There’s something rotten at the heart of musical education, in my view and I think it’s cultural in origin. Let me explain. So many musicians spend so much of their time reproducing musical pieces, rather than creating original musical works. Cover bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles – they’re all concerned with recreating the tempos and timbres of somebody else’s compositions as faithfully as possible. We get locked into this “human jukebox” mode at a very young age and it’s corrosive to creativity. But that’s not the main problem.
Musical education believes that sending kids home to learn technique by rote is a good way to educate them musically. I don’t agree. Music is nothing, if not a means of causing people to feel emotions in response to the music. It’s a rather magical process, actually. There is no telepathy or sacred ether involved. Everything that creates a feeling in the mind, body and soul of the listener was carried by sound waves. Vanilla sound waves. Plain, old, garden-variety ones. There is nothing else. It’s all about the way the music is played.
When a player or an entire orchestra is able to create an emotional response in listeners with facility, this is called expressive playing. The property of being expressive is called expressivity. We’d rather hear a piece of music played expressively but with the odd wrong note than a flawlessly executed, note-perfect, but bone arid and sterile piece, played without any emotional impact at all. As listeners, we value expressivity highly.
As music educators, we don’t teach it. There is a lot of mythologizing about expressive playing, but when it comes down to it, what you are trying to do is make sounds, with your instrument, that cause an emotional response in the listener. That has to be a learnable skill, just like playing in tune is. What else can it be? There is no actual magic or witchcraft at work here.
I think the root of our reticence to learn to play with emotional expression is a bias, in society, toward hiding one’s feelings. We fear being seen as weak or exploitable, if we wear our hearts on our sleeves, so we learn to control and hide our grief, joy, desire, lust, anger, envy and so on. Emotional people are thought to be somewhat suspect and inferior. Yet, as we have seen, in music it’s precisely what we need. We need musicians to pour emotion into their playing, in the hope that this emotion will transfer into playing technique and will hence result in creating sounds that will travel to your ear and have an emotional impact on you, the listener.
So, today, we have a musical education system that is good at churning out human juke boxes, but poor at teaching musical creativity or expressivity in performance. That’s a bad thing. To add to the problem, all of the digital audio workstation and musical sequencing software on the market today has very little support for adding expressivity in anything less than a manual, painstaking way. It’s all very unsatisfactory. Some DAWs have introduced articulation features, which help, but if you were to enter a score as musical notes, then press play, you would always get something dead and robotic sounding, irrespective of how good the sound samples used were. Orchestras actually add a lot that isn’t explicitly written down in the score. The score is actually only a partial representation of the music the composer intended. Good orchestras add the expression.
The only study I know of personally that addressed the problem of how to take a flat MIDI file (a computer file that carries the musical notes in a composition, sort of like a musical score) and crunch on it to make the music sound as if it was played more expressively, is one that was carried out by Dr Manfred Clynes, who I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of times. Manfred set about trying to characterise emotions by physical response. His study, which came to be known as Sentics, established physical response patterns for anger, love, joy and so on. The leap of imagination was to superimpose these characteristic emotional signatures on music, by computer-processing the flat file and adding the nuances. When the file is played back, it suddenly sounds expressive. It has to. It has had the emotional patterns injected into it. The effects are quite remarkable, considering that the input is a plodding, mechanical and dull musical score with very little articulation in it at all.
You can buy the programme that does this today. It’s called Superconductor 2 and it is available from Microsound Music. http://microsoundmusic.com/ It isn’t a plug in for a DAW, which is a pity, but it works on the musical score to impose emotional (sentic) patterns at a note, phrase, passage and movement level. The modifications are therefore somewhat fractal in nature, with the emotional pattern at a movement level superimposed on the patterns on each passage at a passage level, which overlays a phrase level emotional pattern, which finally overlays emotional patterns at the motif or even individual note level.
What are the parameters that the programme manipulates? Well, firstly it works on “accent”, by modifying the MIDI velocity parameter for each note, but according to the emotional contour of the pattern being injected as expressiveness into the music. Velocity and note volume are somewhat related, but another parameter modified is the timbre of the musical sound, so that the tonal shape of each note is modified to add expression to the playing. Usually this makes a sound range from mellow to bright and back again, whatever the instrument in question happens to be. The other thing that is subtly changed is the time position of notes in a bar. Not all musicians play in mathematically strict time (in fact, most of them don’t – sequencer software calls this variance “swing” or “humanize”, though this is a very crude method of warping the tempo grid). In fact, no human being plays like a computer sequencer, with every note having exactly the same weight and duration, spaced equally throughout a bar. They can’t.
You can think of tempo as a warped time grid, where notes move closer to each other in time, or further apart, depending on their position in the bar (their “groove”, by another name). Subtly stretching and compressing time, during the beat count of a bar, makes the music sound more expressive, especially when the tempo is adjusted according to one of these emotional signature patterns. Finally, the programme changes the depth and rate of any vibrato, dependent on the musical interval since the previous note and the emotional pattern superimposed on the music.
Listen to the results: http://wildfireweb.net/home/microsound/M4783FEMN.mp3
Remember, this is a computer playing. There are no real musicians involved.
What this example and many more I have heard (see http://microsoundmusic.com/mp3.html) prove to me is that the design of DAWs is all wrong, because they default to equal spacing and notes, of the same velocity. It’s their starting assumption and it produces music of the most lifeless character possible. In my view, a plug in that processed an equally spaced sequence of notes, all initially with the same velocity, which also had some knowledge of the structure of the piece and the emotional impact desired, would transform the working life of all computer musicians and composers.
It also proves to me that there is a systematic approach possible in teaching human players to convey emotion, in their performances. Some pick it up instinctually, of course, but why not lay out the secrets. Then, the individual musician can superimpose their own nuances and character on the expressivity of their playing technique, fully aware of what it is they are doing because of their theoretical and practical grounding. What we’ll get is music played more expressively, which will give every player and listener a more pleasurable, memorable, moving and emotionally affective experience. That has to be a good thing, surely.
Before we can achieve that, though, we’ll have to overcome our fear of displaying our emotional vulnerability in public and our unfortunate tendency to exploit and deride those with the courage to do so. It’s as much about culture as it is about music technology. It’s also better to teach a computer music sequencer how to add emotion to the music it plays than to train children to play music like so many mechanical-sounding, human jukeboxes, with no emotional content at all. That’s just a waste of brains. Reflexes would suffice.