Repeat signs in music


Question from a reader: 

Do I play repeat signs as exact repeats, vary them or ignore them? And should I play repeats in an exam?


Tim Stein answers: 

To repeat or not repeat, that is the question. Much of the music we play conforms to some kind of musical structure, such as standard binary form of a Scarlatti sonata, for instance, or, as in many of Beethoven sonatas, a first movement exposition, development and final recapitulation.


While professional musicians performing in a concert setting may well opt to play the repeat of a first movement (as in Schubert’s B flat Sonata D960) if they feel it is musically appropriate, repeating the same section is not always necessary. In an exam situation (and this is particularly true in the early grades), examiners have so little time to hear a complete performance from every student, that it’s a useful tip to practise pieces without any repeats to be prepared. You might even ask the examiner whether they’d like to hear the repeats or not.)


Composers often use repeats as a kind of musical unity or as an emotional statement, and it is up to the performer to determine whether to vary the repeat in some way. Should repeats be an exact carbon copy of the initial original material? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Certain composers – Beethoven, for example – want to stamp their authority on a musical statement, and it would therefore destroy their intention if we distorted the repeat or avoided it altogether. However, if we play a movement from a Bach suite or a Scarlatti sonata, it’s always fascinating to vary repeated motifs through the use of varied dynamics and articulation or through the addition of ornamentation. Listen to recordings and recitals by other pianists to see what they do and to feed your own ideas. So long as you have addressed the musical questions, the final decisions remain with you.


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