Take a look:

First few bars of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings

What are the > markings above the notes? I know of a decrescendo and a crescendo but can they be applied to specific notes?

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    You have obviously not yet encountered the dolmetsch page which deserves to be bookmarked for future reference in case of similar questions. – guidot Oct 31 '17 at 21:19
  • The decrescendo sign should not be confuse with the accent - thought it sometimes can be. See related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/44999/… – leonbloy Nov 1 '17 at 3:39

Simply called an accent. Indicates that note gets played louder (accentuated) than the surrounding notes. How much louder is open to interpretation. An accent can be applied to any note value, and probably works better on an instrument which can sustain that note for its full value, although if a 'suddenly loud' note is needed, it would most likely not have an accent but a sforzando (sf or sfz). The first note in a bar is often accented slightly anyway, so here on the first note, it means give it even more volume.

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    I don't quite agree with your explanation. “More volume” isn't really a sensible interpretation here – Tchaikovsky clearly intends the beginning chords to be not quite as loud as the second and third time the theme is played, where the dynamic is ff. – leftaroundabout Nov 1 '17 at 10:24
  • @leftaroundabout I think by "even more volume" Tim means more volume relative to the level of volume you would give the note if it weren't accented. Of course, in the ff passage, you need "still more volume," and would still need to slightly accent the first beat relative to the fourth, the sforzandi notwithstanding. (But after reading your answer, I can see that I'm thinking pianistically. The distinctions that you draw there make sense.) – BobRodes Nov 9 '17 at 7:30
  • To be played louder there will need to be more attack at the onset of @leftaroundabout - by 'more volume' I meant 'louder'. To me they are synonymous in music. Obviously that extra volume will be achieved in different ways, for instance a trumpet, violin and piano would take quite different methods to make a note accentuated. To become accentuated, the attack at the beginning of the note will have to be louder/more distinct compared with other non-accented notes. – Tim Nov 9 '17 at 8:23
  • The point is, I think neither “more volume” nor “louder” properly describes what an accent does. “More aggressive” might be an accurate choice, if you want to reduce it to a single adjective. – leftaroundabout Nov 9 '17 at 8:32
  • @leftaroundabout - I like that. But isn't that going to effectively be 'louder' anyway? Or is it, in some cases, going to be a change of tone/timbre? – Tim Nov 9 '17 at 8:36

What an accent denotes is actually that the notes' attack should be particularly emphasized. Loudness is already indicated by the f, it wouldn't make sense to simply say “every note should be played louder”, as Tchaikovsky seems to do here. What he wants is that despite the slow tempo, the notes should not become “rubbery”, but with a clear, present initial impulse. Instead of continuing to write out accents, he then expresses the same with the sempre marcato (at least that's how I understand it).

Note the contrast with the third iteration of the theme, which is even louder but puts ties over everything, emphasising how the fat, pulsating feel is replaced by soaring, ethereal sound:

Bars 17-24 of Tchaikocsky's Serenade For Strings in C

  • I am still a little confused on an actual definition. Are we saying that the way they are played is to be different? Or is it more to do with volume? – cmp Nov 1 '17 at 11:14
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    It has to do with volume, but it's not just “play the note louder”. The attack should be louder, i.e. put extra pressure on the bow in preparation an release it with deliberation, in a quick and clear movement, when starting the note. The remainder of the note should not be louder than it would be without the accent. Hence, the “decrescendo” appearance is actually quite fitting. – leftaroundabout Nov 1 '17 at 11:20
  • That is clearer, thank you, how would you play the accent on a piano I wonder? The bow example does make perfect sense. – cmp Nov 1 '17 at 11:26
  • @cmp playing a piece like the Serenade For Strings on piano would necessarily fall short of the proper thing... but yes, in such a case, just making the entire note slightly louder is the standard makeshift solution. Theoretically, the best option would be to slightly damp the note at the beginning but then let it ring freely immediately afterwards; on guitar this can be done quite well with palm mute or left-hand mute, on piano it would require half-pedalling. I don't think many people would do either of this though; you just can't replicate a proper bowed string anyway. – leftaroundabout Nov 1 '17 at 11:34
  • Another option that isn't appropriate here (only in a faster tempo) is to make the note both louder and slightly shorter entirely. – leftaroundabout Nov 1 '17 at 11:38

As is the case with most aspects of music notation, there is no exact definition. This is an 'accent' as people have already explained, and it has to do with loudness and attack quality. The exact meaning depends on context. One general rule of thumb that I learned is that an accented note is one dynamic marking higher than the notated dynamic---e.g. if you are playing piano, the accented notes are mezzo-piano.

But this is just the beginning. For example, if you are playing a piano instrument, this basically applies. But what if you are playing the violin? Usually in context of string music, accents apply to the attack of a note (stronger articulation). In a piano, there is no way to control articulation and volume separately (slurring and pedalling aside). The velocity with which the key goes down controls both the attack and volume. In a sustained instrument (voice, strings, winds, brass, etc.), there is no such direct coupling of these parameters.

It also depends on the composer. Schubert sprinkles these marks around like salt on french fries. Their meaning (which is totally subjective because Schubert is long gone and to my knowledge there is no extant document that gives his reason for using them so often) is somewhat different than in Beethoven---who also uses the 'v' (or 'wedge accent'), 'sfz' (sforzando), and 'rfz' (rinforzando), which are all types of accents that have to do with attack and dynamic.

People have written volumes about these issues, but at the end of the day you just have to have experience and musicianship to make sense of it all.

Claims that always hold are that different types of accented notes should be differentiable form eachother and from non-accented notes, and they should be stronger than non-accented notes.

  • Thanks for joining Music.StackExchange and sharing your expertise! I think this is a great answer which explores the subtleties with lots of detail to help readers understand and navigate the nuances. +1 – jdjazz Nov 9 '17 at 1:52

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