The Art of Interpretation

Music teachers at Juilliard teach the art of interpretation first by instilling a mastery of the range of the instrument.  Production of sound from a violin, for instance, depends on a number of dimensions that an expert violinist has exacting control over – bow-speed, bow-pressure, bow-position, vibrato, intonation, note-entry, note-exit, to name a few.  They assign exercises to gain full control over these dimensions, so that the expert violinist can reproduce the full range of sounds at the drop of a hat.  After this, the teachers develop a student’s sensitivity to the way in which choosing different combinations of sounds in these dimensions express emotion.  This is probably the harder art, in comparison to mere sound production, and is more properly the art of interpretation (whereas the former is the art of execution).  There are a variety of ways that singers communicate emotion via sound.  For the sake of organization, though there is a lot of grey area, they can be divided into two categories – melodic and non-melodic.

Phrasing is the melodic form of interpretation, and is for the most part, the domain of instrumental musicians – it’s the kind of phrasing that is more strictly taught at Juilliard.  It involves a kind of logic of connecting notes in a melody together to create continuous phrases, so that the melody reads to the listener as unified set of statements.  In different words, it’s a way of wielding the aforementioned dimensions in such a way as to make the notes “make sense” as an intelligible communicated emotion to the listener.  Most popular musicians have a rudimentary skill in phrasing.  Phrasing is, essentially, what Harry Connick Jr. complains about on American Idol – though it should be noted, that Harry Connick Jr. is not especially skilled at the art of phrasing.  The difficulty of phrasing is amplified when you deal with more complicated chord progressions and melodies.  This is why classical musicians are especially adept at the art of phrasing.

The non-melodic form consists of a variety of what i’ll call “emotion-tics” which people use to express emotion in normal everyday conversation.  These include things like inflection, pronunciation, voice cracks, non-tonal vocalizing, and the like.  If you listen to people emote when they talk to one another, in a variety of emotional circumstances, you can start to pick up on what these emotion-tics are, and how they are translated into music.  Classical musicians actually incorporate things like this in their playing.  Popular singers usually will incorporate a few popularized tics in their vocals – voice cracks, vocal fry and cutesy sweeping – as a rote way of communicating certain discrete emotions.  Public speakers and lawyers will sometimes try and incorporate these tics into their speaking – though to usually awkward results.  There are likely entities that fit somewhere in between phrasing and emotion-tics – the classic Frank Sinatra dips are somewhere in that grey area.

All of these forms of emoting are of a kind in that they are all genuinely forms of expressing something, as opposed to telling you that something is the case.  (Though there are complications with this distinction too).  Reading a review that a piece of music IS expressive in various ways, is a form of telling you that it has those feelings, but it doesn’t express the emotion in the music.  Even an emotion tic expresses emotion, as the person listening to the music feels the emotion by hearing the music, and by way of a kind of sympathy.

If you listen to most popular singers, and if you have a good enough ear, you should be able to deconstruct their use of emotion-tics quite easily.  Generally singers will use a small handful of them in predictable ways, partly as a way of trying to enforce a “signature sound”, vocally speaking.  If you have years of training and a good ear, you should start to be able to understand the relative phrasing mastery of musicians.  A master of phrasing will be able to listen to a sung phrase, and offer up a number of other renditions of the melody, which all “make sense” – or at the very least will be able to listen to the phrase, and offer up a better rendition which is more compelling.  Good phrasing, and more generally good interpretation is the mark of an emotionally sophisticated musician, though unfortunately, phrasing and interpretation is being taught less and less these days.  This is a basic schematic of the art, which I will update from time to time.