Musical/Emotional Awareness – 1st in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

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The 7 parts of musical intelligence

Musical/Emotional Intelligence

Musical/Emotional Intelligence – The “Expression” in Music as Interpreted or Felt by a Performer/Audience

This post represents the detailed continuation of a subject introduced in a previous post, The Seven Types of Musical Intelligence.

Being able to separate the various “skills” required to perform music well, a player can analyze which aspects of their ability require improvement and which are robust.

The 7 Intelligences are key tools for improving performance of any musical passage in a holistic way.

By highlighting each skill as you practice music, you will be better equipped to solve difficult sections.

As a quick reminder, the 7 Intelligences are:

1. Body/Breath
2. Rhythmic/Dance
3. Finger/Hand
4. Pitch/Aural Memory
5. Visual/Written Notes
6. Theoretical/Structural
7. Musical/Emotional

Musical intelligence unifies the experience of music. Music’s emotional content is perhaps the most primary and all encompassing of all. It is the one skill to which all the others are subject.

Moving beyond pitches, notes, rhythm and theory lies this abstract experience of the music- how it moves the listener. However, emotional content is difficult to discuss since it is a “subjective” experience, meaning that each listener or performer may construct a slightly different personal experience, even for the same music.

So how can it be musical/emotional intelligence be taught if it is so difficult to express?

Starting with the Basics...

Let us begin with the simple example of a single note.

A lone concert C, right in the middle of the piano is capable of almost any musical mood. It could repeat - creating a tension as to when it may move; it could move to any other note, at any distance - creating an almost infinite number of “experiences”.

Perhaps the C moves up to a G which is five notes north. Nearly anyone listening will then experience an “expectation” that it will return to C at some point. This expectation is partially set up by its moving up. What goes up...should come down.

The tension from C to G is also set up by musical historical tradition. Almost any music from the classical era of Haydn and Mozart uses the change from the “tonic” to the “dominant” - the fifth note in the scale, - to build and release tension in the listener’s experience.

A single C has potential to form part of numerous chords, each of which will have an emotional quality: “happy”, “sad”, “tense”, “mellow”.

As chords move from one to another, each unique combination, repetition or change from a pattern set up will affect the emotional experience.

This illustration should enable you to understand why music has the power to arouse nearly any variation of emotion, excitement, anticipation and satisfaction whether through merely hearing or playing.

And Putting the Concepts to Work in Context...

As a general rule, performers tend to focus on the technical aspects of the music. After all, if the notes and rhythms are incorrect, the emotion cannot be experienced - at least, not as the composer may have intended!

Paradoxically, the emotional content of music gives us many more clues than we may realize as to the technical skills required to play a phrase of music well.

I recommend singing out loud and conducting any music you are practicing. My suggestion may sound insultingly simple but the emotional expression of the voice and the dancing motions of conducting are more intuitive than playing through an instrument.

To clarify my argument, I’m going to use the first phrase of the Rondo movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto:

mozart clarinet concerto 3rd mvt. excerpt

The first “gesture” is already upbeat. Literally! We are asked to stand and join in the fun. Then three repeated notes set up a dance rhythm - a fast waltzy feeling. The second beat sixteenths are “wobbly” - unsure as to direction and landing finally on more solid ground in the second bar.

The pickup to the third bar is a relative shock. Starting from much higher and descending playfully to much lower than before. The dancer is wide awake and skipping across the room.

The first bar gesture is then repeated but with an upbeat “question” in the sixth bar which is answered with a tumbling gesture down to earth once more.

Without knowing anything about music, anyone can understand the playfully mischievous emotions in this first phrase.

With forethought of the emotional mood and gestural expression of it, almost any player will approach that phrase with a very light touch and smiling! By doing so, the battle of technical gestures has already softened.

With a lifted, lightness in the air and the feeling of up, up, up in repeated eighths or sixteenths, any attempt at articulation will have a more valid “spirit” to it than looking on it as “fast notes tongued”.

Thinking about the emotional content and its accompanying gestures as you approach any and all music is not only enjoyable but also FUN!

Remember that not all pieces will be upbeat like the Mozart. It doesn’t matter whether it be sad, happy, melodramatic, tragic, pained, heavy or meditative. The language of the music must be felt in order to be communicated to your audience!

Any music will be better understood in ALL aspects if it is first perceived in the direct connection between YOU and the musical emotion expressed in the music.

Practice: A musical story...

Write a descriptive page using characters to represent each theme’s emotional picture and detail how themes interact and develop as well as how the mood changes from section to section.

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? Please consider joining the Musician Practice Café.

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5 comments for “Musical/Emotional Awareness – 1st in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

  1. October 6, 2010 at

    This post is useful, inspiring, and insightful. It is wonderful to have such communication with another musician via blogpost-Reading such a post as this allows one to see, to experience, to feel, the immediacy and intimacy of this form of communication. I love the meditative aspect of your remarks on the expressive quality of even a single tone. In my as yet-unpublished (blog lingo "unposted") handbook for practicing musicians the first of 12 chapters is called "The Single Tone"-It fascinates me how we can "express" with a single tone-the range of expression that is possible. Instructive in this regard is the singing of a mourning dove who almost always ends his tune with the repetition of a single tone….Sometimes the single tone constitutes his entire song or "message" –
    I believe it is most important for us, as performers, to remind ourselves that our primary "job" is to be messengers.
    Thank you for this post. It is a blessing.

    • October 7, 2010 at

      Beautiful comment Wayne. I am guessing that your calm, meditative style of writing is probably matched in your playing. Thank you.

  2. October 4, 2010 at

    I haven't been able to check in for the last few days, but it turns out that this is almost exactly in line with a new (to me) teaching idea that I've been using recently. Rather than get caught up in all the technical "stuff" I'm reducing each phrase to one or two notes per bar. With those few notes I or my students can practice just the shape of the air. After that comes the technical detail, but this gets the foundation of the phrase in place before getting caught up in too many technical issues. This also teaches people a little about music theory without getting into too much discussion right off the bat.

  3. September 30, 2010 at

    My favorite quote: "Music is the shorthand of emotion." – Leo Tolstoy.

    • September 30, 2010 at

      I love that. Thanks. I'm going to tweet it now.

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