Not every singer can read sheet music, even if they have passed a course of vocal lessons. But if you come across a page of black lines and notes with little tails, Italian words and strange symbols, knowing what this notation means can help you perform and interpret the song correctly.
This article is only meant to be a brief introduction, so it's not going to go into treble clefs, bass clefs, semibreves, hemi-demi-semiquavers or sharps. Usually, it's only musicians who play instruments who really need to worry about these things. One key is pretty much like another for a singer, and if you have been given the right starting note, you should be able to change keys much more easily than a pianist or guitarist (the drummer will feel the same way - he or she can often get away with not being able to read sheet music). Instead, this article is going to cover the things that will affect you as a singer to help you interpret the song.
Something you will probably be pleased to learn: not all those Italian words will apply to singers, either. But this quick guide should help you know which ones do and which don't.
Piano: This is abbreviated p and does not mean that the piano should be the main instrument you hear. Instead, piano means 'quiet'. Incidentally, the link between this term and the musical instrument is this: the full name of the musical instrument with the black and white keys is 'pianoforte', which literally means 'quiet and loud', indicating that this instrument, unlike the earlier harpsichords, pipe organs and spinets (and, incidentally the cheap electric organs of the 1970s and 1980s), could be played at a range of volumes and hence was more expressive.
Pianissimo: Abbreviated pp. This means 'as quiet as you can' or 'very quiet'.
Forte: Abbreviated f and comes from the Italian word for 'strong' or 'loud'. This is, of course, the other half of 'pianoforte'.
Fortissimo: Abbreviated ff. This means 'very loud'. This is where you really let things rip and use everything you've been taught in your signing lessons to reach full volume.
Mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte (abbreviated mp and mf respectively): If you know that 'mezzo' means 'half' or 'medium', you should be able to work these ones out easily enough.
Staccato: In the music, this is indicated by a dot over the top or underneath a black note (never one of those hollow notes). This means that the notes should be sharp, crisp and distinct - almost jolting. You will need practice to be able to do this properly.
Pizzicato: This one means 'plucked' and doesn't apply to singers - it's only really applied to string instruments that are usually played with a bow, such as violins and cellos.
Allegro: This is nothing to do with the make of car put out back in the 1960s and 1970s by British Leyland/Austin. The car was named after the musical term, which means 'cheerfully'. For singers, this means reasonably quickly and probably sung with a smile on your face as much as possible.
Andante: This translates to 'walking' and means that you should be able to sing it in time with footsteps doing a gentle stroll - no power walking here!
Legato: Sounds like the Spanish word for an alligator or lizard but actually comes from the Italian meaning 'joined up'. This is definitely a term for singers, as you have to make the words and notes flow smoothly together - it's the opposite of staccato and is a technique that most singers can pick up easily, especially with the help of a few singing lessons to help you time your breaths right.
Crescendo: This means 'gradually getting louder' and is indicated by something that looks like a very long less than sign (). Like crescendo, the reverse term, you start changing volume where the sign begins and reach the final volume where it ends. 'Diminuendo' means the same thing.
Rallentando: This means 'gradually slowing down', and often happens at the end of songs. Most of us have heard this technique done (and have done it ourselves) when singing national anthems, which usually slow down and are sung at full volume (fortissimo) on the last line. You sometimes come across the abbreviation 'rall'. A synonym for this term is 'ritardando', which usually happens in the middle of a song, after which you speed up again. You'll know when to speed up again when you see the term 'accelerando' - no prizes for guessing what this is the Italian for.
Da Capo: This means 'go back to the top'. This is one place where a singer is less likely to get lost than a musician - you often go back to the start of the music to find the second verse. If you know how the tune goes and the words for the second verse aren't written under the music (this is often the case in gospel songs, ballads, folk songs and hymns), then just read the words, as these are what are important for a singer to pay attention to. Sometimes abbreviated D. C.
Da Signo: This means 'go back to the sign'. Keep an eye out for something like a large dollar sign that's tipped over and has a few extra dots, and go back to where you see it. It's often the chorus or the last line, which you will repeat. If this musical term (often abbreviated D.S.) has 'al fine' after it, you sing the chorus or the last line again and then finish the song.
A capella: This means that you're on your own - the instruments are going to shut up and you're going to be singing unaccompanied. This is where you'll be glad you took those singing lessons.
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