Marky Mark

A vigorous discussion is ongoing at the Sequenza 21 Composer’s Forum. It’s also been taken up at Kyle Gann’s blog. The topic under discussion is, nominally, the density of expression markings in scores. (I say that markings are the “nominal” topic of the discussions because I think the real topic is compositional pedagogy, a second front in the style wars.) I want to comment on the subject of markings themselves.

Among the markings under discussion are those that indicate dynamics (volume), articulation, including changes in dynamics, accents of various kinds, and phrasing. I pulled a few score off of my shelf just to look at the density of markings therein and found that they vary from piece to piece, even within the work of a single composer!

This is not surprising, of course. It seems to me that the markings in a score become too dense at precisely that marking that makes it harder for the performer to play the piece than it would be without the mark. How does a composer know this? Well, that’s a little more complicated. It comes with experience (and experience as a performer is even better). If the style of the piece demands few or no marks to be expressive (if that’s the goal) and vivid in performance, then a plethora of marks will get in the music’s way. On the other hand, if a certain level of specificity is desired in the realization of a note, chord, or phrase (or “moment”), the marks needed to help the performers achieve this are necessary.

I think most composers intuit this. I say that because in looking at a number of scores from various eras and in divergent styles, the density of these expression markings changes with pieces, so that some passages are rather full of markings and, a few pages later, almost none. There seems to be no consistency as to whether fast music has many markings or few, and the same for slower passages.

Let a thousand accent marks bloom! Or not.

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