A crescendo is an increase in musical volume.

‘If a literary man puts together two words about music,’ wrote Aaron Copland, ‘one of them will be wrong’. And, he might have added, there’s a fair chance the misused word will be ‘crescendo’. So, for readers intimidated by their literary friends’ verbal dexterity here’s an opportunity for a little schadenfreude. After all, what more satisfying way of bringing the linguistic Icarus plummeting back to earth than with a well-aimed dart of pedantry?

The commonest cases of crescendo-abuse can be found in phrases like ‘the noise built to a crescendo’, or ‘the argument reached a crescendo’. No, no, no! It doesn’t matter how common this sort of thing is, it’s just wrong. The root of this word is the Italian crescere – ‘to grow’ or ‘increase’. Its Latin forebear is where we get the word ‘crescent’: properly applied to a waxing moon, improperly when the moon is on the wane.

What is a crescendo?

The point is that, in music, the crescendo is the growing, not the point to which one grows; it is the ascent towards the summit, not the summit itself. Rather frustratingly there is no internationally accepted term for a musical high point – unless it’s the German Höhepunkt, whose first two syllables can cause indelicate palate contortions in non-Germanic mouths.

The crescendo, along with its antithesis, the decrescendo – or more commonly, diminuendo – has probably been part of musical expression on a micro scale for as long as human beings have sung or made melody. However it doesn’t seem to have been until the mid-18th century that composers began to exploit the long crescendo for heightened dramatic effect.

The first recorded use is in the opera Bellerofonte by one Domènec Terradellas – yet more proof that the true innovator isn’t always the one who’s remembered. Soon the effect spread to orchestral music. It became a kind of ‘signature’ device for the virtuoso Mannheim court orchestra: there are accounts of people being so caught up in it they actually rose to their feet as the excitement mounted.

Eventually composers like Wagner and Bruckner were able to stretch their crescendos over several minutes, with perhaps the aid of a few false Höhepunkte along the way. Some more recent musical styles (eg Minimalism) eschew it, however, and modern industrial pop music seems to be doing its best to eradicate it altogether – a possible opening for a musically inclined sociologist?

This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of the BBC Music Magazine