In modern times (after recording a melody/song was possible) we have a fair idea on how the original composer imagined his composition to be played (most often he would be the one recording/mastering it).

What about in older times when no recording was possible, were there any notations or instructions on music sheets, or accompanying material, where the composer would describe the approach his music should have when played?

I understand there are multiple musical notations on intensity, speed, sustain etc but my question is more about "sentimental" instructions. Like Wagner e.g describing the intended way for "Ride of the Valkyries" to be played is as "all hell broke loose and coming to get you" or Beethoven noting that "Moonlight Sonata" should be interpreted as the "sadness embracing you while watching something beautiful and calm"...

EDIT: Do we know of any such original composer notes/material? I can see an example here

in the video description ""effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece "painfully", "sadly" or "gravely".""

  • 4
    Not only olden times. Last week my instruction for playing an introduction was 'play it like you're making love with a French lady'. I'm searching for exactly the right inspiration...
    – Tim
    Oct 11, 2019 at 8:32
  • sometimes the title tell's as so: prelude, nocturno or french kiss 3Y8w2W1uy2A Oct 11, 2019 at 8:41
  • 1
    You mention Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata, and its first movement is a good example of a piece whose composer gave a lengthy instruction on how to play it. Beethoven marks its first movement "Adagio sostenuto" and gives the instruction "Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino" ("Play all of this piece very delicately and without the soft pedal").
    – Rosie F
    Oct 11, 2019 at 16:28
  • @Rosie senza sordino doesn't mean without the soft pedal, it means without dampers, i.e., hold the damper pedal down for the whole movement. Seriously. Oct 11, 2019 at 18:00
  • @CamilleGoudeseune Ah, my mistake. Must've got my con sordino mixed up with my una corda.
    – Rosie F
    Oct 11, 2019 at 18:02

4 Answers 4


This practice as you describe it became more popular in the Romantic period, with Beethoven essentially serving as the bridge from Classic to Romantic. During this age the image of the artistic composer-genius began to be intertwined with mysticism around inspiration and the creative process. Belief in the supernatural was also hugely popular at this time.

Composers in prior periods gave less or hardly any expressive indications in their music. They relied on standard performance practice of the time and for performers to embellish their music (as was common practice). Modern editions of many baroque pieces include ornaments that wouldn't have been written in during the time period, as both composers and performers would have known what to do.

As technology (over the last century in particular) has given birth to "equality of voice" pedagogical and aesthetic zeitgeist has fractured and widened to a point where for the contemporary composer, it is absolutely necessary to include many details in a given piece.

So how did older performers know? They were taught. Performance practice became an oral tradition, and techniques were passed down. How do we know what they knew? A mix of oral / practice tradition and scholarly research finding old treatises and journals.


If my dictionary gets it correctly, this is called expressive mark (in German Vortragsbezeichnung).

Examples of those not relating to speed or dynamics are:

  • giocoso
  • dolce
  • animato
  • grave

Robert Schuman was aware of the deficiencies deriving from those terse words and frequently gave lengthy instructions as

Nicht schnell, immer sehr leise (not fast, and throughout quiet).

Another example by Debussy can be found in this question.


Programm music (19th century) was in itself a program (MOLDAU, PICTURES OF AN EXHIBITION) how the music should be performed. In earlier compositions where compositions were illustrating the lyrics actually the text or the title tells as how to play it:


dances of suites

madrigals (pastorales)

cantatas (symbolism)

operas (underlying sound track to lyrics and action)

so it was not a reason for the composer to tell the musicians how to play a piece, it was the theme that told the composer how to write the music. The way was leading in the opposite direction.




"To increase the dramatic impact of a story, madrigal composers came up with a technique called word painting, or text painting, is an attempt to musically represent the lyrics of a song." ...


Very often in early music, this kind of information was encompassed by the title and/or tempo markings (or lyrics, when present). However, I can think of two examples of more explicit instructions from the Baroque; one well known, and one not-so-much.

In Vivaldi's famous "The Four Seasons" concertos, there are notes in the various movements explicitly indicating certain effects such as "the birds", "the barking dog", "languor caused by the heat", "the drunkards have fallen asleep", and "the storm".

A less well-known example is Heinrich Biber's Battalia à 10 (1673), a suite of movements representing a battle, with events preceding and following it (there are movements named "The March" and "Lament of the Wounded Musketeer"). The 2nd Movement, titled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor" ("the dissolute company of all sorts of humor"), is a polytonal mish-mash of various common songs written one on top of another without thought for creating polyphony. The bass part -- which normally would indicate the continuo harmonies -- has the instruction "hic dissonat ubique nam ebrii sic diversis cantilenis clamare solent." ("Here it is dissonant everywhere, for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs.")

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