This is some kind of a complementary question to Are there any composer instructions on how to play a melody?

How can we (in modern times) know how a piece of classical music was actually intended to sound by the composer? We all know a specific musician's interpretation that recorded this piece of music at some point but is it correct that the initial composition although describing through musical notation its "feelings" would be a bit different from what we know it to be today?

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    The sounds may well be different, with different qualities of instruments used. But the basic premise is flawed - there are several dozen (?) recordings of, say, Beethoven's Fifth to listen to, and they're all different. Why? Because there is leeway to translate the dots. Even if Beethoven heard it his way (no joke intended) he wouldn't have expected it to sound the same every time an orchestra played it. That's one of the great things about performed music - it can be different every time.
    – Tim
    Oct 11, 2019 at 10:10
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    I think this question has merit. I also disagree that just because there are recordings of B's 5th that are different that means the composer intended it to be played different. That may be true in some cases but not all. If composers from that era are anything like some modern composers they might have been very particular about how their music was represented. Modern differences can be driven by current artistic and cultural trends and the fact that the composer isn't around to complain about it.
    – user50691
    Oct 11, 2019 at 11:25

2 Answers 2


I cannot provide a complete answer. In fact, the answer might be that we cannot know what an ancient composer intended their music to sound like. As an example I'd cite some fairly common renaissance era Lute music arrange for guitar. There are many interpretations of how to play the music and it is common to add ornamentation that is not explicitly present in the music. Another common embellishment is to arpeggiate chords with 3 or more notes rather than play them as chords. Though some performers choose not to do this.

In contrast I would say that in many orchestral scores the composer would not only provide very explicit notation for rhythm and dynamics but also written instructions in words regrading how the sections are to be played and what "feeling" the music should invoke in the audience. Mahler's symphonies are written like this. So in some cases there is less room for interpretation. That doesn't stop modern conductors from making changes but in many cases the "intent" is there.


We can make an educated guess from our knowledge of the instruments, contemporary reports etc. But styles of performance have changed even within the era of high quality recorded music. Listen to 'classical' orchestral recordings from the 1950s. Same 'dots', essentially the same instruments, sometimes a quite different style. Changes in style of vocal performance can be even more marked.

And, in all eras, there's the composer's intention - his 'inner ear' - and there's what the performers deliver. Even the most accomplished composer must often get a surprise - hopefully a pleasant one!

We're told of music being delivered to the first performance - whether it's the overture of a Mozart opera or a Sinatra recording session - with the ink still wet. I'm not sure if this amazes or horrifies me!

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    Mozart was famous for that. I think it would have horrified the musicians in the pit. I read somewhere that Miles Davis sent one set of scores for the tunes in Kind of Blue to the musicians to rehearse but swapped them out for slightly different changes to keep the band on the toes and the improvisation fresh during the recording session. Not sure it that's true or a myth.
    – user50691
    Oct 11, 2019 at 11:40

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