Where is Expression Found in Music?

This story starts with a key question: Given that great composers across history dedicated their lives to learning, perfecting, and inventing our expressive language of music, and took such great care in shaping their expressive intentions into each moment of their musical compositions, then what is it that we should look for in music to figure out a composer’s expressive intent? Baroque composer Francois Couperin shared this precise concern in saying,

I am always surprised, after the pains I have taken to indicate the ornaments appropriate to my pieces…to hear persons who have learnt them without heeding my instructions…Therefore I declare that my pieces must be performed just as I have written them.[i]

The question is how to identify, sort out, and translate composers’ intentions back into expressive music arrangements, editions, rehearsals, performances, and audience experiences. In search of an answer, we journey through various ways expression in music has been described and defined. Continue reading

Creative Questions About Creativity

Since returning to live classes after teaching online or mixed live/online, I’m noticing a big shift in student willingness–and perhaps eagerness–to take risks to explore their creativity. A pre-COVID reluctance in students I am sure was tied to a social stigma common to a generation, who remarked when asked to do creativity lessons they felt embarrassingly “thrown under the bus” or “outed” in front of peers. It was harsh criticism to take.

However, this kickback sparked a creative critique of my own about the very nature of creativity. Here are my ponderings.

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Discovering Human Expression in Choral Music

Expression. Across history, the highest standards and aims of music have been described in various translations, synonyms, and derivatives of this one single word. Intricate vocabularies and illustrations to describe a musical composition, conducting gesture, performance, or audience response all boil down to a search for its underlying expression. Efforts to deny the importance or existence of expression in music—whether by philosophical argument, compositional design, or analytical theory—still underscore the central role of expression in musical thought and practice, and in their denial, express a select intention nonetheless. Continue reading

The role of loudness dynamics in human perception: Age-old musical patterns in a new scientific discovery

A new discovery of the role of loudness in comprehending speech is reported in Science Advances. The discovery is described in musical and acoustical terms of tones, dynamics, intensity, and amplitudes, yet without mention of its musical nature.  Though called a discovery, the facts of the study serve to corroborate a history of musical settings of text back to ancient times.

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