How to Play Musically

What does it mean to play musically? Here is the simple answer... it means that you express the character of the music when you play. In other words, you are not just blandly playing the notes that are written on on the page, you are giving them life and meaning.

Naturally, each piece of music will have completely different characteristics. So, it is your job as a performer to find those characteristics and express them in the best way possible.

Finding the Characteristics of the Music

To find the characteristics of the music, you first need to look for the obvious clues that the composer gives you. You can start by looking at:

  • The Title
  • Expressive Markings
  • Tempo Markings
  • Dynamic Markings
  • Articulations

Although these clues will give you a basic idea, there is more to it than that.

Many characteristics are not explicitly stated, but are implied by the style and time period of the piece. For instance, Baroque music will have very different characteristics than Romantic music or Contemporary music. Likewise, a Minuet will have very different characteristics than a Sonata. You should always study the background of your specific piece to learn about the interpretation.

And, on a deeper level, you can discover even more by playing and analyzing the notes on the page. For instance:

  • Where are the moments of tension and relaxation?
  • What sounds surprising and unexpected?
  • What sounds familiar and comfortable?
  • Where is the momentum of the music going?

Once you combine all of these different elements, you will have a good, general idea of how to characterize your piece.

Adding Your Own Characteristics

However, even after you have found all the characteristics of the music, you will still have a lot of room for interpretation. As a performer, you can invent your own character to add to these "ambiguous" parts of the music.

This is where the fun starts! Be creative and experiment until you find an interpretation that you like.

For this, I always start by thinking of adjectives to describe each part of the music. Maybe the music is triumphant, flirtatious, pensive, melancholic, etherial, or frantic? Be as creative as possible, and this will give you a good foundation for developing your own interpretation.

What can you do to express these characteristics?

So once you have discovered the characteristics of your piece, what can you do to bring out these characteristics? As a performer, you can use:

  • Dynamics - You can follow the dynamic guidelines give by the composer, add subtle dynamic fluctuations to the existing dynamics (with crescendo and decrescendo), and add your own dynamics to help bring out the characteristics of the music.
  • Tempo - You can follow the the tempo guidelines given by the composer and add subtle tempo fluctuations within the existing tempo guidelines (such as with rubato, ritardando, and accelerando).
  • Articulation - You can follow the articulations written in the music and add articulations if it is appropriate for the character of your music.
  • Tone - you can usually decide which tone colors you want to use for each note.
  • Vibrato - In most styles of music, you can freely add vibrato anywhere you want
  • Fingerings - If the fingerings are not written by the composer, you can choose own fingerings. This can influence tone, resonance, and note duration.
  • Ornaments (in early music) - In Baroque music, you can add certain stylistic ornaments when you feel they are appropriate.

Ideally, you should seamlessly combine all of the above elements to express the character of the music. For instance, if you want part of your music to sound "triumphant," then your dynamics, tempo, articulation, tone, and everything else should work together to create that character.

Some General Techniques for Playing Musically

As you practice, you will discover specific techniques for using dynamics, tempo, etc. to bring out the character of your music. Here are some examples:

  • The melody should be played slightly louder than everything else - The melody is usually the most important line in the music. This means that you should play it slightly louder than everything else so that it is very clear and easy-to-follow for the listener.
  • The dynamics should follow the shape of the melodic line - Most of the time, as the melody goes higher, you should play louder, and as the melody goes lower, you should play softer. This usually means that the middle of the phrase is louder, and the end of the phrase is softer.
  • Highligh tension with rubato and dynamic changes - almost all music has moments of tension in it (e.g. dissonant chords, suspensions, large melodic leaps, etc.). You should usually emphasize this tension by taking more time (rubato) and playing slightly louder.
  • Emphasize contrast - most music will have unexpected moments of sudden contrast. You should bring out these contrasts with abrupt changes of tone, dynamics, articulation, etc.

This is only a short list of possible techniques that you could use. In the end, you should always experiment and find what works best for your particular piece.

The best way to learn how to be musical? Listen and Practice!

Learning to play musically is like learning how to speak a language. You can study it to help yourself get started, but in the end, the best way to learn is by listening to other people and practicing. The more you listen and practice, the more you will develop a natural intuition for expressing the character of the music.

Do you want to learn more about playing musically? I highly recommend Aaron Copland's book...

If you want to learn more about playing musically, I highly recommend that you get the book What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland. I have read this book front to back at least five times, and each time I learn something new.

It is the best general guide for understanding and interpreting music that I have ever read. And even better, it's written by Aaron Copland, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century! This book is a "must have" for every musician.

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My name is Daniel Nelson, and I am a classical guitar teacher and performer from Los Angeles, California. Click here to learn more.