Hairpins, the notation symbols < and >, are today universally accepted as equivalent to the markings crescendo and diminuendo, calling for an increase or decrease in volume. This view is irreconcilable with the scores of the core German repertoire of the nineteenth century. This article offers a new understanding of hairpins based on careful examination of the scores of Brahms and of early-twentieth-century recordings by artists close to him. In Brahms's milieu hairpins did not prescribe sounds, but rather described meanings. The difference between prescription and description is central, suggesting that instead of “growing louder/quieter,” hairpins are better understood as “becoming more/less.” The means by which “more/less” was realized by nineteenth-century musicians included many techniques beyond dynamics, most notably agogic inflection.

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