If you want to avoid upsetting any composers, make sure you pay attention to the ‘obbligato’ instruction on a music score.


What does obbligato mean?

Italian for ‘obliged’, the term obbligato is used to indicate a crucial part of the piece that is not to be omitted or tampered with. Now is not the time to get experimental and start improvising with the tempo and dynamics, nor should you suddenly decide that elaborate piano solo in the middle of the piece isn’t really necessary. Obbligato means you are obliged to play the score as it is written… or else!

Obbligato is therefore the opposite of the direction ‘ad lib’, where the player is able to freestyle and improvise.

However, the term obbligato evolved during the 18th century, and it is also used in relation to an elaborate accompaniment to the main melody of an ensemble or soloist, in which the accompaniment part is seen as having just as much importance within the piece.


Examples of obbligato

The third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 5 contains an obbligato horn solo, while Bach’s Sonata in B minor for Flute and Obligato Harpsichord is another example.