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The Orchestra Moves through Expressive Qualities

Aim: How do composers use expressive qualities to create a mood and move us emotionally?
Summary: Students explore tempo, dynamics, and articulation to see how composers establish a mood and move us emotionally.
Standards: National 4, 6, 7; NYC 1, 2, 5
Vocabulary: accent, adagio, articulation, crescendo, decrescendo, dynamics, extended technique, forte, legato, moderato, piano, presto, tempo, staccato

Expressive qualities are the different elements that composers and musicians use to infuse music with an overarching mood and emotional content. Three fundamental expressive qualities are tempo, dynamics, and articulation.

Tempo: the speed of music
  • Common tempo markings include largo (slow), moderato (moderate), and presto (fast).
Dynamics: the volume of music (loud or quiet)
  • Dynamic markings include variations of piano (soft, p) and forte (loud, f).
  • pp means very soft; ff means very loud
  • mp, or mezzo piano, means medium soft; mf, or mezzo forte, means medium loud
  • Composers can also indicate changes in dynamics from soft to loud with a crescendo marking (<) or from forte to piano with a decrescendo marking (>).
Articulation: how a note or group of notes should be played or sung
  • Common articulation markings include staccato (short and detached), legato (connected and smooth), and accented (with more attack than other surrounding notes).

Composers sometimes specify the feelings that they’re trying to convey, using words like con forza (“with strength”) or dolce (“sweetly”) to guide the musicians. It’s then up to the musicians to interpret these words and convey these feelings in the way they play.

Exploring Expressive Qualities in the Link Up Repertoire

  • Play one of the following orchestral recordings from the Link Up repertoire: Track 23 Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Track 15 “Toreador” from Carmen, Track 21 Symphony No. 5, Track 27 Danzón No. 2, or Track 11 “Barcarolle” from The Tales of Hoffmann.
    • What is the tempo? Does the tempo change?
    • What dynamics do you hear?
    • How would you describe the articulation(s) that you hear?
    • How would you move to this piece?
    • What is the mood or feeling of this piece? Why do you think so?
  • Listen to the piece again and have the students complete the student activity sheet Expressive Qualities in the Link Up Repertoire (PDF). Students can respond first through graphic notation, which can then be identified with appropriate musical vocabulary.
  • If time allows, repeat for an additional recording and compare and contrast the students’ responses to each piece.

Conduct Us

  • In addition to making sure the ensemble plays together and everyone plays at the right time, a conductor has many responsibilities. These include establishing the tempo, dynamics, and articulation, and giving the work an overall feeling.
  • Watch the video Conduct Us.     
    • How did the movements of each conductor change the performance of the orchestra?
  • Select a familiar piece of music for the class to perform.
  • As a class, review the conducting pattern that corresponds with the meter of the work you selected. Refer to the activities in The Orchestra Moves with Meter.
  • Allow different students to take turns conducting the work (or an excerpt from the work) while the rest of the class performs and responds to the student conductor’s gestures.
    • Decide how fast or slow you want the tempo to be. It helps to hum it to yourself, in the tempo you want, before you start.
    • Decide how you want the class to perform the piece. How can you indicate this through your conducting gestures? Should it be staccato or legato? Should it be loud or soft (forte or piano)?
    • Conduct the class as it performs the song. Breathe with the class to help show it when to start.
    • Did the class respond to your gestures as you had intended? Why or why not?

Extended Technique

Angélica Negrón’s piece “Un, dos, tres” invites students to explore nontraditional ways of producing sound with a recorder. This is called extended technique, in which composers ask musicians to create sounds on an instrument using a technique that differs from how it is typically played (e.g. hitting or plucking the strings of a piano, using a bow on a percussion instrument, etc.). With the instruments you have available in your classroom, what kind of extended techniques can you discover? How would you notate the performance of these extended techniques in your own composition?

Go Deeper

Many schools are beginning to implement a social-emotional learning curriculum. This is often achieved by incorporating moments of mindfulness, or using language or colors to help students identify and self-regulate their moods and emotional responses. If you use such a framework at your school, consider finding ways to use the Link Up repertoire as a lense for further exploration.

Downloadable PDFs

Related Concert Repertoire

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