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The Language of Music


Music is a language. Like spoken language, music is rhetorical. The language of music has grammar and punctuation. It has phrases and sentences, loud and soft, fast and slow, accents and dramatic silences. In speech and music alike, timing is everything.

As in speech, in music we need to distinguish ideas from one another. In either case we do so through emphasis and by articulating our ideas. We articulate both within an idea and between ideas. For the sake of simplicity, let's consider an "idea" a phrase, either a spoken phrase or a musical one.

If you ever hear someone ac-CENT the wrong syl-LA-ble, it's painfully obvious that they're not a native speaker. In music, we also need to know which notes are stressed and which are unstressed. There's a whole grammar behind stressed and unstressed notes which would be well beyond the scope of this lesson, though it's worth mentioning that people described as "musical" have a natural grasp of this musical language.

Articulation in both music and speech works similarly. Within a phrase, we need to find just the right amount of articulation so that it sounds natural, like a native speaker. If we over-articulate, our speech sounds unnatural and robotic. If we under-articulate and we don't pronounce our words clearly and our ideas run together without punctuation it's hard to understand what we're saying.

Music works in the same way. "Breathing" between phrases is a fundamental component of musical training. Good technique requires that we articulate musical ideas, that we breathe between phrases. Like in speech, we need to finish one thought before starting the next.

Playing a piece of music is thus a lot like giving a speech. Speakers who don't pause for breath in between sentences are difficult to follow and their speech is hard to understand. They fail to communicate their message. We leave feeling exhausted rather than informed or inspired.


Imagine if this speech had been delivered breathlessly, jumping from one sentence to the next without so much as the slightest pause, mindless of any punctuation:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi a state sweltering with the heat of injustice sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character I have a dream today!

Would this have become the most famous speech in the English language if Martin Luther King had delivered it breathlessly?

Why should it be any different for musicians?

"Breathing" at the piano

If you sing or play a wind or brass instrument, you breathe automatically. Controlling your breath is a major part of your musical training. Breaths are taken throughout each piece in places that make sense.

I once heard a performance of a virtuosic piece that forms the backdrop to a children's story, "Tubby the Tuba." The piece obviously made great demands on the tuba player, whose face turned beet red as he desperately awaited the opportunity to take a breath in the designated spot. "Oom-pah, oom-pah..." and then a loud gulp of air!

On the piano, taking the equivalent of a breath needs to be trained. Unlike our lungs, our hands can keep going without a break. The pianist's equivalent to a singer's breath is lifting the wrists off the keyboard.

We should get into the habit of "breathing" with the wrists in between phrases, as well as between musical ideas within a phrase. Doing so makes our playing so much more musical. It signals to the listener that we have completed a musical thought. It gives the listener a brief moment to absorb one musical idea before hearing the next one.

(There is an exception called an elision, in which the last note of one phrase is simultaneously the first note of the next phrase.)

One exercise that can help you develop a natural sense of breathing at the piano... is literally breathing at the piano. When you reach the end of a phrase, actually take a breath, not just a simulated breath with your wrist, but an actual breath with your lungs. Imagine that you're singing or playing a wind instrument. What would you do naturally? This is what you should imitate at the piano.

Good luck and happy practicing!

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