Symbols of Piano Music

Learn about different musical symbols, note accents, and articulation marks; how to write dynamics and volume changes; and how key signatures work in piano music.

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Musical Articulation

Articulation marks in piano music

Brandy Kraemer

Accents and curved lines placed around music notes change the way they sound and relate to each other. This concept is called “articulation.”

Common symbols affecting articulation include:

  • Staccato: A small dot written above or below a note that makes it brief in duration. (Not to be confused with a rhythm dot, which is written after a note-head).
  • Staccatissimo: A small wedge or straight comma above a note that creates an exaggerated staccato; a very brief note.
  • Marcato: Informally referred to as simply an “accent,” a marcato makes a note slightly more pronounced than surrounding notes.
  • Sforzando: Makes a note considerably louder than surrounding notes. When a single note is affected, the abbreviation sfz is used.
    *Sforzando is also considered a dynamics command.
  • Legato or Slur: Connects two or more different notes. In piano music, the individual notes must be struck, but there should be no audible spaces between them.
  • Tie: A curved line that joins two or more notes of the same pitch. In piano music, notes connected by a tie are struck as one note, and are held for the total duration of all the tied notes.
  • Fermata: An indication to hold a note or chord for any desired length. A fermata is also called a hold or a bird’s eye.
  • Arpeggio: A squiggly vertical line in front of a chord means its notes are hit quickly in order, not simultaneously; to create a harp-like effect. Arpeggiated chords are usually played from low to high, unless marked by a downward arrow. An is a fast-moving arpeggio.
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Musical Dynamics

Musical symbols marking dynamic changes

Brandy Kraemer

Musical dynamics control the volume of a song, and may be signified by words, symbols, or both. Dynamics mark the relative changes in intensity, and do not express precise decibel levels; a song in mezzo-piano played by two different pianists will sound slightly louder or softer depending on factors such as the players’ interpretations and the voices of their instruments. However, the audible distance between pp and ff would likely sound the same from either musician.

Because a piano has a limit to how loud or soft it can sound, it’s important to consider how many dynamic commands occur in a song in order to interpret them correctly:

  • High Dynamic Activity
    A composition with a range of pppp (pianississimo) to ffff (fortississimo) will require the pianist to execute extremely subtle changes in volume in order to make room for the many dynamic commands that exist between these two extremes. The difference between p and mp may be difficult to distinguish, even when played back-to-back.
  • Calmer Dynamics
    In a song with the smaller range of p to f, you may hear a greater distance between commands because there is more room for interpretation. However, always consider a command’s true definition; forte always means “strong,” and should not be taken to mean “extremely strong,” even if it is the loudest dynamic symbol found in the sheet music. The p and mp are distinguishable, especially when played back-to-back.
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Key Signatures

How key signatures work

Brandy Kraemer

A key signature expresses the key of a song by displaying which notes have sharps or flats, if any. It is written as a pattern of accidentals at the beginning of a staff (between the clef and the time signature).

Key signatures imply accidentals throughout a song, therefore its own sharps or flats will not be marked in the body of the music.

Look at the image:

  • A natural sign turns the key’s C sharp into a C natural. Since an accidental or natural expires at the end of its measure, the C note turns back into a C sharp with no written indication.
  • Key signatures with the most accidentals (7) are C-sharp major and C-flat major.
  • A key change mid-line is written after a double barline. In traditional notation, the previous key is first canceled-out with naturals; in modern notation this step is skipped.
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Music Rests

Different musical rest lengths

Brandy Kraemer

A music rest marks the absence of a note in a measure. It indicates that no note will be played for its duration.

Look at the image, above:

  • Rests are written in lengths, just like notes; a rest with the duration of a quarter note is called a quarter rest.
  • Dotted rests are used in the same manner as dotted notes: A rest of 1 1/2 beats may be written as a dotted quarter rest (symbol a).
  • In the event of notation overlap – such as a half-note chord written on top of eighth-notes – rests and notes will appear simultaneously, although they are really on separate planes of action.
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Musical Repeat Signs

Repeat signs and volta brackets in sheet music

Brandy Kraemer

The following musical symbols define the pattern or order of a song:

  1. Repeat Barlines
    A passage between two repeat barlines is played at least two times in a row. After the repetitions are played, the song continues onto the measures that follow the end repeat bar. Otherwise:
    1. If the right (or “end”) repeat is on the very last measure, the song will end after the repetitions are completed.
    2. If there is no left (or “begin”) repeat, the song will repeat from the beginning.
    3. 1st Ending: The first time the passage is played, bracket 1 is played.
    4. 2nd Ending: The second time around, the notation in bracket 2 is played.
  2. Volta Brackets
    Numbered brackets change the ending of each repeated passage:
    A composition can contain any number of volta brackets (also called “time bars” or “endings”).
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Segno & Coda Repeats

Segno and coda signs used in piano sheet music

Brandy Kraemer

Segno and coda marks belong to a system used to express complex repetitions:

  1. D.C., or Da Capo
    Indication to repeat from the beginning, and is seen two ways:
    1. D.C. al fine: Repeat from the beginning, and end the song at the word fine.
    2. D.C. al coda: Repeat from the beginning; play until you reach a coda (or the phrase al coda), then jump forward to the next coda sign to continue playing.
  2. D.S., or Dal Segno
    Indication to repeat from the last segno; seen two ways:
    1. D.S. al fine: Repeat from the last segno, and end the song at the word fine.
    2. D.S. al coda: Repeat from the last segno; play until you reach the first coda, then skip to the next coda sign.
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Piano Pedal Marks

Symbols indicating sustain pedal use and duration

Brandy Kraemer

There are three common pedal marks used to control the most popular piano foot pedal: The sustain (or “damper”) pedal. These commands are:

  1. Engage Pedal (Ped.)
    Indication to use (or “depress”) the sustain pedal.
  2. Release Pedal (*)
    Releases the sustain.
  3. Variable Pedal Marks 
    Those lines at the bottom of the illustration explains the pattern in which you depress and release the sustain pedal:
    1. Horizontal lines show when the sustain pedal is depressed.
    2. Steep diagonal lines indicate a quick, temporary release of the sustain pedal.
    3. Vertical lines indicate a release, or ends use of the pedal.
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8va & Other Octave Commands

8va & 15ma octave commands

Brandy Kraemer

The musical symbols 8va and 15ma indicate that a note or passage will be played in a different octave. These commands make it easier to read very high or very low notes by avoiding the use of multiple ledger lines:

  • 8va
    Play one octave higher than notated on the staff. 8va abbreviates ottava (Italian for “octave”) and may appear in a few other ways: 8a; ottava alta; all’ ottava; ottava sopra; an 8 above the staff, or a small 8 atop the clef.
  • 8vb
    Play one octave lower than written. 8vb may also be written 8a b; 8va bassa; ottava sotto, or with a small 8 below the staff or clef.
  • 15ma
    Play two octaves higher than notated. 15ma stands for quindicesima (“the fifteenth”) and may also be written alla quindicesima, or with a 15 above the staff or clef.
  • 15mb
    Play two octaves lower.

These commands may affect a single note or several measures. For longer passages, octave commands are extended with a dotted, horizontal line, and end at the word loco.