What is a… Pause in music?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms, the pause

What is a pause in music

A pause, in musical terms, is a symbol above a note or rest signifying for it to be longer than its written value.

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This is more complicated than initially appears. The ‘pause’ sign itself is one of the most instantly recognisable in music: a half-circle over a dot, rather like a raised eyebrow over a tiny but penetrating eye.

If a pause symbol is placed over a note, you hold the note for longer than its indicated duration. (According to convention it’s roughly half as much again – so one full beat becomes a beat and a half.) If it’s placed over a rest, you do the same with the rest. Placed over a bar line it indicates an added silence, length left entirely to the performer’s discretion. 

For some reason the French call the pause  point d’orgue, ‘organ point’, which can also mean a ‘pedal point’ or long-sustained bass note, such as you find towards the end of a fugue – well, that’s a ‘pause’ of kind.

But the pause sign can also indicate something more momentous. Maybe you can remember following the score of a Beethoven or Mozart concerto for the first time and wondering why, when it comes to the point where the soloist takes centre stage for a scintillating solo cadenza, there are no notes on the page, just a pause sign.

Effectively the symbol tells the orchestra to wait while the soloist proves his or her mettle. The cue for the musicians to begin again is usually a long trill on the so-called ‘dominant seventh’ chord (easily recognisable when you know what it is).

If you’ve ever wondered why so many Mozart and Beethoven cadenzas end with a trill, the answer is simple practicality – it’s a musical prompt. 

‘Point d’orgue’ is an oddity, certainly, but surely the Italian ‘pausa’ and the German ‘Pause’ (pronounced ‘Pauseh’) are simply interchangeable with our own ‘pause’? By no means.

A German ‘Pause’ can mean a pause, or a simple rest, or the interval in a concert – and, by extension, the liquid refreshment that implies. The Italian ‘pausa’, on the other hand, only means a rest – not a lingering on a note, or on a rest. If you want to indicate the latter in Italy you must use the word ‘fermata’. 

But by that strange process by which musical terms mutate when they cross different cultures, ‘fermata’ has leaked back into English so that many anglophone musicians think that it specifically indicates a cadenza.

You might find yourself siding with Humpty Dumpty here: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’. Fine – just don’t try quoting that at a multi-lingual rehearsal.

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This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine