The subjectivity of music complicates understanding and teaching musicality. Everyone has different tastes for which interpretations of pieces they enjoy most. There is no clear measure of the musicality of performance. It is further perplexing because from my own experience and what others have told me, music education has not given us a fundamental understanding of what makes a performance have musicality. We are given useful information about technique, styles of music, and minute details that can make a passage sound more interesting, but little comprehension of how this helps music communicate emotions and ideas. Therefore, it would be prudent to create guiding principles for making notes have musicality.
Some may question this, as what is valued most in creating music is subjective. Plus, methodically dissecting music rather than experiencing it intuitively would be missing a large part of why music is meaningful. While I agree that feeling music intuitively is essential, what I propose is that having a rational understanding of musicality provides irreplaceable knowledge of making notes musical. For example, if someone had the goal to attain a fulfilling and stable romantic relationship, many would agree it would be unwise to approach this only by emotion. Someone who prioritizes logically sound ethics over feeling good would have a greater understanding of what leads to a fulfilling and stable romantic relationship than someone guided only by emotion. I propose that this mindset also applies to grasping musicality more clearly. Subjectivity does not prevent rational guidelines to create musicality from being useful. Life philosophies can successfully influence humans to live moral and fulfilling lives despite perhaps even more subjective than views of what makes notes musical.
Next, I will discuss two major concepts I believe are crucial to producing musicality. I speak from a classical cellist perspective, so I cannot claim this is flawless comprehensive picture of musicality for all instruments and genres. Regardless, it has value for more than only classical cellists.
I define lyricism as matching one’s sound to the natural sung or spoken voice. Lyricism is created through the breath to give notes contours, direction in phrasing, a sense of appropriate pauses or silences in the sound and adding a human quality to the sound. I will now discuss what creates lyricism in music, with the components not being in any strict order.
A) Performing as if resources are finite
When speaking and singing, one must cadence and/or breathe to refill the lungs with air. There is a cycle of inhaling and exhaling that allows the voice to be fully supported
and sustained. While it may seem like this is a constraint to getting the desired sound, imagine what would happen if one could speak or sing without having to pause or breathe. It would sound incessant, jarring, and unnatural. That is why breath being a limited resource is a blessing for creating musicality. The breath affects how the body moves and feels, directly affecting sound and timing of when notes are played. To create a sense of the breath creating a sound on piano, percussion, or a string instrument, the breath should fuel the motions of the body much like it would in yoga or Tai Chi. Running out of breath can also be useful to guide how phrases end and notes are shaped.
Strongly tied to how air must be inhaled and how it eventually runs out, momentum is essential for giving phrases direction and cadence. Momentum must be progressively gathered and naturally decreases over time. To increase momentum, some options are to crescendo, speed the tempo, make vibrato narrower and/or faster, gradually change articulation, and breathe more air. The opposite can be done to decrease momentum or by letting it automatically decay over time, which can be used to end phrases and/or start new ones.
C) Emotive friction
Emotive friction is the perceived intensity of the music, which replicates how words or songs have a wide spectrum of intensity in their delivery. It allows for many possibilities in creating specific moods. For example, a quiet passage can be played with low emotive friction to create a serene atmosphere but played with high emotive friction to reflect internal pain. Some tools to increase emotive friction are making vibrato faster and/or narrower, creating a heavier sound, and adding glissandos. For string instruments, it can also be increased by slowing down bow speed and moving the contact point closer to the bridge. Doing the opposite to decrease emotive friction can also be an effective musical choice.
Rhythm gives a natural flow to music much like speaking. Often good rhythm involves a consistent beat and accurate subdividing to create a sense of flow or groove. When a steady rhythm is established, it allows for intentional speeding up or slowing of the beat to be comprehensible. Tempo changes are more meaningful when two or more tempos are juxtaposed. However, consistent rhythm is different from robotically and precisely regular note lengths. While we want rhythm to be accurate, not all subdivisions need to have the exact same length or emphasis, as doing so would sound stilted. Outside of a few exceptions, we want to avoid having machine-like consistency because slight irregularities in the notes give them a more human expression of emotion.
2) Organic Quality
I define organic quality as uninhibited sublimity that is enjoyable to hear because of how aesthetically pleasing it sounds. Lyricism contributes to organic quality but is not sufficient to create musicality by itself. Accurately imitating the voice does not inherently create musicality because the voice sounds exactly like the voice, and not all who sing are musical or even follow principles of lyricism well. Organic quality includes other factors that create musicality, which I will list below.
A) Feeling emotion in the body through mindfulness
A musician that deeply feels the music helps the audience feel more engaged with the performance. In addition to how visual movements can contribute to what the music communicates, feeling emotions also affects how the body moves and breathes. This directly affects the sound produced. For example, when the goal is creating a triumphant mood, feeling powerful broad motions in the body can help create that sound in the music. However, feeling the emotion in the music will not be communicated in the sound if technique is negatively affected as a result, such as an intense mood being felt in the body through tensing the shoulders. Mindfulness, the state of conscious awareness of the present moment, helps the body move in its optimal most natural form while still feeling emotions. If one has properly and sufficiently prepared, any arising technical issues are often caused by being too much in one’s mind. Maintaining mindfulness helps deeply focus on creating the desired sound while being in a state of flow.
B) Optimal body usage
While mindfully feeling emotions is a part of optimal body usage, it also includes increasing consistent precision. When the body is used to its fullest potential, it is relaxed, fluid, strong, and efficient. These factors rely on a well-balanced dynamic posture and the whole body being involved and unified, creating the ideal balance between control and freedom. In addition, optimal body usage helps communicate music by eliminating tension. Even if the body is mindfully feeling the character of the music, tension blocks the flow of emotion throughout the body, such as tension in the shoulder preventing emotion from flowing to the arms, hands, and fingers from the rest of the body.
C) Tone quality
Good tone quality involves maximizing resonance, fullness of sound and having clear projection regardless of dynamic range. It is created by relaxed whole-body strength and polished technique, allowing the unrestricted potential of an instrument’s sound to be heard. High tone quality notes can bring about an emotional reaction even without a specific feeling put into them simply because they can sound enchanting.
There is some subjectivity to what good intonation is, such as what frequency an instrument is tuned to and when one uses Pythagorean Intonation, Just Intonation, Equal Temperament or Expressive Intonation. Some goals of intonation include contributing towards tone quality, easily distinguishable intervals, and creating a recognizable system of tonality. Consistent intonation is also essential for creating phrases, as a collection of notes played in tune are connected by their shared sense of tonality. For example, a common musical idea, a scale, sounds familiar because of its recognizable progression of notes, intervals, and tonality. Intonation is a large part of the coherence of a scale or any musical idea because out of tune or wrong notes would significantly reduce the cohesiveness and line of the musical idea. Accurate intonation is even pleasant to hear on isolated individual notes.
Lyricism and organic quality in action
It is important to hear how these concepts contribute to a musical performance. Attached is a link of my playing in which I practiced and performed with the goal of consciously implementing lyricism and organic quality. I recommend listening to the section from 2:39 to 3:09 because it has the most dramatic changes in dynamics, tempo, and character. One should consider listening with minimal thinking if it helps one feel more engaged with the music.
Bach Suite 4 Sarabande
1) My movement was fueled by breath, and I brought in more air as I wanted phrases to grow louder. This also created a sense of momentum that either increased or decreased depending on how I was breathing. My breath gave phrases direction, created variation in my bow speed, and created a sense that my resources are limited, which helped phrases lead to specific notes or end lyrically.
2) Emotive friction was changed alongside momentum to create a range of emotions in the sound. I added bow weight, lowered the contact point, increased vibrato speed, and sped up the tempo to increase emotive friction, and did the opposite to decrease it. The fluctuations in tempo reflect how the voice would vary the length of words and syllables and the rate in which they are said or sung. This created a sense of flow that would not have been possible if the tempo stayed exactly regular.
3) Feeling the emotions of the piece mindfully was crucial for informing my breathing, exhaling, and bow speed choices. It was also essential for entering a state of flow and allowing for my body to move organically, which helped with technical execution.
Other benefits of seeing musicality as lyricism and organic quality
Defining the foundation of musicality with specific words and analyzing what makes these concepts audible can make musicality more understandable and attainable. Here are some benefits of thinking of musicality as the result of lyricism, organic quality, and their components:
1) The harmful mystification of classical music can be removed
Classical music is sometimes perceived as being incomprehensible perfection. There is an allure of thinking about music like this, especially for musicians and music teachers so they can feel more significant in their pursuit of music. Unfortunately, this perspective has negative consequences of discouraging deeper logical understanding of music and limiting the amount of positive feedback musicians can be given.
For example, I have been told on separate occasions that I have a talent for musicality that cannot be taught or explained. I was not fond of these comments because not only were they not very meaningful (positive comments are more impactful when they are specific and clear), it felt like it diminished the value of my effort. They perpetuate the belief that what I did cannot be attained with practice, which promotes a harmful fixed mindset toward musicality. It is not an innate gift, but a skill anyone can develop through knowledge and discipline. Having clear guidelines of what creates musicality challenges the almost divine worship of musicality by bringing it down to earth and making it more achievable. This does not make music any less profound.
2) It gives clearer goals to work towards musicality, benefitting teaching, rehearsals, and individual practice:
A recurring situation I noticed while I was a student at music conservatories was hearing others lacking in several areas of musicality. Some of the most common issues included extraordinarily little variation in bow speed, vibrato, and emotive friction, plus there did not seem to be demonstrated understanding of having the breath fuel the body movements, momentum, and adding a singing quality to the sound. Surprisingly, these holes in their musicality were largely unaddressed by most of the teachers and masterclass guest artists. While the students would receive insightful feedback, often in certain areas of technique, bringing awareness towards the ensemble, how to phrase certain sections, and inspiration to commit to the music more, most of the components of lyricism described herein were never mentioned or only vaguely suggested. The students remained weak in these areas of musicality because the core issues of not understanding lyricism and organic quality were never brought up.
This happened not because the teachers lacked understanding of musicality, but because the descriptions of musicality were not specific enough to be understood simply. Defining musicality as the components of lyricism and organic quality can help alleviate this issue in teaching, when communicating ideas to fellow ensemble musicians, and giving oneself feedback on making pieces more musical.
3) It helps give interpretation more meaning
I define interpretation as being how one uses one’s body and tools to express one’s personal vision of what a piece communicates. Lyricism and organic quality can be those tools that connect one’s musical vision with technique and what must be done in the body. My interpretations are based primarily on how I use lyricism and organic quality in a piece, and I put less time and energy into creating a story through the music. I approach interpretation this way because I believe that lyricism and organic quality make musicality heard while the story, as helpful as it may be, does not.
Imagine a novice who has a deep understanding of what he or she would like to communicate in a challenging advanced piece. Even with this nuanced interpretation, this beginner could not perform the piece with any remote degree of musicality. The story one conjures, either from non-vocal or music set to text, may be an important guide for one’s musicality. However, it will not create musicality without the required execution and knowledge of lyricism and organic quality.
For vocal music that has a specific story through the words, the text can be used to support lyricism and organic quality to communicate musicality coherently. For instance, if singers and instrumentalists were to have a cheerful tone on the words “death and destruction,” hopefully this is an intentional choice and not a result of carelessness, flawed technique, and/or incomprehensible storytelling. This misalignment of emotions expressed with the meaning of the words could be a way of portraying a character’s sarcastic attitude or descent into madness if done purposefully.
Regardless of whether there is an explicit plot, I often recommend first adding a high amount of lyricism and organic quality to a piece before creating a story. For many of us, it is easier to produce interpretations of musicality than it is to make them a reality. We should engage most with what truly makes a piece musical and likely needs more practice, which is usually lyricism and organic quality.
Acknowledging the Subjectivity of Music
Despite my reasoning, I cannot ignore the subjectivity of music. I can neither prove that seeing musicality as lyricism and organic quality is the most effective way to create music nor objectively determine the best way to use these tools. Nevertheless, this approach has been the most effective for me in reliably creating musicality, and I believe that others can benefit from these ideas. I think of this framework as my attempt to come as close as I can to universal guidelines for musicality. There must certainly be disagreement with my ideas, but I welcome it. If my philosophy is insufficient, then the flaws we identify help us discover what elements of musicality need to be explored in more depth. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of how musicality is formed, so I hope to encourage contemplation.