Defining Sound in Music Making

Music in general can be defined as “organised sound”. This organized sound is transmitted by someone we call a “performer”, either through singing or playing an instrument. The ability to connect the audience from their hearts to this organised sound lies in the hands of the performers: the mediators between music and human souls. An effective music making thus depends on the ability of the performer to perform music based on their knowledge, technique, and interpretation of music.

Since the establishment of music notation, music are preserved by composers in the form of musical scores. This intelligent and admirable way of preserving music, however, has its limitation due to the nature of music – music is in no way constrained by markings on a paper. The sound a composer has in mind cannot be totally notated in the form of scores. In other words, the notation that a musician sees will require an interpretation to its informations based on good understandings of music performance practice and styles. This concept is put wonderfully by British composer Gerald Finzi in the song “To Lizbie Brown” in the song cycle “Earth and Air and Rain”:

“The beat should be flexible and wayward, with crotchet = 104 as no more than a touch-stone. Such suppleness cannot, of course, be determined by directions on paper, and the modifications of speed which are given should only be considered as an outline.”

Dynamic markings in a musical score are conventionally written in the gradation of volume. From the very basic forte, piano, crescendo, diminuendo; to the more complicated markings of ffff, calando, sotto voce – dynamic markings should not be only related to its volume. Instead, a performer should know how to define the sound based on the dynamic markings they see on a score. Performer of every instrument/voice should have the knowledge and understanding of how to define the sound they make for their instruments. Discussing as a pianist, I am going to introduce this idea of definition of sound in terms of piano playing. A pianist’s ability to define sound comes fundamentally from the ability to identify musical texture.

A classic example will be the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, where the dynamic marking is marked piano at the beginning of the music. A performer should be able to tell that the texture in this movement has the basic construction of melody, accompaniment and bass. Thus, in performing this movement, one must not be constrained by the dynamic marking of “piano”, but instead define the sound they want for each layer of texture in the music. This, for instance, will need the melody to be played rather projected, perhaps thinking about the cello section in an orchestra, and play them much louder than the others (for example, mf). To define this layer of sound, we should probably define it as a passionate singing melody like the cello section or a baritone voice.  The underlining accompaniment texture should be played subtly, in no way overpowering the singing cello section. One can define this texture as viola or cello sound playing in an orchestra to provide the underlying rippling harmony supporting the melody. Thus, dynamically this layer should be rather soft, perhaps a pp. The bass line, often neglected, should not be played at the same level as the accompaniment figures. It provides a strong harmonic support and lifts the sound of the whole ensemble. Therefore, it can be defined as rich cello and double bass section or the singing bassoon with bass clarinet. In terms of dynamics, this should be at least p, if not mp.

This concept is equally significant, if not more important, in collaborative piano playing. The ability of voicing and defining sound is one of the most important techniques required of a collaborative pianist. In music collaboration, a pianist needs to have the ability to differentiate the textures in the piano part and also the music as a whole. They then will comprehend the different types of sounds needed for the different layers of texture. A good and simple example to illustrate this will be Faure’s song “Au bord de l’eau”. The opening chords in the piano, although being very simple chords, give a few possibilities of its definition. As a pianist one often voices the chords they play, usually bringing out the top voice. In this song however, I would argue that the top should not be distinct from the rest by voicing the top. The top should not be treated as a melodic note. On the other hand, pianists should play these chords like good organ-like chords, giving slightly more emphasis of the bass than the rest. They should sound warm and deep, suggesting the mood the singer has. Later in the piano part there exists two types of melodies: counter melodies and main melodies. It is the responsibility of the pianist then to define how they should sound like, in relation to the composer’s markings in the music.

The idea of definition of sound is especially crucial for pianists for the notes they play often consist of multiple layer of textures. An ability to make definitions for the sound they play gives a colourful and characterful performance. Pianists should then break away from the literal comprehension of musical notations and attempt to be a better musician by giving good definitions to the sound in the music they play.

© May 2016 Bernard Tan, All Rights Reserved