What is Musicality?

Thoughts on expressivity from The Music Shoppe’s resident singer.

Part 2: The Musical Guide

In our last post, What is Musicality Part 1, we learned about the concept of musicality and why it’s important in music. Though it sounds like a daunting feat, there is a map in the music that will guide you:

  1. Musical markings
  2. Text
  3. The history of the composer and piece
  4. The general “feel” of the music

Let’s talk about the first two:

Musical Markings

Take a look at each exercise in your student’s music book. There are notes on the page, but what else? I would bet my master’s degree that you see:

Musical exercise showing
  • Foreign word(s)
  • Italicized letters
  • “greater than” and “less than” signs

These are your musical markings, and they tell you how to play the music. Here’s what each one is about:

Foreign words:

Italian words are often tempo markings that tell you the pace and energy level of the piece:

  • Moderato = Moderate pace
  • Allegro = Brisk and/or lively
  • Maestoso = Majestic

These three are common and are probably what your student sees right now. But as they get older, words and phrases in any language will be expressive directions:

Piano music with the phrase
vocal music example with phrase
piano music with the instruction

Pay attention to these directions and you start to get a sense of where the music is going.

Dynamics

The dynamic tells you how loudly to play.

Italicized letters are your dynamic directions. Students start with:

  • = Forte, loud
  • mf =Mezzo-forte, medium-loud
  • = Piano, soft

“Crescendo” and “decrescendo” are markings that tell you to gradually change the dynamic over a certain amount of time. They usually have more dynamic markings before and after to guide you further.

These markings may not seem like much, especially to a beginning student, but as you progress and combine them in different ways, the music can be drastically different:

Grave + ff + etwas zurückhaltend

  • Slow
  • Really loud
  • A little reserved

I interpret this as something big and exciting that is being held back, like an audience cheering as they are led up to the big reveal.

Grave + + etwas zurückhaltend

  • Slow
  • Quiet
  • A little reserved

I interpret this combination as fear; it could be part of the soundtrack to a horror movie.

The thing is, these are only my interpretations. Someone else could see them and easily argue a completely different idea. The markings guide you to create a specific sound, and your student gets to decide what that sound means. This is their musicality in motion.

Text

Text is critical to musical interpretation, and despite what you might have thought, this is NOT just for singers! I will point out two situations, though there are surely many more to think about.

Title

What is the title of your piece?

Many pieces, especially beginner exercises, have onomatopoeic titles:

  • “Jumping Jacks”
  • “On the Trail”
  • “Morning Dance”
  • “Rolling Along”

When you play these pieces, you may find that the music sounds like what the title is describing. This is sometimes called “Programmatic Music.”

As you continue to study, the titles can make a big difference in guiding your interpretations:

“Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.” Whitacre
“Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgsky
“An American in Paris,” Gershwin
Every title can guide your interpretative decisions, even if it isn’t programmatic.

You can still get an idea out of pieces without special titles, but you will have to think a little harder about them:

  • Nocturnes are inspired by night
  • Etudes are training exercises
  • Sonatas are pieces for instrumental soloists, but are also a common musical form

Think about what makes your piece fall into the category of its given title. Could it have been inspired by someone or something, or does it have a popular nickname?

“Raindrop Etude,” Chopin
“Revolutionary Etude,” Chopin

If you had to name your piece, what would you name it?

Poetry

Was your piece transcribed from a song? You will need to be familiar with the text:

“O Mio Babbino Caro,” arranged for flute, originally from Gianni Schicci, an opera by Puccini
“Secrets,” arranged by the Dallas String Quartet, originally by One Republic
“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” arranged by Richard Blumenfeld, originally by Guns ‘N Roses

Sometimes composers arrange a song into an instrumental work or solo. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every piece of music, but my point is that it is important to know where your music comes from. This will help guide you to your interpretations, which develops your musicality.

Conclusion

Ultimately, your job is to understand how and why the text matches the music. Once you can clearly explain why the music means what you’ve decided, your next step is to make your listeners understand.

The good news is, there’s really no wrong answer. As long as you can say what you think the music means, and use the clues within the music to explain that, you can interpret it any way you please.

Musical markings and text aren’t the only two parts of the map: Stay tuned for the third and final installment of our What is Musicality series to learn about this history and feeling of your music!

Beckah Gerber is a member of office staff at The Music Shoppe and maintains a private voice studio at The Music Shoppe in Normal. Visit her personal website here.