This is really interesting. I’m going to try and ask two questions here albeit I do believe they are very much related to reading music.

In this first example, (end of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C) we see Breath Marks for the wind section. Only, these breath marks appear right at the end of the section. We know that they are used to help ‘shape’ a phrase as the orchestra will then go onto beat as one so to speak but why would adding them right at the end of a passage like they are below be of any use, without anything left to play? The wind section is obviously going to breathe then, no?

Stravinsky symphony in e flat

Secondly, in Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, again right at the end, we see an R————-] which on further explanation means Ritardando to ‘slow down gradually’, but these notes only play for a short time, there’s nothing there on the violin viola section to slow down? Most odd I think?

Elgar Symphony no 1 finale


As pointed out below, the Ritardando mark also appears at the top of Elgar Symphony No.1. Good to know that the Strings also require this mark if it is used.

Ritardando double markings

  • Lots of markings are a good thing. Consider the alternative: moma.org/collection/works/163616 Commented May 11, 2020 at 14:47
  • I really do think that ritardando is not as strange since the last bar still has notes to be played. Even if other are not playiiiing (in this case they are). Commented May 11, 2020 at 16:18
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft Hey, come on, now, that's probably the most clear and unambiguous score ever written. Very versatile too, supports any instrumentation, with no need for transposing, tuning, etc. Commented May 11, 2020 at 17:59
  • @CarlWitthoft This is not necessarily the case I believe? With rests for example, you need to convey the silences in as less signs as possible.
    – cmp
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 10:43

3 Answers 3


I have no idea as for the breath marks, but for the ritardando, it seems that other instruments are still playing (I see some notes right at the top of the second image, probably a trombone), and the ritardando would apply to everyone. Your question would then reduce to "why is the ritardando so weirdly placed".

And about that, I'm not sure, but in the orchestral scores, the tempo changes often are printed at multiple places (vertically), often at the top of the whole system, and then above the string section. Perhaps there is the same mark at the top of the system?

  • 1
    You’re right, I am sorry to have missed this but the mark does also appear at the top of the system. Useful to know if you are going to apply these markings to your own work, the string section should also get this mark too, regardless if they are playing.
    – cmp
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 9:34
  • @cmp, I think it's a hack to make the reading easier. When the tempo indications are repeated several times vertically, the conductor doesn't have to scan the top of the 20+-staff system to see if the tempo has been changed. If you browse different scores, you will find various ways of duplicating the tempo markings, i. e. it can also be in other places than just above the string section and on the top.
    – Ramillies
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 15:15

For the breath marks, redundancy is useful. They can remind players not to over-hold the notes. They may also indicate to the conductor a tiny break between the end of the winds' notes and the strings' entry.

  • Agreed. That's how I would expect the piece to be played. Commented May 11, 2020 at 14:42

Typically: The score is used by the conductor. Each instrument gets its own part which generally only shows that players notes as an extract from the score.

The Ritardando is one kind of a tempo mark. In a score the general convention is to repeat the mark in each major section, winds and strings are examples. Conventions help when the conductor at a glance has to read the full score during performance.

Several score programs call this kind of information "system text" and will show it in every part but only at select places in the score. This is different from "staff text" that applies to only one instrument, generally shown both in part and in score. Examples of programs: Dorico, Sibelius, Finale, Musescore and so on.

The tempo mark will be shown in all instrument part, when playing or not.

(Of course there are exceptions to all rules)

As for the breath marks, my experience as a player is that the experienced composers add these kind of markings to convey something slightly unusual. As a player I would very carefully try to understa exactly what is supposed to happen. In this specific case I expect that the full wind section should stop the notes at exactly the same time (generally implied anyway, but emphasized here), and giving the strings a small pause before they play the end chord.

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