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In this guide we'll look at musical "navigation" that allow for sections of a piece of music to be repeated in various different ways.
There are several ways, in a piece of music, that you might be directed to a different section of music. The symbols that allow for this navigation can be thought of as "sign posts" telling you where to go.
Here is a brief summary of the different types of musical navigation you will find, in order of complexity:
- Repeat a section
- Repeat a section but with a different ending each time
- Repeat many times
- Repeat a section but starting in a different place
- Repeat a section but starting and ending in a different place
The simplest sign posts are the start and end repeat marks, which just require you to go back to the start-repeat mark when you reach the end-repeat mark, and repeat the music in between. If there is no start-repeat mark, you should repeat to the beginning. You should normally only play the marked section twice in total, unless the music indicates otherwise (for several verses of a song, for example).
Here is an example with the start and end repeat marks circled. In this case you would simply play the first phrase twice:
Sometimes there will be an end-repeat mark but no start-repeat mark. This is not a mistake! It simply means that you should go back to the beginning of the piece.
Repeat with different endings
Sometimes the end of the repeated section will be different on the first and second times. In this case you will see an indication above the music to play one ending the first time, and another ending the second time marked above the music.
The bar (or bars) you play the first time is called the first time bar and the bar at which to start after repeating is known as the second time bar.
Here is an example, expanding our first example:
In this case, we play through as normal, reaching the repeat sign under the "1" marking, then play the repeated phrase for the second time, and then continuing from the "2" marking, but missing out the section marked "1".
Here is the same music but written out without repeats, to make this clear:
Note that the first time bar is not repeated!
Repeat many times
The principle of 1st-time and 2nd-time bars is sometimes expanded to allow for a section to be repeated more than once (i.e., played more than twice), with a different ending each time.
This can be quite confusing to play, and so is not often used, but here is a new version of our first example with three different endings to the first section!
The fact that there are four different end-repeat bars is sufficient to let the player know that the music must be played three times (repeated twice), but you might also sometimes see an instruction in words such as "repeat twice" or "three verses" or "play three times".
Repeat to different start
There are other ways to notate repeats, which all involve asking you to go back to one place, repeat a section of music, and optionally play a different section on the second time through.
The indication D.C. (which stands for da capo, literally "from the head") means that you should go back to the beginning of the music and start the piece again. It's therefore just like having an end-repeat with no start-repeat, but with the important difference that there might be repeated sections within the piece of music!
When you reach a D.C. don't be confused - simply go all the way back to the beginning, and end at the end again. You only need to perform the D.C. once.
Here is another version of our first example, using a D.C. to instruct the performer to play the whole piece twice:
A variation on the D.C. is the indication D.S. (standing for dal segno, "from the sign"), which means that, instead of repeating from the beginning you should repeat from the sign:
Here is a variation on the previous example; in this case, after reaching the end, you would go back to the sign and play again to the end from there. Normally the sign will be in the middle of quite a long piece; in this case it's on over-the-top way of asking you to repeat the last three bars!
Repeat with different start and end
D.S. and D.C. markings are often followed by the words al Fine. The word "Fine" is Italian for "ending", and therefore D.C. al Fine simply means "play from the beginning to the end". This is just the same as the standard D.C. marking.
However, the Fine may not be at the end of the printed page! A Fine can be anywhere in a piece of music, and may be indicated by the word "Fine" or a pause symbol over a barline (usually a double barline).
Here is our example again, but this time we play through to the end, then back to the beginning ("D.C."), then we finish at the end of the bar marked "Fine":
We can also use "al Fine" with D.S. to instruct the player to go back to a specific point in the music (not the beginning), then end at the Fine, as in this example:
There is a further version of the D.C. and D.S. system, in which, rather than ending at the Fine, we finish the piece of music with a special section called a Coda. Like the sign, the Coda has a special symbol:
This special section of music will be written separately on the page, labelled "Coda" or perhaps just with a large Coda symbol, and the only way to get to it is by following the sign posts; for example:
- Play the music through to the end, where there is a marking: D.S. al Coda
- Go back to the sign ("D.S.")...
- ...and play until you get to a marking "to Coda", or just the coda symbol
- Jump straight to the special Coda section, and finish playing at the end of the Coda section.
Here is our example again, this time using a D.S. al Coda. Try following the steps listed above through this piece of music:
Remember that the Segno and Coda signs only apply after you have reached the end and when you are following a D.S. or D.C. instruction.
Always ignore a Segno or Coda sign until you first reach a D.S. or D.C.!
An important convention
If there are normal repeat marks within a piece of music that has D.S. or D.C. markings, it is the convention not to play the repeats on the second time through.
This is the standard rule, but for various reasons is not always followed in practice (for example, the music might not be long enough, and so the conductor might ask for the repeats to be played "on the D.C."). It is usually down to the performer (or conductor) to decide whether to repeat all the repeats.
However, if you are answering a question about D.S. or D.C. in an exam, you should always assume that the rule will be applied and any repeats will not be obeyed on the D.C. or D.S.!
Here is an example. In this case, we would play the section within the repeat marks normally the first time through the piece, then we would play the D.S. and start from the sign again, and only play the repeated section once.
Therefore the repeated section will be played a total of three times and not four times!
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