As with our verbal communication, musical communication demands appropriate phrasing to show with clarity what we are trying to convey.
Since the day we are born, we try to perfect the “art” of communication, both consciously and subconsciously. Humans are communicating verbally but also using other non-verbal ways. In music, we communicate mostly with creating or manipulating sounds.
By the time we are three years of age we can construct simple sentences, and then by five we speak with more flair, and deliver sentences with special stresses and hereditary audial predispositions, so our fellow human beings can, basically, understand what we are trying to tell them.
Then, by the time we reach adulthood, it’s safe to suggest that we have “perfected” our own verbal communication skills — some of us have succeeded more and some of us less. Going forward in life, at some point, our ongoing road to perfecting verbal communication will reach a peaking point and then, inevitably, it will cease to progress; again, for some of us abruptly and for others at a slower pace.
It’s Not About the Ingredients. It’s How We Use Them.
Speaking is not only about which words we use but also about the way we deliver them to our listeners. Thus, different delivery equals different meaning(s). The same applies to music, but we’ll get there in a few moments.
Here’s an example of how a simple phrase can send different messages to a set receiver.
In this example, we will use the phrase “I like music”.
Those three words uttered with different pauses and stresses will mean different things. Here we go. I used bold text for the stressed words:
I like music: if I stress the word “I”, this could mean that I, personally, am the one who likes music, as opposed to someone else who doesn’t like it, for example.
I like music: If we stress the word “like” I could try to convey that I want the listener to grasp that ‘I indeed like music a lot’, as opposed to hating it or other.
I like music: This time we stressed the word “music” and that could signal that I like music instead of something else, such as painting or math.
Scholarly vs Voguish phrasing
Similar to verbal communication from above, the same axiom applies to music; A set musical phrase performed in varied ways will tell a different story to our audience.
But, what’s more important, is which phrasing should we choose? Our own phrasing, a voguish phrasing, the composer’s phrasing, the editor’s phrasing, or other?
Well, the answer is always in front of us: It’s the composer’s own phrasing that we should honour. Here are a few reasons for it:
We get to deeply apprehend the composer’s music idiosyncrasies, compared to other composers of his/her era.
We could potentially draw nearer to how to perform composers that share similar compositional characteristics with the composer we currently perform.
If the composer is a pianist herself, that’s all the better; usually they “know” what they are doing pianistically, thus, by following their instructions we not only learn about their style but, incidentally, we also improve our own technique.
We ultimately learn how to follow instructions — Following instructions in life is indeed an integral part of proper human social functioning.
Following instructions and music rules to the letter, will make us musically equipped to break them, if we wish, down the line.
We will also come closer to the conclusion that technique should mainly be practised in the right context. For example, we could, but shouldn’t really try to grasp the baroque keyboard peculiarities by playing them, using the music from a composer from the romantic period.
Thus, coming closer to the point of this article, even if we perfect the way we choose to deliver a musical phrase, that doesn’t mean that we are doing something that has any veritable meaning. Of course we should always try to challenge things in life and be open-minded, and fearless, and heroic and all. But music is a serious business. It involves composers’ rules, and we should honour those rules. Breaking rules and doing our own phrasings, articulations etc. is ok now and then, but doesn’t mean that this makes us more musically heroic or adventurous.
The composer’s intended musical notions are there for a reason. And, coming back to the verbal communication, we’ve all seen people that use the language with flair, composure and perfect diction, only to not be able to make sense of what they’re talking about. (Am I falling into this trap in this very article?) Same applies to the piano and music.
If, for instance, we choose to play the third movement of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata in staccatissimo, and our performance is perfect musically, (rhythmically, melodically, technically, etc.) that doesn’t mean that this is the way Beethoven wanted to communicate this piece. Technical proficiency and understanding of intended musical phrasing do not always overlap.
To complete this article I will just say, that even though voguish or experimental phrasing can indeed improve our technique, we should always strive to do the accepted phrasing of the time of performing. If available, using the composer’s own phrasing is paramount.
Copyright © 2018 by Nikos Kokkinis
Many thanks to Tim van der Kuip on Unsplash for the amazing image used for this article: