A Mini-Rant on the overmarking of music… or the paint-by-numbers approach to making music

by Libby Sternberg

In addition to being a novelist, I’m a musician. I sing. (Yes, anyone who makes music is a musician–the word doesn’t just refer to instrumentalists.) I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice from a music conservatory. (That and a few bucks will get you a…well, you know.)

I have a pet peeve. It is: composers and arrangers who overmark their music, with every page cluttered with dynamic and tempo markings. I don’t know if this happens in instrumental music so much or if composers/arrangers of vocal music have decided that singers are just so danged dumb that they have to tell them in virtually every bar how soft, how loud, how fast, how slow they need to be singing.

Last night at choir rehearsal, I saw a marking on a choral piece that, to me, illustrated the depths to which this overmarking lunacy has descended. We were practicing an anthem, a piece by a still-living Very Well-Known Church Composer. Every choir in the country has probably sung something by this excellent composer at some point in their choral lives. One of our basses, a volunteer with a wonderful voice, who is not a trained musician, asked our choir director at one point what a marking meant. The word above a particular section read: cantabile.

Deep breath. Cantabile. In a choral piece.

Let’s think about this. Cantabile means songlike. So the composer is telling us to sing…as if we’re singing.

Good thing he put that in there because I think all of us had it in our minds to sing that passage as if we were, oh, I don’t know...drumming?

As you can imagine, if a composer feels the need to tell singers to sing as if they’re singing a song, he’s not bashful about telling them other things. Such as crescendos and decrescendos to mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, lots of  dolce markings (sweetly, as opposed to, oh, I guess “sourly,” our preferred method of singing).

The irony is that in this particular piece, all of these markings are redundant. This composer is so skillful at writing sweet songlike lines where tension in the underlying harmonies pulls and pushes you toward natural crescendos and decrescendos that he could have left the entire manuscript as unmarked as an unedited sixteenth century motet, and even the stupidest choir on earth would have been able to get the dolce lines right, the swelling sounds, the diminuendo and rallentando molto at the very end. (“Molto?” Is that really necessary when it’s as clear as day that the piece is slowing down naturally at the end, Mr…..?)

The problem with this overmarking isn’t just how it insults the performer’s intelligence. It sets up a situation where the fastidious directors and singers are constantly trying to honor the composer’s intentions, trying to find that perfect mezzo forte at the end of a crescendo, trying mightily to delineate it from that mezzo piano marked at the end of some other decrescendo.

To me, the effect ends up being like a paint-by-numbers canvas. Instead of really listening to each other, we’re all focused on whether we’ve gotten loud enough on the forte to pull back to the mf at the precise moment it’s marked above the bar.

Painting by numbers is fun. I remember doing it as a kid. But in the end, you have a painting with no soul and no meaning except blotches of color. The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

Let singers sing, composers and arrangers. We might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, but we’re not complete idiots.

End of ranty-rant.

Carry on.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist, freelance writer and editor. www.LibbySternberg.com

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