18 February 2013

#lentphotos - 05 - a a place to pause

Sometimes at the end of a piece of music there is a ‘cyclops’ symbol above the final note or chord. In the original Italian this is a ‘fermata’ which literally means a hold or pause (full definition here).   It is something of the composer’s intent that has been added to the music.  When it is placed at the end of a piece of music the fermata gives the sense of coming to a standstill and emphasises the completion of the piece.

Pause is nearly always intentional on the part of the person who is doing the pausing.  There may be external factors which necessitate a pause, such as waiting at traffic lights.  But even then the decision to move off is with the driver; whether they rev the engine and accelerate when the lights change to amber or to wait for the green light to steadily move on, it is a personal decision.

Teaching music students how to interpret a fermata is quite tricky when they are young (and the symbol is used, in even the most simple pre-Grade 1 pieces).  I used to teach piano and pupils would question ‘How long is exactly right’? I would mostly suggest as counting one or two longer than the value of the note written.  However over time and particularly if music is studied to a higher level interpreting a fermata becomes more intuitive and the player or performer begins to feel how long is ‘right‘.  At the end of the day for either beginner or experienced, the length of pause is at the discretion of the instrumentalist.

The piece in the photo is the end of a Chopin Etude.  It is one of my favourites by the Polish pianist composer, partly because it is in the key of F minor which appeals to the introspective nature I carry.  It was one of two given to me to study by a teacher so that I could master the art of playing differing values in each hand (this one is three against four).  At end three understated, repeated chords bring the piece to a conclusion, with a fermata over the final chord.  You can listen to the whole piece here.


  1. I loved playing Chopin when I used to play.