I have some sheet music for vocal + piano accompaniment where I want to notate that the vocalist should feel out the rhythms and phrases and sing expressively while the pianist maintains a steady tempo. I'm concerned marking it simply "rubato" might be misleading and the pianist may think they're supposed to follow the vocalist. Is there a better way to notate that or is it enough to notate the tempo as "Expressively" or "Rubato" (plus a bpm) and assume that, if the piano part is rhythmic (mostly 8th notes in 4/4), the pianist will understand they should stick to the beat?

  • 1
    Note, adding a metronome marking does nothing to indicate rhythmic rigidity or flexibility. Even the most flexible piece has a tempo, and might indicate it. Also: if you have a score showing both parts, you can align expressive text with the staves separately. Mar 12, 2023 at 22:33
  • How bad would it be if the pianist did follow the singer? What if the pianist took some liberty with the meter or rhythm but to a lesser degree than the singer? I suspect that you don't really want the pianist to be mechanically strict, for example as strict as a computer would be.
    – phoog
    Mar 13, 2023 at 17:16
  • <tongue-in-cheek> How about "Vocals with feeling. Pianist, no, just no" </tongue-in-cheek> Mar 14, 2023 at 11:13

3 Answers 3


I posted this as a comment but @Bob_Broadley suggested I post it as an answer so here goes:

This is pretty wordy but sometimes using a verbal description is the best way to go. There is no rule that says musical instructions must be only one or two words long. How about: “vocalist ad-lib rhythm over steady piano accompaniment” ?


So often in cases like this, using words clears things up really easily. Why not use a marking for the tempo such as “Vocals - Rubato; Piano - Tempo Giusto”. It’s short and to the point. Alternatively, use English, as @John Belzaguy suggests.


This happens all the time in popular music. Streisand rarely ever DOESN'T do it!

If it's not obvious from the style, give plain text instructions. 'Maintain rhythm, vocalist may float'.

Best not to include the literal melody in the accompaniment if this is going to happen!

This can be a bugbear when accompanying at sight. It isn't always clear whether the singer wants to play around rhythmically over a steady beat, or wants 'colla voce'. I've had sticky moments over this as a club/audition pianist!

  • A few words with a vocalist who knows what they're doing usually clears away the problem!
    – Tim
    Mar 14, 2023 at 13:17
  • "A few words with a vocalist who knows what they're doing..." Yes, that sort of vocalist is no problem!
    – Laurence
    Mar 14, 2023 at 14:43

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