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Coda means "tail" in Italian, and a coda is indeed a musical tail, a passage added on to the end of a movement or piece to provide a fitting conclusion.

Sometimes the coda functions as a compact, emphatic summary, or wrap-up, of the musical material that's been presented during the course of a movement, sometimes as an extra flourish to make for a rousing, exciting finish, and sometimes as a quiet extension to allow feelings to settle — or linger. Almost always, the coda stresses in some way the return to the home key of the movement or piece, thereby reinforcing the sense of resolution and finality.

In literary and dramatic forms — novels and stories, plays and movies — good authors and directors take great pains to come up with satisfying endings. In music an effective coda can make the difference between a piece that feels deeply satisfying and one that seems to end just a bit too soon. A coda may be short or long: it's the composer's job to decide what fits, what's appropriate for the character of the piece and for its proportions. Beethoven wrote positively monumental codas, for example, for the first and last movements of both his Eroica Symphony and his Fifth Symphony, but he needed such codas to balance the weight of the monumental material that had come before.

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.