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Expressing ourselves about expressiveness in music

Picture the scene. You’re sitting in a box at the Royal Albert Hall, or the Vienna Musikverein. You have purchased tickets to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by an internationally-renowned orchestra, and they are playing it in a way that sounds wonderful. But what makes this such a powerful performance?

What is expressiveness? Let’s start by looking at these images …

Guilty_FaceSmiling Face






Do you notice what they all have in common? They are all displaying different kinds of expression.  Just as facial expressions communicate different information to us, musicians playing the same piece will still produce slight differences. You can’t hear the musicians in these pictures, but they may both be playing the same piece in a way that is not exactly the same as the other group of musicians.

People say music is expressive. They usually say it is expressive of emotions and therein lays its power. But is this true of all music in all cultures and historical periods? Does it matter how it’s performed and how it’s experienced?

Philosophers, psychologists, and musicians have been pondering these questions for centuries. Over the last hundred years psychologists have contributed much to developing an empirically-based understanding of the mechanisms at play. The distinction between what may be “in the music” and what the performer “adds” became a fundamental assumption leading to various theories and definitions of “expressiveness in music performance.”

Ever since the pioneering work of Carl Seashore in the 1930s psychologists have been studying individual performers to find out “what it is that a performer brings to a piece of music.” So what is it that One Direction does when covering “All You Need Is Love” that makes their performance expressive? Are they more expressive than the Beatles are in this clip? Is it the song that is expressive or does it matter how it is performed?

For those educated in western classical music, Seashore’s working definition of what is expressiveness seems reasonable: You are listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and different orchestras and conductors make it sound more or less dramatic, uplifting, emotional, riveting. But if we pause for a moment and think of all those ever listening to this great icon of western musical culture, is it reasonable to believe that they know what is “the music”, i.e. Beethoven’s composition, and what the performers “bring to it”? What about an audience who have never experienced the piece before? How do they know what is “the music” and what is the contribution of the musician? This dilemma is even more obvious in other styles, like jazz, traditional, popular, or world music.

One, wordier definition of expressiveness in music performance is “the micro-deviations from the notated dictates of the score a performer executes while playing.” So, if the notes of a score are played literally, the piece will sound dull and inexpressive — like an old MIDI notation player, or a student playing precisely in time with a metronome. The result is a “neutral” performance, like the computer image of the face above.  But is this an acceptable definition?  What about musicians who do not use a music score – improvisers, people who play music by ear?

Recent empirical work has shown that listeners tend to be unable to say if the expressiveness they are hearing originates from the composition or the performance. Studying the experience of professional musicians highlights how differently they approach their performance. For them the score is never just notes on paper but already music imagined as sound. This imagination depends on their socio-cultural, historical position, personality, and education. They use metaphors and heuristics, short-cuts that package up accumulated knowledge and speeds up problem solving in preparation for and during performance. They rarely speak of specific emotions to be conveyed but conceive of music as “emotional,” “dramatic,” “uplifting,” or “turbulent,” for instance.

This is true of music and musicians of other artistic traditions, like classical Hindustani music. According to the dhrupad singer Uday Bhawalkar, “Music without emotion is not music at all, but we cannot name this emotion, these emotions, we cannot specify them.” The sentiments or emotions that we encounter in daily life become transformed into aesthetic experiences in theatre.

Empirical work in the area of jazz and popular music shows the importance of rhythm, vocal gestures, persona, and the role of technology to create meaning through sound effects. One fascinating finding regarding the culturally construed nature of what is “expressiveness in music performance” comes from a study of the Bedzan Pygmies. They live in very small communities with 40-60 kilometres distance between them and come together only for large festivities like weddings and funerals. When singing together in intricate polyphony, each singer varies his or her line at will while maintaining the overall identity of the song. For them “expressiveness” increased when they could detect more voices in the ensemble.

Expressiveness is an important part of music performance and perception, and although we have an intuitive understanding of what expressiveness in music means, as it turns out expressiveness in music performance seems too malleable and slippery to be defined in a singular way. So what is more important is to formulate the perspective of future research and discussion, to reorient our approach and reconstruct the object of investigation.

Image credits: (1) Guilty Face, by Barry Langdon-Lassagne, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Your Smiling Face, by Sibelle77, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Изображение-Портреты-Михайлова Елена Владимировна, by участница Udacha, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Addys Mercedes Kult 02, by Schorle, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Adam Romański 1, by Konrad Wawrzkiewicz (Shannon5), CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. (6) One Direction Glasgow, by Fiona McKinlay, CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (7) The Beatles in America, by United Press International, photographer unknown, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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