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I come across sforzando a lot as an arranger and even just as a classical music listener. I was told by my piano teacher that sforzando means a stronger accent than your typical accent mark. But I have seen multiple interpretations of sforzando in music. You don't have to look any further than Mozart and Beethoven to see all those interpretations.

Interpretation no. 1: Creschendo

This, I see quite often, especially when there are multiple sforzandos in a row. The most well known creschendo by sforzando is this passage:

enter image description here The very famous creschendo before the second theme of Beethoven's fifth

Now there is a creschendo marking before that, but I have seen crescendos being done even without the crescendo marking if there are multiple sforzandos. An example of that is the opening theme of Piano Sonata no. 1 in F minor.

Interpretation no. 2: Forte Dynamic

I have seen this interpretation used especially in pieces by Mozart. Sometimes, all I see in a Mozart piece is a sforzando marking for a passage. When I listen to that piece, almost every performance interprets it as a forte dynamic that lasts until the next dynamic change unless the next dynamic change is forte, in which case it gets interpreted as a creschendo.

Interpretation no. 3: Stronger Accent

This is what I was taught sforzando means and sometimes I do see this interpretation, for example starting at bar 34 of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 1 in F minor. But the vast majority of sforzandos I see either interpreted as both accent and creschendo, just a crescendo, or a forte dynamic, so is the accent definition really a good one?

So if all three of these interpretations are valid for sforzando, why do we keep getting taught that it means a stronger accent than a typical accent mark when Mozart especially just throws that definition out the window and prefers it to simply mean a forte dynamic?

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For Mozart and Beethoven, the only general meaning one can give to sforzando and accent (and fp forte then subito piano) is that they mean "play this louder than what came before and what comes after." The details vary from composition to composition, from phrase to phrase. Notational issues can include:

  • accent markings occupy less space, useful when there are many, or when the accent applies to one voice in dense polyphony in a piano score

  • sfz markings are bigger, thus harder to overlook ("I really mean it!")

  • a sequence of accents with intervening rests, like the woodwinds in this example, means: "don't play through those rests, I really meant them."

Accent, sfz, and fp aren't really independent orthogonal instructions, because their scores don't show, say, all three in one phrase -- as we see with markings for tempo, dynamics, accents, and Italian adjectives, which can pile up close together.

After Beethoven, it gets even muddier. Liszt added the inverted-V "multi accent" sign. Boulez attempted a "scale" of ten different "modes of attack." Essays continue to be published about the subtle differences between these, but at the end of the day it's up to the performer to decide, for each accent however notated, how much to emphasize that note and de-emphasize its neighbors; and, if the instrument allows it, how to emphasize it -- crunchy noisy attack, brighter timbre / vowel color, or simply more loudness, or even no change in loudness but instead a slight rubato as one must do on the harpsichord.

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Well sforzando means a sudden or marked emphasis. Your teacher is correct that sforzando is a stronger accent than your typical accent mark. It does not mean crescendo. In the example with Beethoven there is a written cresc. so that is rather clear.

Apart from that I would say you would need to see or figure out or interprete what is relevant in the score you are playing. Note that composers can sometimes use dynamic markings in different ways. It helps if you are used to the style of that particular composer. Also note that editors can sometimes put in dynamics which wasn't there from the composer's hand.

  • Here is an example where the sforzando is interpreted as the start of a crescendo to forte, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as you can hear here: youtube.com/watch?v=MeaQ595tzxQ Yes, you hear the sudden accents going to piano, but the second one is a bit louder than the first, and even before Mozart wrote down the creschendo, you can hear a creschendo to forte going on. That creschendo starts with the sforzandos and just keeps going until Mozart then later writes down a forte dynamic. – Caters Sep 22 at 19:58
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    @Caters if an orchestra plays the second sforzando slightly louder than the first one it just shows an orchestra playing like that; sforzando does NOT mean crescendo. There can be all kinds of ways musicians play and/or interprete a piece. Playing music is a dynamic thing, a live thing. There is a flow in the music that can inspire your way of playing it. That doesn't change the meaning of sforzando. Mozart wrote sforzando followed by piano, then sforzando again followed by piano again. That is what is written. He wrote the crescendo a bit later. – Lars Peter Schultz Sep 22 at 21:07
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A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume. It may be over a single bar, or over many. Sfortzando has always been (to me) a sudden increase in volume for a single note/chord. The level of the surroundings have little bearing on a sfortzando. There may be other things going on at the time, but the sf itself is an isolated sudden (unexpected?) emphasised point.

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I don't know what "your typical accent mark" means Beethoven, because he never wrote one. If you see a ">" accent mark in an edition of Beethoven, it was put there by an editor, not by the composer.

So "your typical accent mark" means whatever the editor thought it meant - i.e. just guess and play whatever you like, because in that sort of edition you have no idea who wrote what for any markings in the score.

Also, you (and/or your teacher) seem to be mixing up sforzando "sf" and forzando "fz" which were two different things. fz means "play a bit louder starting from here" and "sf" means "this single note is accented".

Since the composer's manuscripts and/or first editions of almost every standard work are now available free from IMSLP, there really isn't any reason to believe what it says in any later edition, unless you first check whether the markings are genuine or not.

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