The abbreviations in music are of two kinds, namely, abbreviations of terms relating to musical expression, and the true musical abbreviations by the help of which certain passages, chords, etc., may be notated in a shortened form, to the greater convenience of both composer and performer. Abbreviations of the first kind are like most abbreviations in language; they consist for the most part of the initial letter or first syllable of the word employed—as for instance, p or f for the dynamic markings piano and forte, cresc. for crescendo, ob. for oboe, fag. for bassoon (fagotto). This article is about abbreviations used in music notation.
Repetition of a single note or chord
The continued repetition of a note or chord is expressed by a stroke or strokes across the stem, or above or below the note if it be a whole note or double whole note. The number of strokes denotes the subdivision of the written note into quarter notes, eighth notes, etc., unless the word tremolo or tremolando is added, in which case the repetition is as rapid as possible, without regard to the exact number of notes played.
On bowed instruments the rapid reiteration of a single note is easy, but in pianoforte music an octave or chord becomes necessary to produce a tremolo, the manner of writing and performing of which is seen below.
In the abbreviation expressed by strokes, as above, the passage to be abbreviated can of course contain no note of greater length than a quaver, but it is possible also to divide a long note into crotchets, by means of dots placed over it, as below.
This is however seldom done, as only a small amount of space is saved. When a long note has to be repeated in the form of triplets or groups of six, the figure 3 or 6 is usually placed over it in addition to the stroke across the stem, and the note is sometimes, though not necessarily, written dotted.
Alternation of two notes
The repetition of a group of two notes is abbreviated by two white notes (half notes or whole notes) connected by the number of strokes ordinarily used to express eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc., according to the rate of movement intended, as below. It will be observed that a passage lasting for the value of one half note requires two half notes to express it, on account of the group consisting of two notes.
The duration of the whole passage should be at least a half note, since if a quarter were treated in this manner it would present the appearance of two eighth notes and be unintelligible. Nevertheless, a group of 32nd notes altogether to the value of a quarter note is occasionally found abbreviated. Such abbreviations, though perhaps useful in certain cases, are generally avoided as ambiguous.
Patterns of groups of three or more notes
A group of three, four, or more notes is abbreviated by the repetition of the cross strokes without the notes as many times as the group has to be repeated.
This can also be written with the notes forming the group are written as a chord, with the necessary number of strokes across the stem. In this case the word simili or segue is added, to show that the order of notes in the first group (which must be written out in full) is to be repeated, and to prevent the possibility of mistaking the effect intended for the repetition of the chord as a whole.
Another sign of abbreviation of a group consists of an oblique line with two dots, one on each side; this serves to indicate the repetition of a group of any number of notes of any length. This can even apply to a passage composed of several groups, provided such passage is not more than two bars in length.
A more usual method of abbreviating the repetition of a passage of the length of the above is to write over it the word bís (twice), or in some cases ter (three times), or to enclose it between the dots of an ordinary repeat sign.
Passages in octaves
Passages intended to be played in octaves are often written as single notes with the words coll' ottavi or con 8vi placed above or below them, according as the upper or lower octave is to be added.
The word 8va (or sometimes 8va alta or 8va bassa) written above a passage does not add octaves, but merely transposes the passage an octave higher or lower. In clarinet music the word chalumeau is used to signify that the passage is to be played an octave lower than written.
All these alterations, which can scarcely be considered abbreviations except that they spare the use of ledger lines, are counteracted, and the passage restored to its usual position, by the use of the word loco, or in clarinet music by clarinette.
Abbreviations in scores
In orchestral music it often happens that certain of the instruments play in unison; when this is the case the parts are sometimes not all written in the score, but the lines belonging to one or more of the instruments are left blank, and the words coi violini or col basso, etc., are added, to indicate that the instruments in question have to play in unison with the violins or basses, as the case may be, or when two instruments of the same kind, such as first and second violins, have to play in unison, the word unisono or col primo is placed instead of the notes in the line belonging to the second. Where two parts are written on one staff in a score the sign a 2 denotes that both play the same notes; and a 1 that the second of the two is resting. The indication a 3 or a 4 at the head of fugues indicates the number of parts or voices in which the fugue is written.
An abbreviation which is often very troublesome to the conductor occurs in manuscript scores, when a considerable part of the composition is repeated without alteration, and the corresponding number of bars are left vacant, with the remark come sopra (as above). This is not met with in printed scores.
Chord abbreviations used in music theory
There are also abbreviations relating to music analysis, some of which are of great value. In figured bass, for instance, the various chords are expressed by figures, and the several authors in the nineteenth century invented or availed themselves of various methods of shortly expressing the different chords and intervals, particularly using Roman numeral analysis.
Johann Anton André makes use of a right triangle to express a triad, and a square, for a seventh chord, the inversions being indicated by one, two, or three small vertical lines across their base, and the classification into major, minor, diminished, or augmented by the numbers 1, 2, 3, or 4, placed in the centre.
- Jonas, Oswald (1982). Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (1934: Das Wesen des musikalischen Kunstwerks: Eine Einführung in Die Lehre Heinrich Schenkers), p.22. Trans. John Rothgeb. ISBN 0-582-28227-6. Shown all uppercase.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Grove, George, ed. (1900). "Abbreviations". A Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan and Company.