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Answers to Piano Questions

 

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Note to the reader:  This page was introduced on 12/12/2014 with the answer to just a few questions.  Answers to new piano questions will be added on a regular basis.

 

 Question 1. What do the abbreviations "m.d.", "m.s." and "m.g." mean?

 

"M.d." (or just "d.") is an abbreviation of the Italian term "mano destra", and refers to playing notes with the right hand.  It often appears in the lower piano music staff, whose notes are usually played by the left hand. 

 

In some music editions, "m.d." is an abbreviation of the French term for the right hand: "main droite".

 

"M.s." (or just "s.") is an abbreviation of the Italian term "mano sinistra", and refers to playing notes with the left hand.  It often appears in the upper piano music staff, whose notes are usually played by the right hand. 

 

"M.g." is an abbreviation of the French term "main gauche", and has the same meaning as "mano sinistra" in Italian.

 

 Furthermore, when a particular hand has played outside its normal staff, e.g. the right hand has played notes in the lower staff, the opposite abbreviation is added when this hand returns to playing normally.  Thus, after seeing "m.d." in the lower staff, we might eventually see "m.s." or "m.g."

 

 Question 2. What does "senza pedale" mean?

 

 This Italian term means to play without using the right damper pedal.   It's use is necessary because many pianists use the right damper pedal when there are no indications to do so in the music.  In particular, the composer is telling us that he/she wants the notes to sound clear and distinct rather than blurred together.   In addition, the composer may prefer the "drier", less resonant tone produced when the damper pedal is not used.

 

Also note the term "senza sordini", which means without DAMPERS.  In other word, press the right damper pedal down continuously.

 

Question 3. What are those small eighth notes with slashes in their stems?

 

One problem with these understanding symbols is that composers sometimes used them to indicate 16th notes.

 

Apart from this, small slashed eighth notes in piano music indicate "ornaments" of the melody or bass line.  In some cases, they are called "grace notes", which is largely an incorrect term.

 

Regarding their precise meaning, the most credible scholars assert that small slashed eighth notes across all classical piano music editions and composer's autographs (hand-written scores) do not indicate the same manner of playing in every instance.  

 

In other words, classical piano music publishers and composers did not always follow strict ornament notation rules, or made up their own.

 

Furthermore, the intended interpretation of small slashed eighth notes was often different from one composer to another.

 

Therefore, claims that small slashed eighth notes mean one thing in the Classical period and something else in the Romantic period are over-generalizations that do not hold up. 

 

(It bears repeating that these are the opinions of the world's top music scholars, not ours.)

 

Below are possible meanings of the slashed small eighth note symbol in "classical" piano music published between the 1700s and today.  Keep in mind that the small slashed eighth note symbols you see in a specific edition of piano music may be wrong.  Nonetheless, you need guidance as to how to play them.

 

Also, these examples are basic and do not cover every option.

 

Terminology: The note directly following the small slashed eighth note, which is of normal size, is called the main note.

 

Example 1. If the main note is an eighth note, give the small note the time of a 16th note, and the main note the time of a 16th note.  The small note is played when the main note would've been played if there was no small one before it.  This is referred to as "playing the small note on the beat".  The main note immediately follows the small note, i.e. "after the beat".

 

Some music editions show a 16th note WITHOUT a slash for this ornament.

 

Example 2. Give the small note APPROXIMATELY 1/4th the duration of the main note, and give the main note 3/4ths of its written duration.  The resulting rhythm would be a 32nd note (the ornamental note) followed by a dotted 16th note (the shortened main note).  The small note is played on the beat.

 

Example 3.  Play the small note an instant BEFORE the main note, and give it very little duration.  Because its timing before the main note or beat, the duration of the small note must be subtracted from any note/harmonic interval/chord played before it.  In other words, the prior note or notes have a SLIGHTLY shorter duration than written.

 

Important note: In Beethoven's Piano Sonata 16, op. 31, no. 1, all three examples "realizing" the slashed small eighth note are used in Wilhelm Kempff's performance of the sonata. However, in the Casella edition of this music, the symbol in each case is the same.  Other concert pianists may think differently about these ornaments than Kempff, but one must admit that his interpretation is appealing.

 

Beyond the issue of what sounds good to modern ears, the debate centers on whether Kempff's interpretations of the small slashed eighth notes:

 

a. are what Beethoven wanted in each specific situation (i.e. match the composer's intent)

b. fit the general style in the historical period of the music (mid-to-late Classical Period)

 

Regarding "a", composers were not always good at notating their intent regarding ornaments. Thus, in some cases, modern sheet music editors have to make decisions as to what the composer meant by a particular symbol on a measure-by-measure basis. 

 

Regarding "b", realization of specific ornaments were known to change in a given historical period.  Furthermore, it may be impossible to establish a narrow date range when this change occurred, so we know that all compositions after a certain range reflected the new method of playing the ornament.

 

In conclusion, a pianist has three basic options: 

 

1. Play the ornaments in a historically or academically correct manner.

2. Play the ornaments in a way that sounds best to one's ear.

3. Imitate concert pianists who play them tastefully, yet "incorrectly" with regards to option 1.

 

Example 4.  The small note is played  AT THE SAME TIME as the main note and quickly released.   This ornament is called an acciaccatura (a-chock-a-chur-a), meaning "crushed in" However, this term is also used for the interpretation in Example 2 directly above.

 

Question 4. I'm still confused about how to play the small eighth notes with slashes in their stems. What can I do?

 

1. Acquire a scholarly "urtext" edition of music you want to play that contains small notes, AND that offers explanations of these ornaments on every page where they appear in unique situations.  (Other books may provide solutions in the preface or appendices.)

 

2. Listen to recordings of the music by the most renowned concert pianists to determine how they are played.  Use the VLC media player to slow down the recording if its difficult to hear how the ornaments are played when the speed is normal.  Since these pianists will often differ in their interpretations of the small notes, choose the one you enjoy the most. 

 

Furthermore, this approach makes for a great ear training exercise, and you will get better at it the more you use it.

 

3. If there is no urtext edition or recording available for the music you want to play, experiment with each of the four examples in the previous question.
 

 

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