Issues With Expressive Intent in the Core Arts Standards

2011 Symposium2

One of the pervasive threads that is woven through the national core arts standards under the artistic processes of performing and of responding, is the idea of interpreting based on an expressive intent. The pertinent anchor standard for responding is “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” For third grade, the performance standard is to “demonstrate and describe how the expressive qualities are used in performers’ interpretations to reflect expressive intent.” It is very easy to believe and to tell our students, as I have done often, that music expresses feelings and emotions, that those feelings and emotions are expressed by a composer, and that it is part of the performers job to pick those feelings and emotions up and pass them along to an audience through the way they play or sing that composer’s music. The problem is, how do we know what emotions and feelings a composer, particularly of instrumental music, was intending to convey through his or her music, and how do we know that the feelings and emotions we feel when we hear the music, or perceive but don’t feel when we hear the music, are the same feelings and emotions that the composer intended for us to perceive and/or feel? There simply is no way of knowing. We are working on the assumption that if a group of students or professional musicians agrees that a certain bit of music is angry, or melancholy, or bursting with happiness, that this is what the composer meant the music to communicate. But absent some sort of statement from the composer, we can only guess at what his or her expressive intent is because music cannot as precisely express the same emotion to everyone as, for example, “I love you” or “I hate you” expresses specific emotions, though still individually nuanced.

When a group of people agree that a musical work sounds happy, or sad, or angry or what have you, these are only general labels for emotions that have many gradations. For example, sadness may be of the kind more specifically described as melancholy, despairing, disappointed, lonely, let down, and so forth. Studies have shown that there is not reliable agreement among people who agree that a bit of music is sad as to which type of sadness the music expressed. Because of this, a composer’s expressive intent ends up being a highly subjective thing and one that can vary from one group of listeners to another, or even from one listener to another within the same group, if the feeling or emotion is narrow enough, such as the lonely sort of sadness.

The problem of finding a composer’s expressive intent is compounded when one considers that all of these difficulties that face the listener also confront the performers, from whose performance the listeners are supposed to learn the composer’s expressive intent. It becomes something like a child’s game of telephone, where a simple word or phrase is secretly passed around a circle of players until the last person says out loud what they heard. Everyone has a good chuckle because the word or phrase has invariably been misheard many times so that the final result is nothing like the word or phrase that began the game. So it is with a composer’s expressive intent. Performers who cannot be certain of the intent agree on what they think it is and pass it on to an audience. Some of those in the audience grow up to be professional musicians, who, based on their listening and performing experience, present the same work to another audience with a somewhat different interpretation. Interpretations of works written hundreds of years ago continue to be performed and recorded, all the time being reinterpreted. Most of these interpretations demonstrate a high level of musicianship, excellence, and I dare say expressiveness, but perhaps they have, over the generations, strayed further and further from, or inadvertently stumbled precisely on the composer’s expressive intent.

Where does this leave us? Of what use is a composer’s expressive intent if we cannot discover it? I propose that exactly because we cannot be sure of a composer’s expressive intent, we ought not to claim that we know it, nor should we make demonstrating or describing it a standard to be met with our students. Instead, unless we can ask a living composer or infer from the composer’s documented words, we ought to think of expressive perception. The standard becomes more serviceable if it were “demonstrate and describe how the expressive qualities are used in performers’ interpretations to reflect your expressive perceptions. Without knowing for sure what a composer or even performers intended to express, we cannot know if the conveyance of an expressive intent was successful. We can, though, know how the performance affected us individually, and through discussion in what ways it affected individuals in our group similarly. This approach allows us to discuss the specific nuances of each listener’s interpretation with reliability and precision. If we want to bring the composer’s intention into the conversation, we can do so honestly, in the context of speculation based on how we interpret the music, rather than on a statement based on speculation and masquerading as  fact.

Though learning a composer’s expressive intent is difficult at best and often impossible, learning performers’ expressive intent is more manageable. This is an area where the educational programs of symphony orchestras and chamber musicians can be a great asset. At performances and masterclasses for students, these musicians ought to share with their young audiences what they are trying to express and communicate through their performance of the repertoire they are presenting. If done before the performance, it would serve to educate the listeners on how the “expressive elements” of music are used to convey a specific intent. If done after the performance, and after the performers have asked the students what they think the expressive intent of the performance was, then it would be either encouraging if the students agreed, or eye-opening if they did not. Annotators writing program notes for classical audiences would also do well to consult with the conductor of the orchestra, or the musicians of a chamber group to ascertain the expressive intent, and then include it in the printed material the audience will read before the concert. In this way, the intended musical communication would more reliably take place.

Finally, I have not yet mentioned music with lyrics. Popular music, opera and classical art music are among this type of music. Where there are words sung to the music, the expressive intent is more certain. The listener can easily interpret or even know what emotions and feelings are being expressed simply by considering the words being sung. Here the composer’s expressive intent can be known with substantial confidence. The problem here is that the discussion turns soley to the words while ignoring the music. In these cases, it is good to explore how the music expresses the meaning of the words. If the lyric is “I’m lost without you” then how does the music express what it feels to be lost and alone; how are musical elements used to express these feelings? The opposite can also be of educational value. Present to the students a melody only, perhaps even a well known bit of Beethoven or Bach, and have them write lyrics that are of the same feelings that they hear in the music. Still another approach is to present students with a lyric and have them write a melody that expresses the feelings of the lyric, and then to explain how they used musical elements to complete the task. These activities will give students first-hand experience with expressive intent that is tangible and not left to guessing.


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