Where’s the Sign?

Last night I accompanied a dear friend and talented singer in a concert of her favorite songs and telling her story.  It was fun and exhilarating and pretty much everyone in the audience was there because they adore my friend and have waited a long time for her to do this concert.  They just wanted her to do well and sing her heart out, which she did.  When each song was done we had to keep waiting for the applause to die down before we could move on to the next one.

Most of the music consisted popular hits from the 80s and 90s, so it was pretty easy to pick up.  I only had two problems, and they were named “Sign” and “Coda”.  If you are a musician and have played pop sheet music, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Let me give you a crash course on some music theory!  (Don’t stop reading….please :))

Most pop songs follow a basic musical formula.  That usually includes an intro, a few verses, a chorus, sometimes an interlude/instrumental break, a bridge, and an end.  It may look like this:

Intro > Verse 1 > Verse 2 > Chorus > Verse 3 > Chorus > Interlude > Bridge > Chorus (2x) > End

Sometimes it’s not as complicated, but this is pretty typical.  So where do “sign” and “coda” come in?  Here’s some music history for you – back in the day when ink and paper was expensive and scarce, the musical scribes created shortcuts – symbols and phrases in songs that had sections that repeated – to save these precious commodities.  For instance, a common shortcut is the repeat sign (see picture below.)  Some shortcuts are phrases above the staff, such as D.C. al Fine.  This phrase you’ll find at the very end of a piece.   D.C. stands for Da Capo, which is Italian for “the top.”  Fine clearly means “the end.”  What you’ll find is somewhere in the middle of the piece, at the end of a phrase, is the Fine that is being referencedSo, in essence, you’re being told that when you reach the end of the music, go back to the beginning and play everything until you reach Fine, which is the actual end of the piece.  Got it?

So, there’s a couple other phrases similar to that one – D.S. al Fine and D.S. al Coda.  What does the S stand for?  Segno which translates to “sign”.  Just like Fine is in the middle of the piece, you will also find the sign in the middle of the piece, usually at the beginning of the chorus or a verse.  The sign is displayed as a symbol (see below.)  So when you see the D.S. it’s telling you to go back to the sign and play through that part of the piece until you get to the destination you are told to go to, either Fine (which we’ve learned about already) or Coda (which is the end of the piece.) To get to Coda there will simply be an instruction – To Coda – written above the measure where you are supposed to skip the rest of the song and head to the Coda section, marked with the symbol below.  The piece may end quickly with a few measures of instrumental music, or maybe a shortened version of the chorus.  The purpose of the sign is so you can go back and play part of the song again, but you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning.

Isn’t music theory fun??!  (I wish I could say I was being sarcastic.  Nerd status confirmed.)

 As an accompanist, you get really good at spotting these symbols.  I usually circle them like crazy right away so they’re easy to find.  Because of the formulas of pop music (like the example I showed above) these symbols  are utilized often, even in this day and age where we have plenty of ink and paper.  For the concert I played, these symbols were rampant, almost in every piece.  And I didn’t have a lot of time to learn the music.
My two most asked questions (to myself) in practicing and rehearsal were “Where’s the sign??” and “Where’s Coda???”  These were usually asked in a slightly frantic voice while I am staring at a D.S. al Coda that is rapidly approaching.  Then I have to flip back one or two pages until I eyeball the little symbol and all is well again.  There have been many a page-flipping where I am scanning like crazy whilst trying to keep some kind of bass line going.  It’s quite a traumatic experience.  It can get very dramatic and scary, especially when you have a singer relying on you to keep things going.  I exaggerate, but only a little 😉

However, if I know the song really well, I usually know exactly what part we are going back to, and can rely on my musical memory to get through the first couple measures until I find the right opportunity to flip back.  Sometimes I don’t even have to flip back at all, but can coast using music theory to get me through until the Coda.

I was thinking about this last night on the way home from the concert and I got a word from God.  So here goes:

My two most asked questions (to myself) in practicing and rehearsing (life) are “Where’s the sign??” and “Where’s the coda (end)???”  These are usually asked in a slightly frantic voice while I am staring at a D.S. al Coda (change in my life) that is rapidly approaching.  Then I have to flip back one or two pages (conversations/thought processes/logical explanations/Scripture verses/prayers) until I eyeball the little symbol (solution) and all is well again.  There have been many a page-flipping (searching for answers) where I am scanning like crazy whilst trying to keep some kind of bass line (my day to day life) going.  It’s quite a traumatic experience.  It can get very dramatic and scary, especially when you have a singer (friends/family/students/your church) relying on you to keep things going.  I exaggerate, but only a little 😉

However, if I know the song (life) really well, I usually know exactly what part we are going back to, and can rely on my musical memory (knowledge of Scripture/preparedness of the situation/prayer) to get through the first couple measures until I find the right opportunity to flip back.  Sometimes I don’t even have to flip back at all, but can coast using music theory (faith) to get me through until the Coda (end).

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One comment on “Where’s the Sign?

  1. Tobi says:

    Sarah, this is a pretty amazing analogy. I love how you think and communicate. Hope you’re enjoying these last days of summer! Love you!

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