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Commonly Misinterpreted Musical Terms

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Gustav Mahler, the greatest writer of symphonies after Beethoven, once remarked to his students (and I am paraphrasing here), “What you see printed on the music tells you absolutely everything which you need to know…except that which truly matters!”

Coming from a composer of Mahler’s esteem this is sage counsel indeed. It is a prophetic directive to the student, the teacher, and the artist alike to probe more deeply into the deeper conceptual mysteries to which the sign posts point.

With that said, however, deeper artistic truths cannot be fully grasped unless each sign post has been honored.

Some signposts prove to be highly enigmatic, and as such I would like to introduce my perspectives on a small number of these for today’s blog.

Here they are, in no particular order.


The proverbial Robin Hood of Italian terms, this directive essentially urges the performer to take from the pacing of one moment in a given phrase and give back to another. Hence the oft quoted textbook definition of “robbed” time. No term in the musical lexicon has been subject to more wanton extravagance and general self indulgence than Rubato. We associate Rubato most directly with the music of Chopin, but indeed it applies to varying degrees to all of the repertoire. Rubato when executed at its finest is literally an exercise in Zen as it gives the artist the ability to mess with time.

Chopin himself would teach his students the notion of Rubato using a candle. First he would gently blow into the flame, whilst  the student observed the movement of the flame. When the breath ceased, the flame would come back to its natural alignment. This then would be repeated from various angles. The deeper meaning being that subtle shifts in the flow of the line always returned back to tempo one. Chopin would then blow out the candle completely explaining as he did something to the effect that this represented the students notion of rubato.

One of the greatest exponents of Chopin’s music was Arthur Rubinstein. Here is a recording of Rubenstein playing the Andante from Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, a glowing example of the concept of rubato ebb and flow at its most sophisticated.


In these next definitions we take a journey from rubato, one of the more common musicologicals terms, to two of the rarest. The first is affanato: an Italian word meaning anguished and breathless. Of all composers, this term tends to creep up more often in the music of Scriabin more than anyone else, at least in my experience. Scriabin was somewhat of a mystic during his life.  His music is a curious amalgam of extended tertian harmonies coupled with a foray into quartal harmony. His appropriately named "mystic chord” is an assemblage of stacked fourths in a variety of intervallic patternings. Here is Evgeny Kissen playing Scriabin's Etude opus 42/5 entitled 'Affanato"


In all of the piano music which Beethoven composed, it is only in the slow movement of the Opus 10 Number 3 that we encounter the term mesto - despair.   It is in fact during the composition of the three sonatas, opus 10, that Beethoven begins coming to terms with his ever worsening deafness. A short time after this he goes to the spa town at Heiligenstadt and, for all intents and purposes writes a goodbye letter to his brothers. Thank goodness that he was able to overcome this moment. Here’s a recording with Daniel Barenboim.

Make sure to start from the eight minute mark to hear the Mesto movement.


Another rarity in the musical lexicon,  I have encountered this term only once in all of my performing and teaching repertoire - in the Nocturne in e minor opus 72.  It literally translates as “gasping”. French pianist and Chopin interpreter extraordinaire, Alfred Cortot, said that this moment within the Nocturne represented Chopin at his most naked - emotionally and spiritually speaking of course! Here is another recording by Rubenstein with accompanying score.

Calando and Smorzando 

These terms are subtly contrasted and often confused. Again we look to the music of Chopin, who will often use both one after the other, ending with smorzando. Both refer to the notion of blissful recitation in both tone and the flow of tempo . However smorzando literally translates as dying away, and as such is often seen after calando, while taking it to a new level in which not only has the tone and tempo dissipated, but the ensuing gesture recedes into frailty. A wonderful example of this in which both terms appear one after the other is the blessed ascension which leads into the beloved meno mosso theme of the first Ballade by Chopin.  Here is yet another recording by Rubenstein with accompanying sore. These terms only occur once in succession, so pay close attention to the score.

Con Anima vs Con Anime

I will end today’s blog with an often confused pairing of terms by the student. One is Italian anima, whilst the other is French anime. The former means to play from the soul and again is found largely in the music of Chopin in his Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular. Impassioned and nostalgic reminiscences for his beloved homeland.

The French anime means excited, and is found in the ecstatic and rapturous music of Debussy and Ravel.

There are many more terms, but given the repertoire that everyone is learning in my studio these days, I thought this to be a good launching pad for clarity’s sake. Happy practicing!

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