Do You Have to Follow Dynamics in Musical Scores?

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s question is from a viewer, and it’s kind of a long one, so I want to read it to you word for word, because it really brings up such an important point. Joseph asks, “Hi, thank you for the reply to my previous question. This doubt is about Moonlight Sonata, movement number one. I went through many videos on YouTube. These recordings were a little bit different from what is written. There are sustains, very slight tempo variations, and small pauses at some points of the recordings. But these are not indicated in the notation. And I can say the majority of the portions were not in perfect tempo. Could you please explain on what basis these dynamics are made, and how to know which place we should apply these dynamics? I have seen your Moonlight Sonata pedal usage video. A big thanks for that video.” A lot of people are really confused about this: the sanctity of the score, what the composer intended. Is this authoritative? Is that what the composer meant?

Composers aren’t always the best interpreters of their music.

How could this be? Beethoven must have played his music better than anyone else. Let’s think about this. The people, for example, who write screenplays aren’t necessarily the best ones to direct, or act in it, for that matter. Just because somebody can write a play doesn’t mean they can act. So what is the analog here? If somebody is reading the lines of a play, does it have all the inflections indicated? – where to go up and where to go down, where to pause, where to go a little faster, where to go a little slower? Of course not. There are general indications in the play about the direction and the moods, but the performer fleshes out and creates the character from the words, bringing the character to life. That’s exactly what we do on the piano! The score itself, you could literally program it into a machine. It’s pretty easy to do that. If you took the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata and programmed every note exactly as it was written, the rhythm, the dynamics, everything, it would be an abomination. It wouldn’t even sound like music.

The score is just a skeleton.

The score is not the Holy Grail. It’s just what you build upon. Does this mean that you don’t play what’s written? No. You are playing what’s written, just like a great actor is saying the words that are written, but how do they say the words? There are so many ways of saying them. The same is true with playing the piano or any instrument. You’ve got to make sense out of the musical lines. Just like you have to make sense out of the words in a play. You can’t just read them flat. The same thing is true with music. Composers couldn’t possibly write in every inflection of every note. Notation doesn’t work that way. It’s impossible. That’s why we have performers.

The musical score doesn’t come to life until it is performed.

It takes the performer to make the work of art alive, and that is why you hear these nuances. Of course, there’s a limit to how far you can go before you’re just playing an entirely different piece! You want to have integrity to the score, absolutely. Know that score, and know what to play. But that doesn’t mean that a musical line that doesn’t have any dynamics is going to be flat all the way across. No, it will have a rise and a fall, just like the words in a sentence have in a play. I hope this helps you understand the implications of what a score really means.

I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Store.
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