Anomalies: Knowing the Musical Language

Mike Lawson • String Section • November 1, 2019

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Much like using language as a functional aid [like righty-tighty, lefty-loosey], creating and making expressive music involves unique manipulation of a musical line [melody].

If we feel those artistic embellishments are significant enough to be repeated, symbols are used to do so.

Some assignments will determine the specific requirements of the performer (much like a specialist). Sometimes it will be broad and will take the content into a genre, which will be a way used by musicians to determine context, and to attribute style. Usually a style creates its own mannerisms that we then design our language to incorporate, but it can occur “reversed” as well.

Some mnemonic devices aid learning and memory in ways that allow for healthy decision- making and basic wellness. Some are silly and all of our language (and ability to use it) determines who we are.

Those “Weird” Exceptions

Also, as with language, there are many arbitrary exceptions to the rules. For example:”i” before “e” except after “c”(…and the word weird) is an automatic, functional, mantra in my head. Awareness of the anomalies (recognized by ones’ community) requires someone to be responsible enough to share the unique history, context, purpose and identity (and in adequate context).

Otherwise it would be impossible. Vocabulary, native or not, heavily relies on cultural cues and context; musical notation is no different. We can easily forget that knowledge alone is not enough for integrating the new and unused into personal expression and communication.

If someone happens to not know about an exception or composer-specific idiosyncrasy, sometimes an immediate and unfair judgment is made regarding education or ability. Hopefully, experience can disregard that reaction, as well as the musician’s cause for embarrassment to begin with. In the reference material, one will find some of these anomalies, as well as methods of manipulation indicative of genre/style.

The Teacher’s Dilemma

I tend to neglect explanations of certain aspects of music theory because I am uncomfortable with my skills to communicate something that I myself struggled with. Instead, I try to use other resources. Recently, a student had questions regarding the trill and what it means when it looks different. I became aware of the need to do some personal research to answer adequately. I figured it would take a few moments online. It took forever.

Traditional Translations

Ornaments: Bowed Instruments and how to properly execute These are tricky. I’d like to share the material I put together for future reference in the teaching studio.

Some Other Strings-Specific Symbols to Teach


• chords (how are they rolled/direction of the roll), strummed, etc.

• glides and slides (glissando)

• harmonics

• pizzicato (left hand)

Bends (primarily seen in guitar music-but will occasionally be seen in orchestral parts. The symbol used for bowed instruments is a bit loose, with continued use – one might become standard.

Right now, I would say the most commonly used marking is a short curved “tick” which indicates whether the pitch bends above or below the notated pitch (up or down).

• rhythmic specific

• double-dotting (Baroque)

• swing (contemporary/jazz)

• broken chords/arpeggiation

Ornamental Anomalies

The “Bach Trill:” the career musician must spend some serious time getting intimate with their Solo Bach, usually at the collegiate level. In my edition of choice, some of the pages are dedicated to scholarly discussion regarding the intentions of his notation. In Bach, the most important performance practice for musicians of an ensemble to know is the “Bach Trill”- it starts and uses the pitch above the note.

*The Mozart Grace Notes can be assumed whenever playing Mozart: Some editors have begun writing the music “as it sounds,” but just as many do not. Mozart’s music plays a sufficient role in a string player’s professional life-this is one not to miss/skip!

For further reading, I recommend the following article:

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