Musicality and Interpretation

We can analyse and dissect the different components of musical interpretation in the same way that we analyse and dissect the elements of Instrumental Technique and Musical Language.

When we watch a musician play, it looks as though it is the fingers, hands and arms that are playing the instrument. Of course, it does take a lot of work to train them in these skills, and the question of how to play the instrument “well” technically is an enormous field of study (see Instrumental Technique). But what is it that converts good technical playing into powerfully communicative music-making? And, going deeper still, why play well – or even why play music at all ? These are much bigger and more important questions. Here we are entering into the twin domains of musicality and interpretation, which then lead us into the larger fields of psychology and philosophy.


Music, (especially “classical” music ??), is philosophy without words: a search for meaning, beauty, pleasure, harmony, understanding, timelessness and universality. It is also a form of mind-body therapy through which we – both players and listeners – unite our physical, intellectual (thinking), spiritual, and feeling selves into one, finding emotional release and intense human contact and communication. It is, hopefully, these “higher” objectives, rather than a simple desire to entertain, please, or impress someone with our mechanical skill, that inspire us to play “better”, to improve our technique and in fact, to play music at all. Stephen Isserlis likes to say “don’t play like a cellist”!

Musicality, like philosophy perhaps, can be usefully subdivided into two overlapping areas: emotional and intellectual. These are the Yin and Yang of music. We can see this best by looking at the extremes of each. At one extreme are musicians who are very “musical” in an intellectual way but don’t show much personal emotional involvement. At the other extreme are those who are very musical in an intense, intuitive, passionate, personal and emotional way but with less intellectual contribution to their expressivity. To simplify greatly we could differentiate between the intellectual “interpreter” and the emotional “performer”. Fortunately in music, there is not only room for both, but in fact a definite need for both these extremes …… and for everything in between.

Actors, like musicians, also operate between these two opposite poles of emotionality and intellectualism, using their intellectual knowledge (in addition to their emotional instincts) to improve their performance skills.

Intellectual musicality seeks to maximise expressivity and communication through exploiting to the maximum the knowledge and study of the music in terms of phrasing, musical styles, form, structure, articulations etc. This is an expressivity that comes from thinking about music. Keyboard players, conductors and composers are often the most strongly intellectual musicians. These are the experts in the skills of “Musical Language“.

Emotional musicality is a more personal, individual way of expressing music. Rather than thinking about music, the emotive musician feels it, in a powerful, emotional way. Singers are very often the ultimate emotional musicians, with string players tending to be somewhere more in the middle. Certainly in Europe, people from the hotter countries tend to be more emotional than intellectual in comparison with people from colder countries (with the exception of Russia!).

Most of the greatest musicians however use lots of both ingredients – combining intelligence and emotivity as in a sweet and sour sauce. This is why, throughout history, there have been so many wonderful Jewish musicians, and also why so many fine musicians are originally (even if only genetically) from hot-country cultures but have been trained in colder countries thus acquiring both aspects of musicality. Taking a northern musican to spend time in Naples (or to Latin America) for a time is probably equally as beneficial as taking a Napolitano musician to Northern Europe. See also Think/Feel and Mind/Body

This personal, emotive musicality has everything to do with how we feel, and not just about music. An emotional approach to music uses music to express how we feel in our deepest inner self about almost everything that is important to us. Therefore we will discuss this enormous field under the heading Psychology.


We can study any language (musical or spoken) in an academic/intellectual way (with books, scores etc), but no amount of study can replace the benefits (and pleasure) of actually using the language in real-life situations. In the same way that “conversation” is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn a foreign language, playing chamber music is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn to understand the musical language (and thus develop musicality).

It is very easy, when studying a foreign language, to learn loads of grammar and vocabulary but still have enormous difficulties maintaining a conversation and understanding what other people are saying. This is usually simply a question of lack of experience (or opportunity), and is easy to resolve. The same phenomenon can occur with musicians when we don’t play enough with others: we are concentrating exclusively on ourselves and are not used to listening to what the other people are saying (or playing). Playing chamber music is simultaneously the ultimate learning experience for acquiring fluency in the musical language and the ultimate test of our musical knowledge and understanding.


The more intellectual, consciously learned aspects of musicality and interpretation will be discussed under the heading Musical Language.

“Interpretation” refers to how we will play the notes that the composer has written. But here this word “how” refers not to the mechanics but rather to the emotional and intellectual meaning we give to them. This is what makes the notes come alive and is what makes the difference between a computer (MIDI, Finale, Sibelius) performance and a human one. It is that world of difference between seeing the written word on a page and then hearing it spoken, between reading a play (theatre piece) and hearing it performed, between reading the screenplay and seeing the film.

Psychologists say that, even in a verbal conversation, 90% of the communication is non-verbal. The sound of the voice, the vocal inflexions, the eye contact and the body language all communicate much much more than the words that are being said. The same principle applies to music. Here, the notes are equivalent to the words and we could say that 90% of the communication comes not from the notes themselves, but rather from how we play them. The most beautiful words (notes) can be said (played) in such a way as to lose all meaning. Likewise, the most simple and ordinary words (notes) can be said (played) in such a way as to make them beautiful, powerful, and meaningful. This is interpretation: that personal, human content – emotional, spiritual and intellectual – that we give to the notes over and above the “simple” mechanical act of sounding the correct ones beautifully and at the correct time.


Without “interpretation”, even a masterwork played perfectly can be made to sound boring. Likewise, even the most simple music can be made wonderful if it is both played and interpreted well. Cecilia Bartoli’s recording “Se Tu M’ami” (If You Love Me) is a fine example of this. In Cecilia Bartoli’s hands, songs that were traditionally used as simple studies, are made to sound like the most wonderful music ever written. Many people have beautiful singing voices but the wonders of this recording are largely due to her wonderful, inspired interpretation.


Composers normally give a lot of information to guide us with interpretation, but they can’t indicate everything (even though some do try). A large part of interpretation will always have to come from our own personal emotional and intellectual input. Whereas we seldom change the notes that the composer has written, we always have a significant margin of freedom with which to interpret, ignore, imagine, invent or reinvent the composers’ instructions (performance indications).  As a general rule, the older the music is, the less interpretative instructions it will have. Bach gave virtually none which is why there is such a huge, magnificent variety in the way his music (especially the Solo Suites) are interpreted.


Our interpretative toolbox is actually not very large. Our interpretative choices – intuitive or consciously decided – are basically limited to the following four areas:

  1. Rhythm (Choice of Tempi and Rubato)
  2.            Colour (Sound and Vibrato)
  3.             Articulations
  4.               Dynamics

Even though this toolbox appears small, just like a painter’s three primary colours it allows us to create a whole universe of musical effects, not the least of which is that cornerstone of interpretation: