same chords in m. 28, which does not, as there is no doubt about which hand does what.

Gershwin Prelude #2 m. 14

Gershwin Prelude #2 m. 28

The brackets are related to the L-shaped brackets discussed in What does the L-shaped symbol attached to C5 and G4 on the top staff mean?

Note that in Gershwin's Prelude #1, m. 53, and in Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 23, No. 6, final measure, standard arpeggiation symbols are used where that articulation is explicitly desired.

Gershwin Prelude #1, m. 32

Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 23, No. 6, final measure

  • 1
    This answer may well be correct. However - anyone playing Rach. really ought to be at the stage where they didn't need telling which hand plays what - and for most in OP, it's pretty obvious - and even if not, surely a performer has his own choices to make. And - Dolmesch specifically states the brackets as shown are (old fashioned) arp. marks. Any notes played by a good player won't have to sound different regarding which hand they're played with. – Tim May 25 at 12:43
  • I do not understand the need to precise this in the second bar of the OP's excerpt and not the first one then... – Tom May 25 at 12:58
  • @Tom - do you mean why is there no bracket in OP's 1st bar, but they seem to be necessary in the 2nd? Makes somewhat of a mockery to me! – Tim May 25 at 15:32
  • @Tim Yes exactly. It seems fairly obvious in both bar/measure of the OP's that this should be played with the left hand, or at least I do not find more obvious in the first bar than in the second, so why bother putting these brackets in the second bar only? The first chord of both measures are the same, except for this… – Tom May 25 at 15:42
  • @Tom - I guess that if it was to be played by anything else except l.h. (maybe r.h.?) it would have been written with the high note on treble clef. All seems superfluous. – Tim May 25 at 15:47

From one answer from this post this seems to be another way to denote the fact these chords should be arpegiatted.

This post give this list of musical symbols as a reference where it is precised that this way of noting it is "now uncommon".

  • I'm not entirely sure if this is the case, I've edited the post in response to your answer and Tim's answer. – Quaerendo May 25 at 10:49
  • These are not arpeggio marks. They just clarify which hand is to be used. – Aaron May 25 at 12:11
  • @aaron Why not bother for the first bar then? Should it be played differently? – Tom May 25 at 15:51
  • I wonder about that, too, and I would only be speculating on why the engraver chose to include them. However, I notice that the first bar is three "units" clearly operating as chords and with the stems all in the same direction; in the second bar, with the bracket, it's perhaps less clear whether to interpret the "units" as chords or as separate voices, given the parallel tenths and different stemming of each "unit". Also, the right hand part is further away from the left in the first bar than in the second. – Aaron May 25 at 16:06
  • @Aaron I'm not much of a piano player so I'll trust you on that! That still confuses me thought ;) – Tom May 25 at 16:20

The more usual sign is a vertical squiggly line. Meaning play them slightly staggered - lower before higher. Partially here, it's because of the stretch. Some players might manage the two notes simultaneously, but in any case, the composer wanted it arpeggiated - not played together.

  • I'm not entirely sure if this is the case, I've edited the post in response to your answer and Tom's answer. – Quaerendo May 25 at 10:49
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    They are 10ths, and some players can reach without arpeggiating - I certainly can't. But the arp. marks may have been put in by a later editor, with respect to those with small hands. I can't hear what happens on the recordings, so no help. – Tim May 25 at 11:55
  • 1
    These are not arpeggio marks. They just clarify which hand to use. – Aaron May 25 at 12:11
  • @Aaron - see my other comment. – Tim May 26 at 18:24

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