Teaching Music Interpretation

2011 Symposium2

Interpretation is included in the anchor standards for both performing and responding to music found in the national core arts standards. Interpretation is closely tied to expressive intent, which is what the composer intended to express in a particular musical work. This aspect of interpretation is important, because it gives the interpreter a starting place in forming an interpretation of someone else’s created artistic work. When the composer’s intent is considered, the interpretation cannot be a free for all in which the performer has license to do anything and everything he or she wants. The whole idea that a composer wrote a piece of music with a purpose to express something requires that anyone setting out to prepare a performance of that musical work has a responsibility to determine what that composer’s intent was, and to use interpretation to communicate that intent through the performance. The conveying of a composer’s expressive intent is the objective side of interpreting and artistic work. It prevents a performer from, for example, playing Bach’s “Air” (on the g string) on a distortion electric guitar backed by a full rock band. The expressive intent aspect of interpretation makes it the interpreter’s first job to determine what that intent was, and then to work from there. The expressive intent, if determined accurately, will be the same or similar for all performers for a given musical work.

If that is so, then why aren’t all interpretations highly similar or even identical? The answer is because there is a second aspect of interpreting, and that is the expressive intent of the performer. Musicians respond to a musical work with emotions and connections to their own experiences, just as listeners for whom the work will be performed do. In the act of conveying a composer’s expressive intent, each performer will pour into that conveyance a bit of themselves; their emotional understanding and their influences from life and musical experiences. While one musician may play Bach’s air with joy because he or she remember it being played at his or her wedding, another may play it with sorrow because he or she remembers it being played at a loved one’s funeral. Both are consistent with the music as Bach wrote it; however the original was in D major and written for the entire string section of an orchestra, not for a solo instrument, and not for playing entirely on the G string. The highly personal expression of a soloist is quite different from the collaborative expression of a string orchestra, which allows for a wider dynamic range, higher voicing, and ultimately greater expression. A solo performance in the original key ofMusical-Balance D major,and not transposed down an octave as the “on the G string” version in C major is, comes closer to Bach’s intent. Such a performance would also be a good example of how a composers’s intent combines with a performer’s intent to create a unique yet appropriate interpretation.

Interpretation is not just a matter for performers. It is also something that listeners and respondents to music do. The same two elements are in force: the composer’s expressive intent and the performer’s expressive intent crafted together into an interpretation. Because a listener is not producing musical sound, but perceiving and responding to it, his or her part in interpreting is to understand what the composer and performer, in their collaboration, intended or are intending to express. This becomes a bit tricky, because it can be very difficult to separate the two intents. As with the performer’s interpretation, the listener begins with knowledge of the musical work. The listener gathers understanding through analysis. This analysis can be as simple as identifying the the era in which the music was composed (baroque, classical, romantic, etc.) and calling to mind the conventions of expression typically used in that era, or as complex as a study of the harmony used and how it contributes to patterns of stress and relaxation. Expression that goes beyond or outside of the conventions can confidently be assigned to the performer, while expressions perceived directly from the use of musical elements such as melodic contour, pitch selection, and rhythms can undoubtedly be attributed to the composer. Elements such as tempo and dynamics can be attributed to either if the listener knows what the composer indicated. The net result of analysis and listening is a listener’s perception of an interpretation. The listener can then evaluate the interpretation, determining if what the performer did was in line with what the composer wrote. When the two are compatible, the result is a great interpretation, and one that moves us emotionally and leaves us with a memorable musical experience.

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