Friday, 11 September 2009

A bit more on musicality

It seems that I can never be satisfied with just one post on a topic, I always have to go back for another bite at it.

I found that my inability to describe how to achieve musicality was a bit troubling - surely I can do better than that!

And I've concluded that there is one concept I mentioned in almost throwaway fashion which holds the key.


There are lots of definitions of "mimic", but I'll just take this one from the Free Dictionary

To copy or imitate closely, especially in speech, expression, and gesture.

A lot of music and dance is mimicry. Country dances where everyone is in step with each other, jazz jamming, little children learning nursery songs and all clapping their hands together at the same time. They are all forms of mimicry.

Paul McCartney hearing a skiffle band and wanting to take up guitar. Karaoke, people playing air guitar, professional orchestral musicians following the gestures of a conductor. Me hearing a recording of Dennis Brain playing the Mozart concertos and wishing I could do that. All mimicry in their own different ways.

Mothers and babies smiling and giggling at each other are a very important kind of mimicry. Not for nothing do we call such activities "getting in tune".

And music lessons. You are learning how to play what the teacher tells you, but more importantly shows you. You are learning to mimic your teacher. Not just in technique, but also (if your teacher knows his business) in style, in musicality.

Of course, musicality isn't quite just mimicry. Once you develop beyond a certain level, you learn not merely to imitate from one source, but to borrow from several, so that you develop your own unique and personal synthesis in your style of playing. You develop beyond merely doing what your teacher tells you to do and decide for yourself what will make a good shape to the next phrase you play.

But those decisions aren't based on the kind of rational thinking that enables you to calculate your monthly budget. The information you process is too extensive and amorphous for that. In essence, you are drawing on the experience of all the music you have ever heard or played in your life before (whether you consciously remember it or not) and as a result you decide that a phrase should be shaped in just this way, with the emphasis just there.

And you know, without quite knowing how or why, that doing it just that way will cause sadness, joy, excitement, calmness and a whole range of other emotions to be experienced by the audience. You induce them to mimic the emotions you express.


  1. Very nice points. Thanks again. Hope you keep coming back to this subject of musicality. These posts have been very helpful for me because while I've thought about much of what you're saying, using "musicality" as a general descriptor had never occurred to me, and it's very handy and helpful.

    About the mimicry - I briefly worked with some very young children this summer so they could sing with my group in church. Most were too young to read, so I taught the song by call and response. Visited their Sunday School class a couple of times and made a CD for them that had a track of me rhythmically chanting the lyrics with hand claps. On the recording of the performance was really amazed at how well they picked up on the subtle rhythms and vocal inflections I'd used. The intonation was all over the map, but the rhythm was solid and the words clearly understandable and very expressive.

    The other thing about the "mimicry" concept is that it's part of what a music therapist does when trying to engage a client in the process of making music. One way to do that is to try to mimic the client's emotional state with the music so as to make a connection, and to then move the music's emotional content in a therapeutic direction.

  2. Hi Lyle
    Thanks for responding. One thing I didn't bring out in that last post, but which you as a music therapist are probably aware of, is that ways of expressing emotions (e.g. facial expressions, body posture, tone of voice etc) aren't merely the outward expression of inner emotions, but that there is a complex feedback mechanism between one's physical posture and emotions. Your expression affects your emotion as well as vice versa.

    And if your expressions unconsciously mimic those of somebody else, and their expression is a reflection of their emotional state, and your emotional state is affected by your own expression picked up from them, it means that there is a chain of events that allows emotions to be communicated directly from person to person.

    The reason we find it hard to describe all this is that it's like an iceberg, it is mostly out of sight, operating at a level beneath the kind of conscious thought that is communicated using words.

    I suspect it is for this reason that musicality is not often directly taught - how do you find the words to describe non-verbal modes of thought? Instead, where the teachers are even aware of the issue, they just hope that the pupils will somehow pick it up as they go along.

  3. Jonathan - You've already given me more to ponder than I'll be able to get to and post on. It's really a treat for me reading your language on all these issues. It's interactions like this that really help me think and write more clearly about what I'm up to. Thanks.

  4. Lyle,
    Even though I wrote this in response to a suggestion from you, don't feel you need to respond to all of it. It's enough that you (and hopefully others) have found it informative and helpful. That's primarily why I'm writing this blog, to try and pass on what I know to others who will find it helpful, particularly things not covered well in music education.