Expressivity and Emotion in Music

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.  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:

Remember, this is a computer playing.  There are no real musicians involved.

What this example and many more I have heard (see 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.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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4 Responses to Expressivity and Emotion in Music

  1. Clare De Mayo says:

    I hate to disagree with you here, but I think it is even worse for a computer to ‘fake up’ emotion or expressivity. Surely the whole point is that it is one PERSON transferring felt emotion to another PERSON using music as the medium, not a computer translating genuine emotion into some sort of calculatable computer sequence. To me, that is similar to what passes for emotion in certain styles of ‘diva’ musoc…Mariah Carey et al…or your average Australian Idol rendition: there is the correct emphasis, change of tone, dramatic pausing etc etc, but it all leaves me cold because it is taught and not a actual, genuine, emotional, response. We’re getting closer all the time to ‘Your robot will talk to my robot’. No thanks.

  2. I see where you are coming from and it is a valid point. Of course, the ideal is for human beings to deliver emotional content to human beings and that is what I was really arguing for in music education. However, it is a reality that many, many music composers write with computers and cannot afford to render their works with a human orchestra, so to avoid degrading music even further, at least they can put some expression into their computer works, as inferior to human performance as that might be. Even the standard of expressivity of human performance is very low, because as I point out, it isn’t taught. The thrust of the article, and I am sorry if this wasn’t clear, was that we need to teach musical expression and creativity to young musicians far more than we do. We leave it to chance.

  3. Clare De Mayo says:

    I think we can only teach technique, with the rider that one can feel free to ‘tinker around the edges’, so to speak. But you have to learn the technique first, (generally speaking, unless you’re just some sort of genius/freak)…. I don’t think you really can teach emotion or expressivity (I’m extrapolating from the Visual Arts, which I have taught for 20 years or more). You give people the tools, show them a range of ways to use them, inspire them with how other people have used them, and then give them permission to play.

  4. If it were not possible to teach emotion or expressivity, we couldn’t train actors. 🙂

    But I agree a mastery of technique is required, so that it doesn’t get in the way when you are attempting to communicate emotion through expression.

    Play is always important in teaching creative arts. It’s actually important in engineering, maths and science too.

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