“Our engraver had a strong opinion against word extensions.”

Each musical family has its own technical language. A slur is a universal and effective symbol, but slurs mean different things to different families. To a string player, a slur means “play all the notes on one bow.” To a wind player, it means “continue without tonguing”; to a singer, it means “sing more than one note on a syllable.” In piano editions it may indicate legato or it may confuse things by trying to identify the phrase as well. (But that’s a different discussion.)

Notes and Words

Unlike instrumental playing, singing involves two independent but related modes at once: notes sounded and words articulated, each with its own information set: musical notation for the notes; words and punctuation for the text.

Word extensions (or word extenders) are part of the latter set, binding the words to the music. Unlike a hyphen, which divides syllables of a word, a word extension applies to the word’s last syllable. It tells the singer: sustain this word while you sustain the note above it.

The word extension has developed for at least two reasons:

  • It illustrates a melisma.
  • It clarifies a tie.

Also, incidentally:

  • It may remind you of a final consonant.
  • Singers are told “support the breath.” Word extensions are visual breath support.

Here’s what Kurt Stone’s Music Notation in the Twentieth Century (NY: W.W. Norton, 1980), still my go-to guide in the twenty-first century, says about word extenders. Notice, he doesn’t say they are optional. (Click to enlarge.)

quote about word extenders from Kurt Stone, Music Notation in the 20th Century

Three examples from Different Publishers and Eras


1. Oxford University Press

In Thomas Tallis’s “If ye love me,” the extension clarifies a tie, but it also connects two thoughts.

Tallis If ye love me soprano


If ye love me, (please) keep my commandments: the word extension connects those thoughts, providing a bridge between a condition and its fulfillment. Without it, the singer may break the phrase.

2. Bärenreiter

In Handel’s “Unto us a child is born,” from Messiah, the word extension indicates melisma. This critical edition dispenses with slurs over the melisma, because Handel’s ms doesn’t give them.

Handel Messiah excerpt


But even in his frenzied shorthand, Handel adds a kind of word extender.

Handel Messiah autograph


3. Boosey & Hawkes

In Dominick Argento’s I Hate and I Love, we see a modern composer’s personal manuscript, and how word extensions reinforce suspensions.

music choral manuscript



Without extenders, the suspensions are just hanging out there:

choral music manuscript

Word extensions express sense, clarify diction and assist vocal production. Few symbols in music are so potent. If the phrases are short and the music is syllabic and homophonic, I suppose getting rid of word extensions might be okay. This Welsh hymn is fine without them:

Old Welsh hymn manuscript



Otherwise, if ye love us, please use word extensions.