A rehearsal letter is a boldface letter of the alphabet in an orchestral score, and its corresponding parts, that provides a convenient spot from which to resume rehearsal after a break. Rehearsal letters are most often used in scores of the Romantic era, beginning with Louis Spohr. They may also be generically called rehearsal marks or rehearsal figures, or when numbers are used instead of letters, rehearsal numbers.
In the course of rehearsing a piece, it is often necessary to stop and go back to some point in the middle, in order to master the more difficult passages. Many scores and parts have bar numbers, every 5 or 10 bars, or at the beginning of each page or line. But as pieces and individual movements of works became longer as the Romantic era progressed, bar numbers became less practical in rehearsal.
For example, a conductor can tell his musicians to resume at bar 387, so that the musicians have to find the nearest bar number in their parts (e.g. 385 or 390) and count back or forward a couple of measures. Even if the number 387 is written at the appropriate bar, it might not particularly stand out. But if there is, for example, a big, bold letter M in the score and parts, it's much easier for the conductor to just say "letter M." Even if the conductor were to say "one bar before letter M," that would still be more convenient than saying "bar 386." Alternatively the conductor could first say "before M" and allow the players time to find M and then say "One measure."
In the score of a full orchestra, rehearsal letters are typically placed over the flutes' (or piccolo's) staff, and duplicated above the first violins' staff. For concert bands, rehearsal letters are placed over the piccolo's staff (or flutes'), and over the trumpets'. Rehearsal letters should appear in every part, but the conductor or librarian should check this and also make sure that they agree with the conductor's score; if they don't, the letters from the parts should be copied to the conductor's score. For typical pieces or movements of the Romantic era marked allegro, the letters A to Z can be used up, though the letter I, J or O (or all) may be skipped.
Placement and frequency of the letters do not follow a hard-and-fast rule. Generally they are inserted at places where there is a musically significant change, for example a new theme, or a change in dynamic or instrumentation — just those places where a conductor might want to restart in rehearsal. In addition, having the letters double as musical signposts can help players who are counting rests confirm they are still in the right place, which would not be possible if the marks were placed at numerically regular intervals.
The letter A is almost always used for a point close to the beginning, but not for the very beginning itself because it is much easier to say "from the beginning". Likewise, rehearsal letters are not necessary at tempo or key changes, as the new tempo's (or key's) name can serve the same purpose. For example, in some editions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, letter A of the Finale does not occur until bar 140, when the relatively late entry of the first violins with the "Ode to Joy" theme might not stand out enough to the other players to be a convenient point of reference, whereas the reminiscences of the previous movements are more easily referenced by their tempi than by either bar number or rehearsal letter.
A rehearsal letter usually breaks a multimeasure rest in a part, except of course in cases where a given instrument does not play at all in a given movement of the work.
Because rehearsal letters are sometimes independent of edition and in some cases even version, they are also useful for telling applicants for positions in the orchestra what passages they need to play at the audition. They are also useful for easy reference in scholarly essays about orchestral works. However, rehearsal letters are altogether absent from some editions of some pieces that have them in other editions, such as the older editions of Wagner's Meistersinger prelude.
Rehearsal letters might be used in chamber ensemble music, but they would have very little point in unaccompanied instrumental music (such as the solo piano repertoire), since the instrumentalist wouldn't need to communicate to a fellow player where to resume playing. For songs, it is more useful to refer to the lyrics of the song to indicate where to resume rehearsal (except of course in songs where the lyrics consist of a single word or phrase repeated dozens of times)!
Usage in the 20th Century
In some cases, A to Z might not be enough. After Z, Aa may be used, followed by Bb, and so on until Zz (though Ii, Jj and/or Oo might also be skipped). The Wilhelm Hansen edition of Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 7 in C major presents one unusual case: the letters A to Z (including both I and J) are used up after the wind rip with just three more pages left in the score. For the final flute and bassoon solo, the editors use Ö (the final letter of the Finnish alphabet) as a rehearsal letter.
But in the case of some composers, such as Gustav Mahler and/or Dmitri Shostakovich, twice through the alphabet might still not be enough. For this reason, some editors prefer rehearsal numbers to rehearsal letters. Mahler's and Shostakovich's scores use rehearsal numbers rather than letters. These are typically in bold and enclosed in a box, or less commonly, a circle. Confusingly, however, some editions enclose bar numbers in boxes, though they're usually not boldface. In the Schirmer edition of Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3 (in one movement), the rehearsal numbers are enclosed in circles, and they occur every ten measures, actually being the bar number divided by 10. That rehearsal numbers "are easily confused with measure numbers" is a reason sometimes given in favor of rehearsal letters.
Advocates of rehearsal numbers counter that even 26 letters are not enough for some scores. Whereas rehearsal letters "reset" for each movement of a multi-movement work (even for connected movements), rehearsal numbers typically run over the course of the entire work, even if the movements are not connected. For example, the rehearsal number for the last few bars of the first movement of Edward Elgar's First Symphony is 55; the first rehearsal number of the second movement is 56.
There are exceptions, however. The final outburst in the first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony is rehearsal number 27. Mahler actually wanted a pause of five minutes before the next movement, so the rehearsal numbers reset to 1, ending with 15. The third movement follows after a short break, but its first rehearsal number is 28.
For jazz and pop compositions with several choruses, "many jazz composers and arrangers" use a format in which "each successive verse/chorus part of the form is assigned successive letters of the alphabet" combined with a measure number: for example, letter A for the first 8-bar phrase of the verse after the introduction, A9 for the next 8-bar phrase, A17, A25, then B, B9, B17, B25 for the chorus, etc., with the special rehearsal marking TAG for the tag ending.
The 2008 version of the Finale notation program by default provided rehearsal letters A, B, C and D, but the 2009 provides all A to Z.
- Finale manual
- Del Mar
- J. V. Horn The Community Orchestra Greenwood Press, 1979 p. 53
- Matthew Nicholl & Richard Grudzinski, Music Notation: Preparing Scores and Parts, ed. Jonathan Feist. Boston: Berklee Press (2007): 46. "Rehearsal marks appear above the top staff in most scores. In large scores, rehearsal marks can also appear in a second place, usually in the middle of the system or above each choir."
- Horn, 1979, ibid.
- Del Mar
- Kurt Stone. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: A Practical Guidebook (New York & London, W. W. Norton & Company, 1980), p. 168
- Nicholl & Grudzinski (2007): 45
- Norman Del Mar, Anatomy of the Orchestra. U of California Press, p. 508
- Kent Kennan & Donald Grantham, The Technique of Orchestration, Sixth Edition.
- Gardner Read, Music Notation: A Manual Of Modern Practice.
- Kurt Stone, Music Notation In The Twentieth Century.