Musical Expressions

Guidelines to Musical Expression

Expression makes music meaningful in the same way as changes in the way we talk give meaning to our words. When we talk, we add inflexion to our voices - rises and falls of volume and breathing breaks, as well as changes in pitch. We can give very different messages to our listeners using the same words. If we talk with a monotone (no variation), people struggle to follow what we are saying – and quickly give up trying. With music, different uses of expression tell different stories, carrying different moods or feelings to our audience.

Similarly, composers’ works have different characteristics, almost like the accents and dialects of speech. Just like we can recognise a friend’s voice on the phone, we can recognise a composer’s style by how they use clarity, intensity and phrasing of notes – the things each typically ‘says’ – and each pianist needs to come to ‘know the voice’ of each composer. A musical pianist imitates the composer’s voice, combining this with his or her own.

Although there is variety in the voice of composers, there are some common rules (like rules of grammar) that are used to code these voices – rules that we use to read the music score and guide the expression in our piano playing. Some of these rules are explained below.

Dynamic Markings: (including ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, rf, sfz) give instructions about how loud or soft to play a section of music – e.g. p uses less speed when pressing the keys, thereby producing a softer sound. Dynamic markings are the most obvious signs of expression.

Melodic Shaping: Melodies are a chain of notes that sound pleasing when sung or played one after the other. Melodies move up and down between notes, creating a contour of highs and lows. Often, as notes become higher in pitch, the volume also increases and as notes move lower, the volume decreases. It is good to explore matching the shape with the volume to see if this adds character to the music. The highest note in a phrase is often the climax. Playing the highest note slightly louder and longer can bring it out even more.

Accents: Accents (a small arrow sign at the head of a note >) and tenuto marks ( _ ) show that a note is to be played slightly louder or with more resonance than those on either side.

Crescendo and Decrescendo: Written as cresc. or decresc. or as crocodile jaws, these signs mean to gradually decrease (decresc.) or increase (cresc.) the volume of a section.

Rhythmic Form: For most genres of music (excluding some jazz and folk dances), the first note of each bar is slightly stronger / louder than the other notes in the bar.

Long Slurs: Rainbow-shaped marks, that cover a long chain of notes, indicate sounds that belong together – like a sentence. The notes underneath long slurs are played smoothly, with a slight lifting of the hand off the keys at the end of the slur. Long slurs often cover notes that form the melody.

Short Slurs: Small rainbow-shaped marks, that cover two or three different notes, indicate a heavier drop of the hand onto the first note and a rolling of the hand up and off the last note.

Harmonies: The harmony is the group of notes that support the melody, creating a sense of mood. Harmonies have ‘voices’, just like melodies. The strong notes of harmonies are easier to find by playing accompaniment notes as block chords and listening very carefully. The strong harmony notes need to be shaped in the same way as the melody.

Ornaments: There are many different types of ornaments. They are sometimes written as small notes beside other notes, or with small, wavy signs above notes – depending on the extra notes to be added. Ornaments add expression by directing attention to the following notes and increasing the layers of sound.

Repetition: When a series of notes is immediately repeated, the second time is either like an echo (played more quietly) or the reinforcement of an idea (played a little louder).

Period and Style: Because of culture and the features of the keyboard instrument over time, each period of music has different characteristics of expression, adding to the distinctive voices of the composers. Earlier instruments had lighter sounds. Depth of sound was produced by the layering of notes and by ornamentation. Later instruments were capable of more variation and thicker tones. Composers wrote according to the capabilities of the available instruments and it is the modern pianist’s task to imitate or interpret these qualities.

Keys to Expression - In Practice

Because of the mechanical construction of the piano, there are three basic ways to produce expressive shadings. (The 4 different pedal types also change the character of sound, but this is another subject.)

Press keys faster, using more finger acceleration and arm weight, to create louder volumes and accents.
Clarity is affected by the speed of lifting the fingers off the keys. Lift fingers more quickly to produce a crisper sound.
The angle of the fingers, when they hit the keys, influences the tone. The tips of well-bent fingers are best for producing the precise sounds of the earlier composers (e.g. Bach). The pads of the fingers, from flatter fingers, are excellent for more mellow sounds and smooth, singing melody lines – like those typical of Chopin and other Romantic composers.

Experiment with touching the keys using different actions. Listen carefully to the sounds you make. Expressive control and interpretation is a life-long journey of the musician. Good control of music sounds both natural and passionate – it represents the deepest experiences of being human. It is a wonderful journey.