Thursday, June 8th, 2023

Expression in Music – Part 23a


Expression in Music Article Photo - Scales

Congratulations! You have arrived at Expression in Music Composition which begins Music Theory – Level 3 in the overall Scales in Music – a Tonal System presentation. Links to the various articles in this Expression in Music series are listed at the end of this article.

Expression in Music Composition

Expression in Music – Introduction

Typically many people think of the phrase “expression in music” to represent only dynamics or changes in the volume of notes (louder or softer) in music composition and performance. Others think of it in terms of musical styles and others still in terms of the techniques as used by the performers of music. Each of these individually and in their own way is a part of the total meaning of musical expression. All of them are correct although incomplete in defining what is meant by the encompassing phrase “expression in music”. The symbols used to define a given expression provide direction and instruction to the performers of the music.

Caveat – My audience includes the new student and musical novice through to the professional levels of composers and performers. It is because of this that it is necessary on my part, as the author of this mini-series, to comprehensively write about the raw basics of music composition which may be taken as an intellectual insult for those who are more advanced in their knowledge of making music, although this is not my intention. It is my hope that those in this group understand the need to fulfill the needs of the beginning student too. With this in mind it is also necessary on your part, the professional composer or musician, to consider this in your reaction to my writing. In this way everyone gains what they need from any article I publish. No ill will or intellectual insult is intended.

Defining the term Expressions or Expression in Music

Defining Expression in Music as Applied to Music – In order to better understand “expression”, as the word is generally understood to mean, we must limit and refine our focus to only those factors which impact or influence how a composer uses words, phrases and symbols to effect a specific impression that results during the listening experience, as having an expressive quality or characteristic.

In order to do that, let’s ask this question first – isn’t a C note a C note regardless of how it is played, on what instrument is it played or by what additional nuance is applied to it by the performer when the note is sounded during a performance? The answer is yes in the knowledge that middle C=256 Hz and not exactly in the sense of the experience and the emotional reaction caused by other influences affecting the observable meaning of the musical note C from the perspective of how the performer sounds the note.

Metaphorically speaking, think of expression in music as you would when learning about and when using a word language, for example. If you asked someone a question where the word yes is the accepted and correct answer, the question could be answered simply as yes and left as that.

Ah, but there are other answers in so far as to how the respondent answers the question relative to the variations in vocal force, qualities and characteristics of the voice, which provide a deeper meaning and in some cases quite a bit different in meaning than a simple yes response. By using specific mannerisms, vocal nuances, associated words or phrases, etc, when one does answer the question, it can and usually does affect its meaning, however subtle. So too are the effects of the use of expression in music.

To demonstrate this idea, the seven examples that follow explain how the same word yes can have a different meaning. The respondent could answer our question in any one of the following ways listed below, depending on their overall state of affairs and the meaning they wish to convey through their answer.

Did You Say Yes!

1)      Yes – short and sweet, absolutely, definitive

2)      Um…Yes – hesitant or reluctant

3)      Hmmm…Yes – thoughtfully, pondering

4)      Yes, but… – with concern for other facts or details

5)      Well, yes! – emphatically speaking, I agree

6)      Yes, yes, yes!!! – enthusiastically speaking, eager

7)      Oh yes! – sensuously

All of these responses use the exact same word which simply and basically means yes in the basic sense. Variation in how we say the word makes us feel one way versus another, to a degree of to a lesser degree. Certain characteristics of the voice defines its meaning. The meaning can be more definite and clear or vague and uncertain for example. Each has a subtle nuance which alters its meaning in some fashion and/or to some degree. The same principal applies to a performer playing a C note (or any other pitch for that matter) on his or her instrument. The expression in music defines this for us as composers. This implies two things, that pitch remains the same and that timbre or the sounds expression influences the actual sound.

Expression in music includes the factors of performance techniques, tempo, dynamics and other marks.

Musically speaking, in the same way as in word language, the symbolic language of music as related to expression in music, affects the resulting meaning of the music and further how it may influence the listener’s inner emotional state and/or any physical reaction they may have upon hearing the sound. Expression in music then clarifies for us just exactly what that meaning or definition is.

Expression marks are, in this way, a collection of various tools, words, phrases and symbols, which “color”, either directly or indirectly the tonal qualities of the sound or music. Some originate at the instrument level, some from the performer level while others originate at the composition level. In all case a composer makes a concerted attempt to provide the expression in music that is desired when writing the notation for the composition.

Composer Strategy and Influence on Expression in Music

A Basic Strategy – Composing music occurs along a pathway or a basic strategy which goes something like this; the composer’s internal creation of a sequence of pleasing sounds (a musical idea), the act of physically writing down the musical idea using music notation practices (written either by the composer or by someone capable of taking music dictation), a visual reading of the notated music, followed by an internal process of music interpretation of the score by the instrumentalist or vocalist.

Next, a physical or digital performance occurs which represents the actual sounds as written in the score. The final sequence is from the position of the listener which is first based upon their physical ability to hear and by their level or degree of attention to the musical performance. If audible, the sounds are heard from an external source and then internally interpreted by the listener. Based upon their internal interpretation there is some form or type of internal reaction. The reaction can be an internal one or expressed outwardly by the listener. The interpretation is contingent upon and influenced by the listener’s personal musical tastes and preferences, by the degree they understand the music and the degree they allow themselves to react upon hearing the music.

Comment 1 – I feel it is important that composers are reminded of this sequence or musical strategy as it is of benefit to them to understand the importance of expression in music. Through this understanding comes insight into three very important areas. First and foremost, the composer becomes aware of the importance of accuracy in transcribing their music from mental thought to written notation. It is common knowledge that proper notation is key to conveying musical thought.

Comment 2 – The composer can, through observation, come to know what new sounds are acceptable or are favored at any time in the marketplace and what influence specific sounds have on their audiences. For example, the composer’s observations help to identify which rhythms are favored within a culture or within specific groups of people in different geographical regions of a country or in other countries. They can also come to learn which expression in music tools are favored with precision. These ideas help to improve your overall writing skills but also to gain a wider acceptance of your music.

Comment 3 – The composer can learn new musical ideas which can help them to generate their own original and new musical ideas through the inspiration caused by listening to music written by other contemporary composers. Most composers of music have excellent listening skills and they can decipher the expression in music tools used in any given composition simply by listening. The advantage is useful in expanding the composer’s collection of tools for use when they write new music whether individually or while in collaboration with others.

Influence – Musical thought ideas rolling around in the mind of the composer, entertains, intrigues and inspires them albeit the composer alone. Inspiration swells up until somehow and in some way the composer must choose to convey to others their musical thought ideas in whatever fashion is available to him or her. How accurately the composer is in documenting the internal music is of vital importance. Assuming the decision of externalizing the music, what remains is the bottom line fact of accuracy in placing the correctly chosen symbols and markings of music notation onto staff paper. Those marks (the notation) including all of the tools for expression in music should, as closely as possible, represent the music within the composer’s mind.

The musical manuscript or score is the primary tool for documenting and conveying music related thought ideas to others who are involved in the interpretation and performance of the music.

In order to do this effectively the composer must know the symbols and markings very well in order to correctly select the appropriate one for any given note, motif, phrase or passage, up to and including marks which influence the entire composition. All of this goes without saying however there is a direct correlation between the notation and the performance relative to the selection process of expression marks, in fact, all notation marks.

As performers, their interpretations are directly influenced by quality of the manuscript and its proper reflection of the composer’s musical ideas as well as their ability to interpret the music effectively. A subsequent performance relies heavily on accurate scores since they directly assist the performers in arriving at the closest possible production of the composer’s musical ideas as written in the manuscript.

Instrument Influences on Expression in Music

Not intending to demean your intelligence rather to set the stage for this part of the our presentation. It is a necessary part of the strategy of music performance to include the use of any musical instruments or other sound causing/producing devices in order to create the music which represents the notes and all of the other markings included in the score. This important consideration requires some knowledge about musical instruments from the perspective of the instruments themselves. Such as what are the limits of the instrument’s range? What is it about the instrument’s design that helps to create sound? What sonic qualities and characteristic “colors” are possible on the instruments? Are the chosen instruments capable of producing the sounds that are being directed by the composer including those sounds included for expression in music. Knowing something more about musical instruments is vital when composing and/or orchestrating music.

Musical Instruments – As a composer it is necessary to understand the influence of musical instruments on expression in music. It is common knowledge that no two instruments sound exactly the same including identical types of instruments such as two violins for example. Both are violins but each sounds different, right?

There are many important factors that directly impact tonal qualities. When making an instrument such factors include the use of different materials and woods, whether they were handmade by the same different luthiers or was the instrument mass produced by a manufacturer? The physical characteristic of size and shape also influence the tonal color of the sound produced by them, even if the instruments are in the same type or classification.

For example, an acoustic guitar and a classical guitar are in the same classification of chordophones. Each however is a different type of chordophone within the common guitar sub-classification. Each has its own unique set of sound qualities and each is made out of different materials.

If both were manufactured using the same woods, rosewood back and sides and cedar top, for example, they would still sound different simply being made from the same wood type but not the same exact wood pieces. The physical size, shape and construction of an acoustic dreadnought versus classical concert guitars is considerably different. Each may have a different scale length, different internal bracing, different material thicknesses, etc. These factors and other relative variations helps to make up the endless variety of tonal colors a musical instrument brings to the table. This same concept applies to all instruments of any type. Expression is music is directly tied to the instrument choice or choices.

The Performers Influence on Expression in Music

To further explain these principals and before we begin a detailed review of expression marks, it is also necessary to make an additional and important distinction. There are several aspects of written music which can be notated easily and some that cannot be marked in the manuscript. These aspects include the primary and secondary forms of performance, the nuances and musical interpretations as accomplished through the natural and learned abilities and skills of the performer. Let’s look a little closer at this idea.

The Performer – It must be clearly understood, that a performer brings to the table their own unique skills and abilities. The collection of performance techniques, which are the tools of the performer, are used to assist them in attaining the emotional responses the composer seeks and which are written in the score of the music using various markings as guides as to which technique to use. The actual performance of the music is directly tied to the level of perfection of the performer’s abilities to produce the articulations or other techniques as they are written in the score, which are outwardly demonstrated as they sing or play their instrument and which, by the way, can range from mediocre at best to virtuosic in nature.

Also, performance marks are interpreted by the performer through the filters of their musical education as well as their actual skills and abilities as an instrumentalist or vocalist to be able to read and to accurately perform them. As they continue to practice and hone their art they become more capable of interpreting and transmuting the composer’s chosen musical symbols into a new and unique co-created form of the composition which comes to life during a live performance. The highest level of attainment of interpretation skills and performance abilities are known as virtuosic in nature and the performer is referred to as being a virtuoso performer of their chosen instrument or for vocalists their voice.

Further, as we become more and more familiar with a person’s style of playing or the unique characteristics of their voice, we are able to distinguish and to observe a performer’s individuality. As performers continue to master their instrument, art and craft, their individual sound develops, at its maximum, into a unique and characterized “sound”. This is an individual sound signature if you will where it belongs only to a specific and individual performer.

For example, when a person familiar with the voice of Barbara Streisand hears one of her songs played over the radio, the listener knows instantly that it is her voice and her voice alone. No one else in the entire world sounds like Barbara Streisand even if they try very hard to. Further, a person familiar with Korn, Kiss, Queen, the Beatles, Lady Ga Ga or any other band knows their unique sound and can recognize it immediately upon hearing a performance by them without the need to see them in actual performance. Of course, familiarity is the key in this factor.

Together – The individual and unique vocal “sound” coupled with the individual and unique tonal characteristics of musical instruments, the performers ability and capability of musical analysis and interpretation, the effectiveness of the application of the interpretation  (the actual performance), the actual quality of the music and the proper use of expression marks, symbols, words and phrases the composer has chosen for a musical work, collectively creates, when performed, a listening experience unique in any given moment and for any given composition. Sorry for the run-on sentence, but it was necessary. My English teacher is probably cringing right about now.

As one would guess it is imperative that the more complete a composer understands the collective factors and their respective influences on the end quality of the performance of their music, the greater the degree of satisfaction for the composer listening during the performance.

Expression in Music – Conclusion

The influences as described in this article begin our presentation about expression in music. This foundation of understanding also supports multiple areas of further study for the composer and for the performers of music, studies which could include instrument making, material science and acoustics for example. Since each plays major and important roles in the resulting sound characteristics and tonal color, as produced on the instrument by a performer, this global perspective can provide you solid reasons to pursue these studies. This perspective also provides the reasons for making the decision to pursue any or all of the aforementioned studies.

Secondly, the basis of sound character, tonal qualities or color and sound production (based upon performance technique), the skill and ability of the performer, all underlie and directly influence the principals and application of expression in music. We can now proceed with more details of the specifics of expression marks and their use in music composition. This concludes Part 23a in our mini-series on expressions in music.

There are four general categories of notation marks available to a composer, which require their own set of markings. These four categories of notation marks are performance techniques, tempo, dynamics and other marks.  References to existing articles will be provided during the course of this mini-series. Others, when added will also be linked for convenience.

To begin these presentations please proceed to Expression in Music – Categories – Part 23b where we will present an overview of the various categories of expression marks. Quick links to the other posts in this article series are as follows.

Scales in Music – a Tonal System

Music Theory – Level 3 – Articles

Expression in Music – Categories – Part 23b

Expression in Music – Words – Parts 23c

Expression in Music – Word List – Part 23d


Expression in Music – Part 23a.

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