When writing music, does one:

  1. Let the musician interpret the music more (less dynamics, tempo markings, etc.), or
  2. Let all musicians follow the same general interpretation (more dynamics, tempo markings, etc.)?

That is:

When I write music, writing using music software tends to become tedious.

I don't want to have to put markings everywhere to tell the musician to play exactly my way. However, if I don't put that many markings, no player will know the "real" way of playing my song.

This is my question. How do I write my songs then? Do I want musicians to play "my way", or their own way more?


Your score should ideally contain all of the information necessary for a professional musician to sightread the piece properly on the first try. By "properly," we just mean that they understand the basic techniques they need to execute to convey the idea of what you want. If you don't care what they do, then don't include markings! And to the contrary, there is always room for more nuanced interpretation with further rehearsal time. A crescendo means get louder, but doesn't necessarily say how loud or at what rate. A conductor can help communicate this (even when sightreading), as can feedback from the composer.

So to expand on the first point, your score is communication with the musicians. It tells them what they need to know. If you're writing a jazz chart, the musicians will automatically interpret certain rhythmic gestures with certain articulations -- this is true for any idiomatic music that fits into a well-known style. When you're making use of an idiomatic musical gesture, you may not need to include all the markings for a literal interpretation, but you should include markings that the musicians would expect to see, based on the rest of the published repertoire in the idiom.

In contrast, many composers are expressly focused on crafting a new style that doesn't fit into any existing idioms. This often means more ink on the score is used for markings than it is for noteheads! But if you find your digital entry of interpretive marks to be tedious, I would suggest that you may be missing some software usage patterns that could make your job easier. You shouldn't need to duplicate your efforts for music that is marked the same way in multiple staffs or multiple places--whenever I find myself doing this in Sibelius, I go looking for a shortcut or plugin, since something usually exists that I've been missing. (And if it's still bugging you, once you get rich and famous you can hire someone to typeset your scores for you!)

  • Basically, you're saying that new styles need more markings than others? – user8886 Aug 11 '14 at 4:43
  • I'm saying that when you're doing something brand new, you need to effectively communicate that, so typically this will result in more markings. Unless, of course, the "new music" you produce is based on drones, or is chance music, or uses an alternate system of notation, or isn't notated at all! – NReilingh Aug 11 '14 at 4:45
  • This answer gives a more general answer than just a "do this" or "do that", which is the reason why I like it. However, when doing something brand-new, I'm assuming that one does not put too many markings to limit the musician's interpretation, but put enough so that it can be played correctly. Is that correct? – user8886 Aug 11 '14 at 4:49
  • Well there's a funny thing that happens when the composer is still alive -- you can ask them how they want their piece to be played! The idea of "interpretation" largely comes from playing the music of dead people and trying to figure out what they meant. The living composers I know have a crystal-clear picture of what they want their music to sound like, and so they work with their conductor and musicians to get that across as accurately as possible. Including markings just makes that job easier, more efficient, and saves rehearsal time. – NReilingh Aug 11 '14 at 4:54
  • By the same token, over-marking a piece can just confuse the musicians and conductor, so we always come back to the point of effective communication. – NReilingh Aug 11 '14 at 4:55

I think this depends purely on you. If you want to write a song that you want to be played the way you hear it in your head, you have to add markings; otherwise, you can let the musicians play it the way they feel.

The latter would be really difficult in an orchestra; this is why the orchestra scores usually have a lot of markings, whilst the small ones can be more 'free'.

When I write music, usually I add a few markings as pointers, and leave the rest up to the musicians.

  • So your way is to let the musician interpret it more? – user8886 Aug 11 '14 at 4:42
  • yes,unless I want a specific part to be played my way – Shevliaskovic Aug 11 '14 at 16:50

I have found (and have been taught) to include a lot of dynamics, articulations, slurs and markings. If your music fits stylistically into well established genres, it probably requires fewer markings in order to get a good interpretation. Conversely, if your music is less conventional, then the more information you give to the performer about what you had in mind, the better.

I agree that adding all these markings to a score is tedious. And it can be very difficult to envision the most musical way to play the piece before rehearsals begin. But when the markings are absent, I find that musicians end up asking what I want and writing down what I say anyway. So I'd say putting it all down to begin with makes more sense and definitely makes the score look more professional.

  • So your way is to let the musician follow the composer's interpretations more? – user8886 Aug 11 '14 at 4:42
  • More-or-less, I find that having a lot of markings doesn't necessarily limit the musicians' expressive boundaries, but rather helps them to more expressive/musical. I think it gives them more to work with, not less. In the absence of markings they will typically ask "what's the dynamic at m. 33?", etc. It's as if they've been given an incomplete roadmap. – Matthew James Briggs Aug 13 '14 at 0:07
  • p.s. It totally depends on what the music is, too. Something simple for a soloist could just say "dolce" above it. But complex ensemble passages should probably be marked-up or you'll spend all your rehearsal time deciding what should be short/long loud/soft and everyone will be writing it down in pencil on their part! – Matthew James Briggs Aug 13 '14 at 0:11

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