In Parts I-IV of the How to Read Music Info Barrel series we covered everything we need to know to read music on a basic level. Now all we have left to do is to learn some of the markings that are used to give more specific instructions to the performer.


Symbols that specify exactly how to play individual notes are called articulations. The most common articulations are shown below.

Some common articulations

The first is staccato, represented by a dot above or below a note (a dot that is used to augment a note's rhythmic value would be placed to the right of the notehead). Staccato notes are to be played short and detached. The genaral rule is to cut off half of a note's value to make it staccato, so a staccato quarter note would be played like an eighth note followed by an eighth rest. The next articulation, a dash, is called tenuto. Tenuto is the opposite of staccato; tenuto notes should be held to their full value with no seperation. Next is the accent, or marcato. Accented notes should be emphasized, with more volume and attack. The next articulation is the martellato or housetop accent, which indicates that the note should be accented and short, but not as short as a staccato. Finally we have the fermata, which indicates that a note is to be held longer than it's rhythmic value. In an ensemble setting, a note with a fermata will be cut off by the conductor. Otherwise the length of the note is at the discretion of the performer or performers.

There are numerous other articulations, many of which are specific to certain instruments or families of instruments, but these are the most common. For instructions on how to execute these articulations on your particular instrument, consult a teacher or more experienced player.


Text instructions that are written into a musical score are called expressions. Text expressions instruct the performer on the correct tempo and style for a musical passage. Here is an overview of some common tempo markings, reprinted from the Wikipedia article on tempo:

  • Adagietto - rather slow (70–80 bpm)

  • Adagio - slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (66–76 bpm)

  • Agitato – hurried, restless

  • Allegretto grazioso - moderately fast and gracefully

  • Allegretto - moderately fast (but less so than allegro)

  • Allegrissimo - very fast

  • Allegro - fast, quickly and bright or "march tempo" (120–168 bpm)

  • Allegro appassionato – fast and passionately

  • Allegro moderato - moderately quick (112–124 bpm)

  • Andante - at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)

  • Andante Moderato - a bit faster than andante

  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante

  • Grave - slow and solemn

  • Largamente - broadly

  • Larghetto - rather broadly (60–66 bpm)

  • Larghissimo - very, very slow (20 bpm and below)

  • Largo - very slow (40–60 bpm), like lento

  • Lento - very slow (40–60 bpm)

  • Lento assai – even more slowly than lento

  • Lento Moderato - moderately slow

  • Moderato espressivo - moderately with expression

  • Moderato - moderately (72–80 bpm)

  • Prestissimo - extremely fast (more than 200bpm)

  • Presto - very fast (168–200 bpm)

  • Sostenuto – sustained, prolonged

  • Tranquillamente - adverb of tranquillo, "calmly"

  • Tranquillo - tranquil

  • Vivace - lively and fast (≈140 bpm)(quicker than allegro.)

  • Vivacissimamente - adverb of vivacissimo, "very quickly and lively"

  • Vivacissimo - very fast and lively

  • Vivo - lively and alive

These expression markings indicate a change in tempo:

  • Accelerando - speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)

  • Allargando - growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece

  • Calando - going slower (and usually also softer)

  • Doppio movimento - double speed

  • Meno mosso - less movement or slower

  • Mosso - movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme

  • Più mosso - more movement or faster

  • Precipitando - hurrying, going faster/forward

  • Rallentando - gradual slowing down (abbreviation: rall.)

  • Ritardando - immediate slowing down (abbreviation: rit. or more specifically, ritard.)

  • Ritenuto - slightly slower; temporarily holding back. (Note that the abbreviation for ritenuto can also be rit. Thus a more specific abbreviation is riten. Also sometimes ritenuto does not reflect a tempo change but a character change instead.)

  • Rubato - free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes

  • Stringendo - pressing on faster

These expressions instruct the performer on style and mood and often imply a certain tempo range:

  • Agitato - agitated, with implied quickness

  • Appassionato - to play passionately

  • Animato - animatedly, lively

  • Cantabile - in singing style (lyrical and flowing)

  • Dolce - sweetly

  • Energico - energetic, strong, forceful

  • Eroico - heroically

  • Espressivo - expressively

  • Furioso - to play in an angry or furious manner

  • Giocoso - merrily, funny

  • Gioioso - joyfully

  • Lacrimoso - tearfully, sadly

  • Grandioso - magnificently, grandly

  • Leggiero - to play lightly, or with light touch

  • Maestoso - majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow movement)

  • Marziale - in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases

  • Pesante - heavily

  • Scherzando - playfully

  • Sostenuto - sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo

  • Vivace - lively and fast, over 140 bpm (which generally indicates a fast movement)

Since nobody wants to memorize all of these Italian words, it's a good idea to purchase a pocket-sized music dictionary and carry it in your instrument case.


Markings that indicate the correct volume for a passage are called dynamics. Dynamics can be text or graphical. Here is a list of most of the commonly used dynamic markings:

  • p - softly; short for "piano."

  • pp - very softly; short for "pianissimo."

  • mp - medium-soft; short for "mezzo-piano."

  • f - loud; short for "forte."

  • ff - very loud; short for "fortissimo."

  • mf - medium-loud; short for "mezzo-forte."

  • fp - indicates a loud attack which immediately dies down; short for "fortepiano."

  • crescendo - gowing in volume; often abbreviated as cresc.

  • diminuendo - diminishing in volume; often abbreviated as dim. Also known as a decrescendo.

Crescendo and diminuendo are often represented with graphical symbols, as shown below.

Graphical dynamics

Congratulations, you've reached the end of the How to Read Music Info Barrel article series! Hopefully, you've taken enough from these articles to start reading music at a basic level. There's still plenty more left to learn, but all the basics have been covered and then some. With a little practice, reading sheet music will quickly become second nature and a whole new musical world will be made available to you. Here is a vocabulary review for this final section:

  • articulations: symbols that indicate how individual notes are to played.

  • expression markings: text markings that give instructions for tempo, style, mode, and techniques.

  • dynamics: volume markings.