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What Is Musical Interpretation?


Musical interpretation is, in a word, storytelling. In a story, there are characters—in music, themes. In a story there is development—in music, variations on a theme, ornamentation, harmonic tension. In a story, there are scenes; in music, sections. In a classical story, the hero rescues the fair maiden and returns home victorious to live happily ever after; in a Classical sonata, the main theme—the "hero," if you will—returns in the recapitulation and brings the contrasting secondary theme triumphantly into the home key.

For a story to come to life, it needs to be told. Some stories are told by a narrator, while others are performed by actors, each playing a role. When we play a solo work, we're like a narrator telling the story. When we play with other musicians, each one is akin to an actor on the stage.

Is music a language?

To interpret music, we need two fundamental things. First and foremost, we need to speak the musical language. To tell a story, we need to speak the language, and music is a kind of language. It might not literally be a "language"—it might not satisfy the criteria for "language" by professors of linguistics—but it does have grammar, inflection, articulation, phrases and sentences. For our practical purposes, we can consider harmony a language, one with its own logic and rules.

Understanding the rules of language is a prerequisite to communicating, but they are not enough by themselves. The language needs to be brought to life.

Objective and subjective components to interpretation

Many people assume that the arts are entirely subjective, but that would be an oversimplification. An art such as music has both objective and subjective aspects, and the division between them is by no means always black and white. Rules of composition and playing are towards the objective end of the spectrum.

Some rules are explicitly written, while others are implied. Whether explicit or implicit, these rules are objective in themselves, but what they mean is subjective.

  • For example, forte is louder than piano. How much louder is subjective.
  • Allegro is faster than adagio. How much faster is subjective.
  • An accent means to emphasize a note dynamically. How much louder we play that note, and how we emphasize it, are subjective. Do we take a slight amount of time before or after the accented note? Do we play the surrounding notes softly in order to focus attention on the accented note?

Musical grammar

There are also aspects of playing music that form a sort of grammar. These are typically not notated—the composer expects us to "speak" the language and read between the lines. Maybe you've heard someone ac-CENT the wrong syl-LA-ble—or maybe you've done so yourself when learning a foreign language. In music, some notes are naturally emphasized while others are weaker. Some notes are connected to others, the way syllables form words. We need to become fluent in this musical language if our playing is to sound natural. Playing music is not a matter of "anything goes," any more than I can pronounce any words of this sentence in any arbitrary way.

In language, letters form syllables, syllables form words, words form phrases, phrases form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, and so on. In music, notes form motives, motives form ideas, ideas form melodies, melodies form phrases, phrases form themes, themes form groups, groups form sections, and so on. As interpreters, it is our task to grasp what makes up the pieces we play so that we can tell an often wordless story through sound. Who are the main characters? What are the main themes? It's impossible to imagine an effective performance of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata by a player who failed to recognize that this colossal work is fundamentally "about" the conflict between B-flat major and B minor, and the primary motive is the falling third. That would be like reciting the words to Romeo and Juliet but failing to notice the relationship between the title characters.

We also need to know where we are in the structure of the piece so that we can build the drama to a climax and resolve the harmonic and rhythmic tension in a musical denouement.


The second fundamental thing we need to interpret music is an understanding of style. When was the music written? What were the performance practices of the day? How fast is "allegro"?

What instrument(s) was it written for? What did they sound like at the time, and what might that imply for our performance on a modern instrument? For example, Bach did see and praise early pianos by Gottfried Silbermann (after criticizing his initial attempts), although Bach did not compose music for the piano but rather for harpsichord, clavichord and organ. Early pianos, for that matter, did not have sustain pedals. Some modern interpreters, such as Andràs Schiff, take that to mean that we should never use the sustain pedal when playing Bach, while others, such as Daniel Barenboim, prefer to make use of the sonic resources of our modern instrument. This is an example where there actually is an objective answer—Bach did not have a sustain pedal—yet subjectively it can be legitimate to choose to use it. This is an aesthetic decision. (Personally, I do use some pedal in Bach, in pieces such as the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier or the theme of the Goldberg Variations; I'd avoid using it in overtly contrapuntal pieces such as fugues.)

Some interpreters insist that historical music should only be performed on the original instruments for which it was written. This is also an aesthetic decision, and clearly it has merit—after all, the composer could hardly have imagined the sound of modern instruments centuries in the future—although it's admittedly a very limiting one. Should we really police which instruments are "allowed" to play which music? This is the equivalent of historical renditions of Shakespeare plays that attempt to recreate the original pronunciation and accents of Elizabethan English. Other theater directors modernize Shakespeare, and some even use it as the basis for entirely new works. Bernstein's West Side Story, which takes Romeo and Juliet as its inspiration, is one example of an original musical and literary work.

In the end, interpretive decisions have to be made. Somebody needs to play Hamlet. Should British or American English be used? Modern or historical pronunciation? Should the setting be as authentic as possible, or should the characters be transported to the modern world?

In music, we also need to make interpretive decisions. Creative artists cultivate ambiguity—a work of art lends itself to interpretation. How many movies spark debate because they leave important questions open (not to mention lead to sequels)?

Being subject to interpretation hardly means that anything goes. We should make an honest effort to ascertain the artist's intentions and try our best to carry them out, but that still leaves plenty of room for our own creativity.

This, then, is the essence of interpreting music. We learn the basic grammar—the language of music—then try to grasp the style. There's practically limitless room for individual expression within the language and style of music, and plenty of open questions too. Good luck with your interpretations, and happy practicing!

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