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Craft of Musical Communication ed. by Cleveland Johnson


Published in the Orphei Organi Antiqui

The Craft of Musical Communication

by Marianne Ploger and Keith Hill ©2005

edited by Cleveland Johnson

Part 1: The Art of Delivery

Playing a musical instrument is a technical craft. Expressing music, by contrast, has been viewed as an art, a view held so long that it is rarely questioned. An alternate view, presented in this essay, is that expressing music is also a craft: it is the craft of musical communication, the art of delivery. It is possible to master technical skills while lacking in communicative skills, and vice versa, because these skills have very little to do with each other. Today, musical mastery is often measured by the former skills, not the latter, yet the greatest musicians are those who are highly skilled in both crafts.

Musical Communication as the "Art of Delivery"[1] is the craft of handling musical material by technical means to touch the soul, raise the spirits, elevate the minds, and deeply move listeners with music. This essay presents eleven techniques which can be employed in the exercise of this craft.[2] These techniques, grounded in human cognition, are wholly derived from normal human speech and other perceptual experiences used in everyday communication. Each technique is natural to human expression.

These techniques are applicable to music intended to be listened to (as opposed to music meant only to be heard) in the same way that human speech is intended to be listened to. If the meaningful process of listening is secondary, these techniques are unnecessary, although both listeners and hearers will find their experiences enhanced when these techniques are employed in performance.

Below, each technique will be discussed and practical suggestions for their application will be provided; they are organized according to the intensity of the communication-enhancing effect each technique has on the listener.

1. The Synaesthesis Technique

In 1768, Jacob Adlung says of playing the harpsichord, "One must endeavor to use more arpeggios and such, rather than striking the keys together or playing too slowly since the strings cease vibrating right away."[3] Mozart and Chopin also insisted that the hands are never played together. Each of these musicians were aware of the concept of synaesthesis.[4]

Synaesthesia means multiple simultaneous perceptions. The brain is designed for perceiving multiple sensations at the same moment. With the senses of sight, smell, and taste, we expect our sensory experiences to be loaded with multiple simultaneous stimulations. The culinary art lives because people adore eating food that is multi-dimensional in flavor. Although specific taste sensations are localized on various parts of the human tongue, the experience of taste is a mingling of salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and savory (meaty) in various proportions, This effect is the effect of synaesthesia, and the senses of sight, smell, and hearing function similarly. Unfortunately, classical music is performed today in a manner designed to eliminate synaesthesia altogether, because many musicians are ill-informed about how the ear/brain makes sense of heard experiences.

Although the many different frequencies and timbres are detected differently by the ears, one 'hears' or perceives sounds, not as distinct and discreet frequencies and timbres, but as composites. When musical performance uses sounds (e.g. chords) as composites, the normal human ear hears only one sound. If the composer has written a four-note chord, and all the notes are played simultaneously, the normal listener will hear not four notes but one sound only: a rich sound, but nonetheless only one sound. If the performer endeavors to perform each note in the chord, so that the notes don't sound absolutely together or simultaneously, the normal listener will easily hear all four notes as well as the simultaneous chord, creating an experience of five sounds altogether.

The synaesthesis technique requires heard musical information to be slightly desynchronized, just enough for the mind of the listener to perceive all the timbres, all the pitches, all the melodies, all the rhythms, all the details, all the harmonies so that they all emerge into the consciousness of the listener. The human brain is so competent that it has no trouble to follow as many as 6 simultaneous streams of information as long as those lines or streams are functioning with total independence, even if they are "supposed to be together" as in music.

When notes in musical lines are "misaligned in time," this desynchronicity produces a certain independence of voices which, though more complex on the surface, is easier for the listener to follow. When these notes are played with perfect simultaneity, the brain reads the interval as a mere composite sound and quickly looses focus on the individual lines, paying attention instead to what is happening primarily in the lowest or the highest voices.

Only by consciously creating distinctions between lines can the performer make clear to the listener what is happening in any music which has more than one line. Differences in timbre and volume help to create more distinction but these devices never are as consistently successful at creating clear distinctions between the different lines in music as when the synaesthesis technique is used even to only a very slight degree. The synaesthesis technique depends on the ability of the performer to hear, follow, and create multiple voices in the music; voices that are clearly independent of the others yet always manage to agree. 

Application: 1) Always play with one hand leading the other and vacillate between which of the two hands leads. Give up trying to be together in ensembles. The exception to this is when a simultaneous concurrence of the voices tells the brain that the music has come to an end. 2) Sing expressively each and every line or voice as independently as possible of the other lines or voices. Avoid being distracted by other voices or lines, or the listeners will hear the lapse in attention and cease to pay attention. 3) In ensembles, vacillate between having the upper voice lead the lower voice and the lower voice lead the upper voice. This vacillation needs to follow the logic of the musical lines and structure. When the upper voice leads, the music soars. When the lower voice leads the music, resisting forward motion, lingers.

2. The Inégal or Entasis Technique

Entasis is an ancient Greek term meaning tensioning. Speech that is delivered in a metrically perfect manner has the power to cause the listener's brain to shutdown and cease processing the meaning of what is being said...all within a few seconds of hearing such speech. The human brain needs the condition of constant or stable irregularity to remain alert and attentive. Regularity eliminates the feeling of discomfort which chaos, the erratic and irregular, often creates. The balance in tension between the feeling of predictability, which constancy (stability) provides, and the feeling of anticipation, which irregularity and unpredictability creates, is a state of entasis. (The opposite of entasis is stasis or staticness.) In normal human speech, Entasis is brought about by the flow of thought, and this flow is both irregular and constant. So it must be in music.

The French, in the 17th and 18th centuries, understood the importance of entasis; musicians who wrote about inégal were likely referring to this concept. The word actually means rough, irregular, unequal, but the conventional interpretation of the word betrays the real meaning by forcing it to conform to the present fashion for perfect metricallity in performance practice of old music. That interpretation suggests that inégal means perfectly regular “limping.” Had the French writers meant that they might have used the term for limping or the phrase égal inégal

Taking the term inégal at face value and understanding it from a cognitive point of view, it is clear that equalized inegality creates stasis, an absence of tension, and the listener is lulled into inattention.[5] Three notes of equal value (with two equal spaces between them) suffice to create a condition of boredom in the brain. Within the time it takes to hear three notes, the brain has noticed that the second event is like the first, that the third is like the second and the first, and predicts that the fourth will follow the pattern. When that prediction comes true, the brain either “tunes out” or looks elsewhere for something more interesting.

This phenomenon in the brain of a performer generates mistakes. In a static musical environment, mistakes easily become the meaning instead of the music and, as a result, the groundwork is laid for a paralyzing fear of performing experienced by many musicians. Learning to play with absolute rhythmic regularity, thereby anesthetizing the brain, is the major cause of performance anxiety today.

Metrical exactitude in musical performance also guarantees that most music is only heard but not listened to. It is the embodiment of slavishness in music, i.e. the music is the slave of the beat when it should be its master, exactly the opposite of what C.P.E. Bach suggested when he wrote that one should "endeavor to avoid everything mechanical and slavish. Play from the soul, not like a trained bird."[6]

This technique is especially challenging in its application, because musicians today are so rigidly trained in metrical regularity. Yet, like the beating of the heart, the musical pulse needs to fluctuate in speed as the emotional content of the music fluctuates. Like the natural shifting accents in speech, musical accents need to shift according to the meaning being expressed. To feel perfect, music must be metrically imperfect. Although first impressions of this technique may be discomforting (as with synaesthesia), performers can create order and logic out of otherwise irregular, unmetrical music-making by applying the techniques of Gesture, Syntactical/Voice-leading, and Recognition Signal (see #3-5 below)

Application: Avoid performing music in strict accordance with the beat. Because even two notes of equal value and space is enough to create a flattening of the listener's attention, avoid having more than three notes of equal value sound equally with equal spaces between them.

3. The Gesture or Inflection Technique

The Gesture or Inflection technique is designed to group verbal and musical information into larger units which have a shape easily recognized and remembered. Inflection (gesture) is the technique used in speech to organize the distinctly irregular nature of language. The specific shape of natural gestures or inflections, in speech or music, is a parabolic or exponential curve. (The egg is an excellent example of this elliptical shape.)

Consider this concept from a rhythmic perspective. Drumming the fingers on a table (the action usually moves from the pinky finger to the index finger) could mean either impatience or boredom. A slower motion of the fingers expresses the affect of waiting; a faster motion expresses impatience. Add to this impatient drumming a rhythmic regularity, and a sense of frustration is expressed. When waiting is added to the affects of frustration and impatience, the thumb becomes involved. Human beings interpret these complex gestures intuitively, but these motions can also be objectively described. Notice that the drumming action, initiated by the pinky finger, begins slowly and accelerates through the successive fingers until the last digit strikes the table. This acceleration, when plotted mathematically, would appear, not as a straight line to indicate regularly increasing speed but as a parabolic or exponential curve.

From a pitch perspective, the sounds of language move predictably through time, not in regular “bits” but in irregular patterns. The word "I," for example, begins with an "ah" vowel, shifts to an "eh" vowel and moves conclusively to an "ee" vowel sound. The pitch begins low and slow with the vowel "ah". The pitch and speed of utterance increase with the “eh” vowel and continues to get higher and faster with the shift to "ee". Again, plotted mathematically, these phenomena of both pitch and speed-of-utterance could be represented as exponential or parabolic curves.

Modifying sounds, such as the stretched “I” when a child whines,”I don’t want to,” or the clipped “I” when the same child demands “I want that” (or the drumming of patient vs. impatient fingers) produce very different meanings. The brain interprets flat, uninflected speech as the behavior of a listless, depressed, ill (or even dying) person. Likewise, the brain interprets highly inflected speech as the behavior of an animated, spirited, lively, robust, healthy person. The same is true in music. Musicians must be cognizant of their ability to influence these crucial subtleties of affect. A musician who is out-of-touch with this concept is a musician who has nothing to communicate.

Application: To realize these gestures in music, a performer must study nature and copy the shapes it has to offer. Organize musical information in gestures and mini-gestures which are natural to follow and understand.

4. The Syntactical or Voice Leading Technique

The Voice Leading technique comes from the syntactical or grammatical property of speech. Notice what happens to the above sentence when all the words are reordered to eliminate references. The or voice grammatical syntactical comes technique property speech leading of from. This reordered sentence can never make sense because every word has been treated as the equal of all the others. The order (or lack thereof) is designed to reinforce that equality; all the words in that sentence refer to no other words, and the result is a sentence which means absolutely nothing, even though each word has an independent recognizable meaning.

The human brain requires referential relationships to make sense of things. It is this syntactical "referential" property of language that underlies the logic in music.[7] Sense and meaning, both in language and in music, come from grouping words and notes into “meaningful” phrases or gestures. Each note or word must be executed to emphasize the grammatical sense or musical meaning: every note in the diatonic scale refers to the tonic just as all parts of a sentence refer in some way to the noun/subject. This is the heart of the voice leading technique. Although the human brain is "hard-wired" to grasp meaning through grammar and phrases in language, it is less accomplished in working out similar tendencies in music. Music goes by so quickly that, without the effects of voice-leading, one all-too-common response of the brain is to "tune out" and go into a sleep mode.

The outward technical devise used for the voice leading technique is legato (using the real meaning of legato which is "connected" as "connected in the mind" rather than merely in the ear) and the musical approach for this type of legato is cantabile (using the real meaning of cantabile which is "in a singing style" and taking that style to mean the style of a truly great singer).[8]

Application: Sing, as expressively as possible, every line in a score; then play the music exactly as expressively as just sung. Sing every note as expressively as the note requires and no less, then play it that way. Musicians are rarely able to be more expressive in their playing than in their singing.

5. The Recognition Signal or Harmonic technique

The Harmonic technique or Recognition Signal (also, cercare) creates a sense of harmony between the souls of the listener and speaker. Humans produce this "technical" utterance when acknowledging or agreeing with the person talking, and the absence of this utterance indicates a failure to communicate or to persuade. Musically, this technique is most effective when the speed and manner of execution mimic the spoken technique.

The recognition signal in human speech can express many things from the listener's point of view: the ability to follow a line of reasoning, a desire that the speaker continue, assent to a point of argument, or simple agreement. Aristotle defines recognition as "a change from ignorance to knowledge."[9] It is sounded, “uh-huh,” with the pitch rising at the end.[10] When listeners hear the recognition signal expressed in music, it allows them to follow what is happening in the music more easily, giving utter clarity to the music’s harmonies, and it establishes unanimity between performer and listener. For the listener, it is the vehicle of transformation between not knowing what is happening in the music, and knowing. Such enlightenment may even be articulated by some listeners as a spiritual experience.

Application: Performers must become attuned to how composers incorporate the Recognition Signal technique. Bach’s Italian concerto, for example, begins with a cercare, and his Chaconne in D-minor violin partita uses one after another. Beethoven's Pathetique sonata begins with a cercare followed by another with a few intervening notes. His 9th Symphony is full of this technique (although seldom realized in modern performances).

The speed of the Recognition Signal is its most important characteristic. If too slow, it sounds like an arpeggio; if too fast, it sounds like a grace note. For most uses, the correct speed is that at which one would most naturally say "pah-dum" with the accent on the second syllable. Placing the accent on the first syllable makes the affect too slow; and saying it without accent makes it too fast. Of course, speed is further influenced by the overarching affect of the music, whether leaning toward gravity or liveliness.

6. The Distortion or Attention-Grabbing Technique

This technique includes any device used to attract or place the listener's attention where the performer desires it to be. In speaking, a clearing of the throat is just such a device. Magicians employ this device, calling it “distraction.” In music, a vast array of techniques works in this way.

The distortion technique is heard when a singer allows the voice to crack or break for emotive effect, or when a vowel is changed during a sustained note. The “distortion” of the original vowel creates a feeling of increased interest on the long note for the listener. Violinists sometimes “crush” the string when playing a specific note to create a distortion which "attentively loads" the note. Portamento (in its conventional definition as a glide in pitch from one note to another) is another distortion technique, as are trills and other ornaments which add noise or “dirt” to the sound. The acciaccatura is an excellent example of "dirt" being added to a chord.

Although Aristotle does not use the word "dirt," he does, in fact use the word "error" in the following sense: "error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained, that is the effect of this or any other part...is thus rendered more striking."[11] He adds to this the warning: "If the end might have been as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error should if possible be avoided." No clearer definition of poetic license can be had.

Granted, the distortion technique must be used judiciously, but its absence results in music of predictable sterility. The only thing perfect about perfection is that it is perfectly boring. The true aim for perfection in art is the feeling of perfection, not the fact. For example, the feeling of perfection in Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is a direct result of the astonishing amount of distortion used in the painting’s proportions. While some listeners, interested primarily in the information presented in a musical composition, may prefer polished but boring perfection (the ideal performer for such listeners would be a computer or any machine designed primarily for data transmission), neither data transmission nor accountancy is appropriate to the realm of art. In this realm, where feeling is natural and genuine, there is bound to be some element of chaos and unpredictability. The distortion technique tempers mechanical perfection with impulses of nature and human feeling.

Application: Don’t be afraid of making ugly sounds especially if the affect you are after needs it to feel right. Ugliness like Beauty are relative things. We experience something as more beautiful when it is juxtaposed with something ugly. That is the appeal of stories like Beauty and the Beast. Conversely, music without dissonance is boring. Dissonance without Consonance feels irrelevant and harsh. Consonance without dissonance feels saccharine and dopey.

When learning to master ornamentation, understand that adding an ornament enhances the moment in the music to which it is added. Avoid ornamented or enhancing moments that are already loaded with some other more effective technique of enhancing. Since the great composers clearly understood these techniques, they wrote them into the scores so that musicians would know which technique they were asking for. The ornaments a composer wrote into the music were those considered to be essential and therefore obligatory. However, more could be added ad libitum as needed depending on the instrument, the room acoustics, and the tempo.

Zest is the principle effect of the distortion technique. Even a disconsolate affect needs zest to communicate the degree of intensity of the feeling. Poetic license grants every performer the freedom to create an enhanced experience of feeling for the listener by whatever means necessary. It is not, however, a certificate of refined or sensitive taste. That is the responsibility of the performer. That is, everything is allowed, but always be sensible to a quality of integrity so that the music, not the playing, remains foremost in the hearts of the listeners.

7. The Anxiety Free or "Sans souci" Technique

This technique is named sans souci, because it is designed to create moments in the music which give the feeling of shrugging the shoulders, throwing up the hands in a gesture to say, "Don't take all this so seriously! Live a little! Stop controlling! Let go! Be happy! Don't worry so much! In other words, sans souci: without a care!

When the alignment of notes in the score suggests that they be performed strictly and simultaneously, they may be purposely jumbled or played in an irregular or a staggering manner to create a careless (sans souci) effect. This technique gives music a feeling of relaxed effortlessness, whether one uses the term sans souci, or tempo rubato, or “jazzy,” disjointed, etc.

Listeners can only truly enjoy listening when a sans souci environment and attitude prevails. This technique dispels anxiety and self-consciousness in the performer, and this transforms not only the performer’s experience but also the reception of the listener, for anxiety rubs off on all who observe it. Mechanical, metrical, and regular playing creates anxiety; inégal, irregular, and logical playing eliminate anxiety. Overconcern with relatively meaningless detail creates anxiety; sweeping gestures dispel anxiety. Obsession with accuracy creates anxiety; focusing on meaning and purpose dispel anxiety. Concern about the opinion or others creates anxiety; carelessness of the opinion of others dispels anxiety. Self consciousness creates anxiety; confidence and a total lack of self consciousness dispel anxiety. That is the function of sans souci.

Application: Sans souci is the antithesis to how most classical musicians are taught. Applying this technique is as much about attitude as about specific procedures. Study the musical score for every opportunity to “shrug the shoulders.” Try every passage to see if it can't be improved by having staggering the lines staggered by exactly one half the notated value. Sometimes the bass may lead, sometimes the treble.[12]

8. The Stride Technique

St. Lambert, in his preface to his compositions, states that the normal tempo in music is that of a man walking.[13] Although people walk at different tempi for different purposes, observation bears out that those people walking, intending to get someplace specific, all walk at the same tempo.[14] This tempo is 116 beats per minute, and besides walking, it can be observed to occur in other contexts as well.

Speech, for example, has the intention of reaching the end of a specific thought (just as music has the intention of reaching a cadence). People speak with the normal speech accents occurring at a rate of 116 per minute, but primarily when there is something specific and goal-oriented to be said. People who, by temperament, personality, persuasion, or by habit, speak faster or slower than this speed stand out. Speaking slower than 116, they are perceived as intolerably dull or slow witted; there is a painful slothfulness or self-consciousness in their speaking demeanor. Speaking faster than 116, people are perceived as untrustworthy; fast speech is associated with trying to talk others into doing things they don't want to do.

At the same time that the normal accents of speech occur at 116 beats per minute, moments of pause or emphasis, moments between phrases, or the moments of silence between exchanges of speakers in conversation occur at 72 beats per minute.[15] There are also a few other tempi which can be observed to work in spoken contexts. These tempi are multiples or divisions of 116 and 72: 58 (one half of 116), 144 (twice 72), 96 (4 times 72 divided by 3, a 3:4 ratio), 108 (3 times 72 divided by 2, a ratio of 3:2), 87 (116 times 3 divided by 4, a 3:4 ratio), etc.[16]

These observations suggest that the human brain processes heard information at a precise rate of flow. That rate may change depending on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information. If the information flows at a rate faster than it can be processed and comprehended, one feels overwhelmed. If it flows at a rate slower than it can be processed and comprehended, one feels impatient, irritated, or bored by the manner of delivery.

If the intensity of content decreases, while the rate of flow remains constant, the perception will be that the flow has slowed. Thus, as intensity of content decreases, the speed of flow must increase, lest the mind become bored. Conversely, if the intensity of content increases, but the rate of flow remains the same, the mind assumes that the speed has increased; the speed must therefore decrease or the mind will soon feel overwhelmed. This phenomenon is an inverse proportion: the more that is happening in music, the slower the tempo needs to be. The less that is happening in the heard music, the faster the tempo needs to be.

Performances of classical music today, frequently fail to adapt appropriately to the above observations. In performing early repertoire, musicians feel compelled to play too fast, because their delivery lacks interest or meaning. Excessive speed helps bridge the musical emptiness between notes but is a cheap trick to stave off the listener boredom. In later repertoire, where musicians are commonly subjected to expectations of mathematically accurate performance, slower tempi are often taken to allow the incorporation of techniques for warming the sound in otherwise cold examples of perfect data delivery. These techniques include continuous vibrato, acceleration and deceleration of a predictable and regular sort, and predictably regular gradations of change in volume (techniques which when applied to speech produce the silliest, most ridiculous effect). These "warming" techniques, used to take the chill off otherwise stiff passionless performances, divert the listener's attention away from unimaginative playing.

Tempi selection in music needs to account for the rate of flow as it changes depending on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information, as well as the affect of the piece. All of the musical communication techniques discussed in this article, when implemented in performance, may require tempi slightly slower than one is used to, but all depends on the information intensity of the score. In all cases, failure to hit upon the right tempo will create the effect of forcing, if the tempo is slightly too slow, or racing if it is slightly to fast.

Application: Be aware of opportunities in music (a section, movement, or entire piece) to utilize a tempo of 116 or 72 and test these tempi on listeners. If appropriately chosen, these tempi should make music feel more natural to listeners, although it may be more challenging to play. Many composers, however, took these tempi into account, and the music will actually be easier and more natural to play at these tempi.

9. The Evaporation or Mystery Technique

This technique is best executed on dynamic instruments such as the clavichord, fortepiano, pianoforte, violins and such, lutes and guitars, as well the voice. The evaporation technique is a diminishing of the volume of sound on the end of a phrase until it altogether disappears or evaporates.[17] Evaporation forces the mind of the listener to finish the phrase as it disappears, thus, through the power of suggestion, a performer can lure the listener on a path of his or her own making. While the parts of the music subjected too evaporation are normally less important artistically, they may take on special unconscious significance in the listener’s mind. Whatever is mysterious and hidden tantalizes the soul; this is the perennial lure of the spiritual realm. Brains invariably want what they can't have.

Cognitively speaking, the brain strives to lock on to whatever appears to lie just beyond its reach. For example, though the eye is designed to perceive light, the eye is easily attracted to shadow. In speech, when ideas are stated flatly and objectively, the mind tends to treat them as unimportant (a fault of much technical writing). When ideas are alluded to or suggested by inference, the mind won't be satisfied until it puzzles them out. When information is ever present, it becomes part of the landscape and the information is easily ignored; when ideas are clearly and creatively expressed with a strong point of view, the information is processed and accepted or rejected by the mind; in either case the information can't be ignored.

Musically, when sound is waxing and waning, strongly and unpredictably, the mind of the listener is able to grasp more easily how the ideas are wrought and grouped. In a performance shaded by the evaporation technique, listeners will experience the paradox between an understated phrase ending and the strong attention-focusing effect created by evaporation. In this way, the listener becomes a co-creator with the performer and composer.

Application: Choose particularly unimportant moments in the music to “evaporate”, like the ends of phrases or arpeggiated chords; moments which would otherwise fall flat. Then prepare the minds of the listeners by gradually diminishing the volume of the sound so that only the last note, though played, is completely silent. This only works in live performances where the listeners can see the note being played but not hear it. In recordings, the note needs to be heard but also needs to be so soft that it causes the listener to feel the evaporation effect. Poetic license and a sense of what works are the best guides.

10. The Timing or Hesitation Technique

This technique requires hesitation just a moment before playing the most important note in a line. Another expression of this technique is to linger on a note for much longer than its written value. This technique manipulates the listener's expectations of 1) what note is going to sound, 2) when it actually sounds, and 3) when it stops sounding. When a climactic note is slightly delayed by the performer, the listener has just enough time to take the suggestion and mentally fill in the note before the performer finally makes the note sound.

Comedians are well-known to use this technique for humorous effect, changing the timing of an expected word to one that is unexpected. Public speakers also use this important rhetorical technique, but those who overuse it come across as contrived and unconvincing. The same holds true for musicians. As always, unpredictability is key to creating naturalness of effect.

The cognitive partner of hesitation is anticipation: anticipation is created by building up assumption on assumption about what will happen. When the event which should occur fails to happen at the expected time, there exists a moment of disappointment. Disappointment, however, is soon transformed into a rush of pleasure when the anticipated event is consummated. The art is always in the timing.

Application: Know what notes in the music are the highest in pitch, strongest in accent but weakest in affect, most obvious and predictable, or the climax of the piece. Then, either delay a moment before playing them or hold them longer than written. The moment the delay or the holding becomes obvious, as doing something unusual, the hold or the delay is too long.

The purpose is to catch the attention of the listener unawares in order to create the effect of a quickening of the attention. The moment that effect happens for the listeners is the moment the music must continue to its inevitable conclusion.

11. The "Excrucis" Technique

The word excrucis is derived from the Latin ex, meaning “out of,” and crux, meaning “cross.” Excrucis is, literally, “out of cross” or “out of crossing.” This technique involves dissonance treatment. When musical lines, each expressively following its own inexorably logical path, cross and produce an extreme dissonance, followed by an elegant and beautiful resolution, the excrucis technique, highlighting this intense movement rhythmically or dynamically, is ideally suited for use. These moments, properly treated, produce some of the most "excruciatingly" beautiful effects of which music is capable.

The cognitive effect of the excrusis technique is deeply related to basic human emotion. This effect is capable of approaching the almost spiritual profundity of complex human interaction, such as an intense hug imbued simultaneously with feelings of love, loss, reassurance, pain: it feels so good it hurts.

Application: Identify and observe the interplay and crossing of musical lines. Making the most of such voice crossings requires momentarily slowing down the action. This slowing, to emphasize the "grinding" effect as the dissonances rub and grate against each other, should allow the listener to notice exactly what is happening, without causing a loss of flow.


According to Aristotle, in Poetics (XXI), "The perfection of style is to be clear without being mean (commonplace)." The purpose behind these eleven techniques, for the performer, is to connect musical information into clear and meaningful phrases for the listener to help make sense of the score, to help the listener know what is important and what is unimportant. The brain needs constant and intense stimulation in the form of unpredictability, clarity of reference, clarity of relationship, uninterrupted flow of idea, and the occasional enigma in order to maintain an alert, attentive, and focused frame of mind.[18]

These techniques enhance musical communication because they induce and support a high degree of awareness in both the listener and the performer. Performance will either support the listener’s attention or detract from it. (The mere presence of sound in a room is no guarantor of attention, only passive exposure.) Full attention ensures receptiveness to the composer’s meaning. When music is performed to maximize the listener’s attention level, details of compositional technique and structure become intelligible and meaningful to the normal listener without years of formal musical training.

To be effective, these techniques must be made as obvious as possible without any one technique standing in the center of attention. Whenever possible, try to use these techniques simultaneously so it is impossible to use one at the exclusion of the others. Beware that, if one can notice the technical means of generating an effect, the technique is being employed improperly. It is a delicate balancing act to use a technique or techniques without having the technical aspect become the focus of attention. (As the saying goes: “Art disguises itself.”) Performers who lapse into mechanical habits of playing music, using occasionally only one or two of these techniques, anesthetize the brain while seeking to interest the mind. This is a confusing state to inflict upon any listener.

When all of these techniques are used appropriately in a performance, the essence of the music is efficiently communicated by the performer and easily received by the listeners. Effective and pleasing execution in music was referred to in the 18th century by the French term bon gout. Bon gout can only exist when intense flavors are present, and it implies a strongly cultivated sense of how to balance these flavors (read: cognitive techniques) to express the meaning and affect suggested by the composer. Performers should embrace these eleven cognitive techniques; the fear of mauvais gout creates players who play sans gout. Skillful use of these techniques, creating the effect of playing "from the soul," produces performances that deeply touch and move all who listen. This is the function and purpose of the “Art of Delivery”

Part 2: On Affect

What is Affect?

Affect is the backbone of nonverbal communication. As the nonverbal meaning of such communication, it suggests the expression of an emotion, a state of being, a physical state, a state of mind, or an attitude. Being nonverbal, Affect is applicable to every artistic form, painting, music, acting, dance, etc. (Indeed, each art has its own way of expressing Affect.) Music is nonverbal communication in the form of sound. If Affect is missing in music all that remains are pitches (either in vertical structures, Harmony, or in linear structures, Melody) moving in time (Rhythm). Affect allows music to take on a life of its own and express what the performer intends; otherwise, meaning does not exist except by inference. For the listener, music without affect is like acting without vocal inflection or facial expression.

One effective way to illustrate Affect is to examine the most sophisticated use of affect developed in the 20th century, cartoon animation. Cartoon characters do not exist; they exist only as fictional characters appearing on the screen through the magical craft of animation. Because animators understood affect, they could create characters that feel real and palpable to us; they could convince an audience that these characters exist. To suggest characters with personality, meaning, and soul, animators had to study gestures, poses, expressions (and the order in which they occurred). In other words, animators had to be diligent students of Affect.

Affect should not be confused with true states of emotion, etc. A person’s anger or confusion or love is not affect, because those feelings are real and amazingly complex. “Acting’ like one is angry or confused or in love, however, is a demonstration of affect. Affect, especially in music, makes simple all of the complexities of feeling; it makes the feeling clear and unmistakable to the listener and relates to the listener’s soul.

The soul responds to Affect because it is the language of the soul. Affect is the language of the soul. As a common language, It allows communication among souls. . This is why learning about Affect, thinking about Affect, performing with Affect, expressing Affect, and mastering Affect is the most important challenge of musicians, artists, dancers, architects, actors, writers, poets, or playwrights.

Philosophical relativism has curiously created a strong antipathy to the idea of Affect, as though the concept were somehow dangerous, for there are intelligent people and musicians who dismiss the whole idea of Universals. Affect happens to be one clear Universal, because affect happens to be how organisms with brains, however primitive (even insects, spiders, reptiles, and birds communicate affectively), relate and communicate one with another. And anyone who has been around animals knows this to be true, because they communicate directly through gesture and non-verbal utterances. Musicians who dismiss this approach to expression usually play music as though running through a list from the beginning to the end. Each musician must decide personally to pay attention to Affect, express Affect, think about better ways to communicate Affect, or to ignore Affect altogether. But remember, what you decide materially affects relationship with your own soul, for better or worse. Where music is concerned, the greatest musical minds embraced Affect. You must choose to be in their company or not.

Learning the Language of Affect

Affect is the suggestion of a feeling, not the feeling itself. Affect is also objective; observers or listeners receive/interpret the same meaning from these expressions and gestures. Learning to manage and master Affect, eliminating all possible confusion, is therefore imperative for anyone involved in any kind of artistic nonverbal communication.

In acting, for example, when a character in a play says or does something which suggests that he or she is suspicious, a good actor will do whatever is required to create the suggestion of suspiciousness. The only way an actor will know if he or she is successful is if the audience feels that the character is suspicious. Should the audience think otherwise, the actor has failed. Furthermore, if the audience merely knows that the character is suspicious but doesn't feel it, then the actor has also failed. One can often know many things which are not necessarily felt; those things which are known are less engaging than those things which are felt. If the actor has not generated the feeling of suspicion in the audience, the actor has failed. Only when the audience feels conviction about the suspicious nature of the character can the actor be said to have succeeded.

Affect communicates directly and unambiguously with the soul of the receiver. Infants, for example, respond to an affect even if they don't understand the words. The same is true for animals. The manner of expression, more than the content of the words, is what is objectively received and nonverbally understood. The human response to the tone and gesture of a mother’s love is not unlike the human response to music. This phenomenon makes music extraordinarily compelling to humans.

Unfortunately, communication is breaking down in many arenas of the artistic world. Declining concert attendance, resulting in financial insolvency for even some of the most famous musical institutions, has led to much introspection. Too often, inattentive, disengaged listeners are blamed for their lagging commitment to music, while, in fact, the spread of non-affective music-making may lie at the root of the situation. Musicians ignore Affect to their own peril.

Perhaps the best way to learn to communicate affect is to study children when they are being naturally expressive. In very young children, the gestures used to convey affect are similar from one child to the next. These affective gestures are not learned; they are innate to the human species. Indeed, expressing all the emotions, states of mind, attitudes, physical states and states of being are part of what it is to be human. Learning to express affect requires one to pay attention to and remember the gestures that make up each affect. Focus on affect and meaning and everything is made decidedly easier.

The Structure of Human Affect

Human beings are complex organisms with complex inner lives. Music, in its most elevated manifestation, is the only form of aesthetic expression which is capable of capturing and expressing the inner life of the soul.

In life, Affect is the suggestion of the expression of 1) an emotion, 2) a physical state, 3) a state of mind, or 4) an attitude. Typically, all four of these states are expressed simultaneously and continuously. The same is true in great music and performance, because music is rooted in human nature.[19]

When there is inherent conflict in these four states, the aesthetic result is far more vivid and compelling. Paradox is good; this tension makes the real difference between exhalted art and art which is merely great (or less great). Good art expresses only three of the possible four affects. Mediocre works express two, while bad works express but one (or zero).

Persons wishing to improve their artistic communication through Affect would be well-advised to compile a list of Affects organized by the four categories outlined above. Without investing in this task, one risks not being able to distinguish or identify affects and not being able to understand how they differ from emotions. The list below is by no means definitive, but suggests what such a list might look like:



















































































































































meaning business










































Application: As an interesting exercise, take one affect at random from each column and invent a moment in life when all four affects could reasonably occur simultaneously. Choose, for instance, “trotting” (physical), “empty” (emotional), “dubious” (mental), and “apologetic” (mental), and think of a moment in any person's life when trotting, emptiness, feeling dubious or doubtful, and feeling apologetic would naturally occur. One possible scenario or “vignette” might be: hurting another person unintentionally, being abandoned by that person, pursuing that person to ask forgiveness, but being ultimately rejected, and finally feeling doubt about the relationship, and emptiness.

Great music is characterized by either a single affective vignette or a series of short vignettes which give the listener an affective view of the soul for a moment or series of connected moments.


No other art form has the power to express affective moments in the lives of ordinary people as much as music. Great music performed without clear affect is like viewing a great painting in a room without light; although one might discern the intention of affect, the observer can't access it. The true art of the performer is to reveal affect, clearly and unambiguously, to the music lover. Interestingly, as self-evidently true is this might be to most people, all too many musicians reject the importance of Affect in music, preferring instead to adhere to the standard and predictably monotonous style of performing classical music prevalent today. What is worse is when such musicians discover that they are unable to have a career in musical performance and end up teaching in schools and conservatories of music, in effect go on to instill in young impressionable musicians the idea that music is all about note and metrical accuracy and not about communication of affect for the pleasure of listeners.

To be faithful to the art in music, the performer must be hyperaware of affective effects -- how, for example, even three notes within a score can affect the sensitive listener. The eleven cognitive techniques outlined in this essay ensure that performer fully engages the listener in the music; incorporating the additional ideas regarding Affect promises mastery in virtually any art. Talent has little to do with such mastery, only the hard work of understanding and learning to "speak" the language of the soul.

[1] (which is what Aristotle calls the Modes of Utterance, Poetics XIX)

[2] The eleven cognitive/communication techniques are designed to enhance musical communication rather than substitute for musicality. Being musical is a spiritual quality and it is this quality which indeed resides in the realm of art. If there is a downside to these techniques, it is that if a musician isn't deeply spiritual, these cognitive techniques will reveal that fact to the listener. If a musician is spiritual, these cognitive techniques reveal this reality clearly. The true art of musical performance fuses the crafts of score-realization/musical-communication with the spiritual substance of the musician.

[3] Musica Mechanica Organoedi, vol. 2 chapter 22 paragraph 522

[4] Giovanni Tosi, in his treatise on singing titled, The Art of the Florid Song, published in 1736, uses the term vacillare to describe the effect of vacillating in the melody from being before the bass to lagging behind the bass. He states that "the singer should endeavor to sing before the beat or after the beat and never with it. Tosi says of this effect that it "is one of the most beautiful effects in music." Bach, in manuscripts of his keyboard pieces, demonstrates vacillare just as Tosi recommends. An inspection of his keyboard manuscripts reveals that the vertical alignment of the notes of the right hand either precede or follow the notes of the left hand. About 60% of time the right hand notes precede the left hand notes and about 40% follow the left hand. (Such alignment issues do not arise in Bach’s orchestral scores.) Similarly, Forqueray gives instructions in his published arrangement for harpsichord of his fathers Pieces for Viola da Gamba that the player play the music exactly as it appears on the printed page. The pieces that follow show the right and left hand notes being vertically non-aligned even to the extent that some whole notes in the left hand appear in the middle of the measure. Giulio Caccini, in his Nuove musiche e nuove maniera di scriverle (Florence, 1614), suggests something very similar to vacillare when he writes: "Sprezzatura is that elegance given to a melody by several technically-incorrect eights or sixteenths on different tones, technically-incorrect with respect to their timing, thus freeing the melody from a certain narrow limitation and dryness and making it pleasant, free, and airy, just as in common speech, where eloquence and invention make affable and sweet the matters being expounded upon."

[5] In his treatise on Poetics (XXIV), Aristotle observed that "sameness of incident soon produces satiety."

[6] in his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments,

[7] This is the logic needed to make the inégal or entasis technique work most successfully.

[8] Bach was renowned for his cantabile playing. Indeed, a letter dated 12 April 1842 written by F.K.Griepenkerl (a student of N. Forkel) relates that "Bach himself, his sons, and Forkel performed the masterpieces with such a profound declamation that they sounded like polyphonic songs sung by individual great artists; all means of good singing were thereby brought into use. No cercare, no portamento was missing. [author’s emphasis] There was even breathing at the right places...Bach's pieces want to be sung with the maximum of Art."

[9] section X of his Poetics,

[10] It is extremely interesting that the word cercare" (pronounced chair-cár-e) as used by Griepenkerl (see footnote 8) is defined in Riemann's Musiklexicon as a 17th century Italian ornament in which the upper or lower auxiliary note is performed softly and suddenly to the main note. This is exactly how the recognition signal is expressed. In otherwords, the recognition signal is a cercare. Regrettable, the cercare is often frowned on today as being in exceedingly bad taste for classical singers.

[11] (Poetics, XXV)

[12] Further references to this in Türk's treatise on Playing the Clavier under tempo rubato

[14] With the one condition that the observed people are healthy, able, strong, and normally formed, large or small, young or old, the tempo is the same.

[15] It is perhaps no coincidence that, dividing 116 by 1.618, the number needed to calculate the ratio of the "Golden" proportion, the result is 72 (71.69).

[16] These observations can be replicated by the reader in a simple way. Place a metronome, set it at 116, in front of a television and observe the beat coincidences of walking paces and spoken accents. Then set the metronome at 72 and observe, in speech, the speed of emphatic moments, pauses, phrases, etc. Try setting the tempi slightly off from 116 and 72 (say, 118 or 74, or 114 or 70) to see if those tempi produce the same level of coincidence.

[17] The technique is also used in cinema where it is called the fade.

[18] At a macro level, these techniques must be further considered within the larger concept of flow. C.P.E. Bach describes the importance of flow in performance. Although Bach's use of the word "flowing" has been perverted today to mean metronomically constant and continuous, behavior he described as both mechanical and slavish (or “commonplace,” as described by Aristotle), Bach refers to flow as in “flow of thought.” Whether musical or verbal, flow must indeed be strictly maintained, but supported by the intention to say something specific. Constant and continuous sound has no such requirement. Tempo can be maintained yet the performance may be devoid of musical thought; it is musical thought which must flow, and the notes are necessary only to carry that flow. Musical thought must flow like a great river: the eddies, whirlpools, currents, and swirls on the river’s surface never stop the collective movement of the whole river...it flows on, come what may. So it should be with musical thought.

[19] C.P.E. Bach's insistence on maintaining a single affect throughout a piece indicates the value he placed on integrity of affect in music. Empfindsam music is more like an affective conflict or argument in which, ideally, all four affects are exhibited in a work and are brought together in a harmony of affect at the end of the piece.