Emotional and Mechanical Approaches to Learning Music

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Generally, as individuals, people experience new skills, practices, and knowledge in their own ways. They learn through the ways they are “wired” or “programmed” to understand. The manners in which people learn and understand music are no different, and it is these approaches to music that develop the variety of musicians that people become later in their music careers. Of course, with such individuality from person to person, there are many different approaches that one could take to learn music. However, there are only two that truly define what elements it takes to fully understand music: the mechanical and the emotional approaches to music.

In my early years of piano education, I was taught only the very basic theories of music – hardly enough to grace it with the title of “theory.” My theory education consisted of simple notation including note pitches, names of notes, and timing. Only recently have I been given the privilege of learning the true structure of music, and it has opened my eyes as to how important certain aspects are when writing or analyzing a piece of music. I was not taught this before. Instead, my teacher decided to take the other approach simply because she herself did not know much about theory. She then proceeded to tell me to put feeling into the music. As I would watch her demonstrate how to play a piece I was learning, I saw the way she moved when she played. She would even close her eyes as though the song was taking her somewhere. Therefore, as most children do, I mimicked this action. Even today, I continue to mimic this way of playing, which I believe to be a great tool in connecting all the elements of a performance – myself, the piano (or any other instrument), and the audience – together, all relaying a certain emotion I happen to be feeling at the time.
According to Peter Kivy, author of Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, the idea of there being a special relationship between music and the human emotion goes “beyond the connection… between [one’s] emotions and any other of the fine arts… [this is] the oldest and most continuously reiterated precept in…music” (14). Kivy describes the Camerata’s theory which notes that there are two ways that music taps into human emotions. These include the expressiveness of music and its power to move us emotionally. The first is the study of how one describes music in expressive terms, such as “Oh my, this song is sad.” It is more empathetic as if experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. The second is the idea that people are deeply, emotionally moved by music. This type can be described as sympathetic when defined as the relation between people whereby a condition or disorder of one induces some effect in another. People are not just hearing the tone of a piece, but these very emotions used for describing the piece itself are being aroused within the individuals in the audience.
Because music is portrayed or described as a certain emotion, it makes people feel that certain sensation as well. This is known as the persona theory (Kivy)– people hear a song as a human declaration or statement. As the song is being played, it takes on the role of a certain feeling, and it therefore communicates this feeling to the audience. According to music theorist Edward Cone this persona is known as “the composer’s voice,” also considered the performer’s voice (Kivy). Just as a person may empathize with another when he or she shows a particular emotion, the same happens as audiences come to feel the emotions they imagine the musical persona is expressing (115). A person in the audience may not even be consciously aware of the persona of a piece for an emotional effect to occur. It just takes a hint of a connection between the soul of the music and the soul of someone listening for there to be some sort of emotional shift in the person. It is the musicians who use the emotional approach that most often make this connection between the piece and the audience.
A school classroom is an example of such a situation. If a teacher – the mediator – is not totally focused and not fully ingrained into what he or she is teaching, then it is difficult (if not impossible) for that teacher to relay the knowledge to the students in such a way that makes them understand the material. If the students see that their teacher is not fully interested in the topic being taught, they will most likely not have any interest in it as well. If someone loves what he or she is doing, however, whether it be teaching, playing music, or even writing, it is usually clearly evident of that person’s love for what they are doing by their expressions while performing the task.
On the other hand, in general, the mechanical musicians are taught the theory and structure of music early in their education, and it is commonly thought that these people will be better musicians than those who merely play off of emotion and feeling. This widespread idea is a result of the way that people learn information in school. Teachers, parents, and other students usually agree that the students who study the most are the ones who will succeed in mastering the material. These musicians often know more of how the music is “built” than the emotional musicians. Therefore, it appears that they are more knowledgeable about music, leading to the idea that they will be more successful in music. They tend to not play with much (if any) emotion at all. However, since they have the book knowledge of how to play, they still have strong potential to be very good, and as mentioned before, are many times considered the best musicians.
As mentioned before, there is a connection between the music and the audience. However, the mediator for this connection is the performer. When an audience sees or feels a certain emotion within a piece of music, it is because the performer is playing in such a way that the audience can picture what is “presently occurring” in the song. I recently gave a survey concerning the relationship between musicians who play off of either emotion or from “book” knowledge of music and their performance thereof. In this survey I chose seven students who are considered by their peers to be good musicians, and I narrowed down my candidates for the survey based on how many were seemingly emotional or theory-based musicians. One student that really stood out to me for his apparent input of emotion as well as his extensible knowledge of music theory and structure is Henry Maurer. He was taught theory early on in his musical education, and he (along with many of his peers) has rated himself a nine on a scale of ten based on talent.
However, Henry also considers himself quite an emotional musician. When asked about whether he thinks of himself as one who only plays off of technique and knowledge or one who plays off of emotion, his response was, “I think it depends on when and where I'm playing. There are times [such as in band] that I've played solely on technique and knowledge, and I don't really consider getting emotional about it. But when I've played at nursing homes and such, my music is much more based on emotion and feeling.” As far as connecting emotionally with an audience, Henry feels that “in nursing home settings and for older audiences who tend to sing along and know the older songs [he plays, he feels] very connected with them when an audience is willing to meet you half way to the stage to find joy and artist.”
In the survey I conducted, one question asked of the students was if they feel an emotional connection with the audience or an ensemble they are playing with. Neel Erickson was one student who answered that yes, he does feel a connection with the ensemble he is playing with; however, this it is not the same case with his audience. Neel is a particularly exceptional pianist, and this thought is fairly widespread throughout his high school. He is also one who was taught theory early. However, these two factors do not necessarily make him a better musician. The fact that he has known music theory and the structure of how music is “built” for a long time does not give him any sort of advantage in learning how to play the instrument. It depends on how he uses the knowledge given to him. If he uses this knowledge to help him learn how songs are structured, that is really all it will do. Without dedication and persistence, which this student has, knowing what kind of key or chord a song is based on does no good at all.
The end result of either the emotional or knowledgeable approach is all dependent on the performance thereof. This is where one’s background of music comes into play. More often than not, the non-emotional musicians simply “comply with the score,” according to Peter Kivy. This basically means that he or she will play the notes strictly as written. According to theory musicians, if they to add or omit notes, they believe they are not following instructions – not complying with the score. Kivy has noted that generally “any sensible performer will retort that, if you only did that, you would produce a very unmusical…performance” (226). Kivy also believes that, “the performer…must add something beyond the merely as written.” This addition is emotion, and it is necessary in order to complete the effect of a performance. If it is not present, the audience will not maintain a connection with the performer, much less the music.
However, it is very important to remember that the musical notation that performers are to follow is vital. It tells what notes to play and what pitches are to be used, as well as how loud or soft to hit keys or bow the strings. Yet this notation still needs improvement. It is wrong to think that strictly following a music score is wrong in itself. This is because it “overlooks the fact that this notation…exists outside the background knowledge required for its interpretation” (Kivy 228). Just as the notation is necessary as guidelines for the musician follow, background knowledge is also necessary to correctly understand the notation. It is a true musician who can take this notation, and create a sense of ecstasy in the audience. One must feel this within him or herself first. How can a performer interpret ecstasy for an audience if he has not generated it for himself? As Robert Jourdain, author of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, has noted, “The power of sound cannot be explained merely by the power of music’s structure” (Jourdain 328). The music must be released out of this structure and brought out to accomplish its full potential to figuratively move people. According to Jourdain, “the experience…at every perceptual level may be taken as…‘beauty’” (Jourdain 330).
Of course everyone has a different preconceived idea of what beauty is in his or her mind. As far as music is concerned, mine happens to include this revered and special relationship that can occur between me, the music I am playing, and the audience I am performing for. For me, this goal can only be achieved when I am fully focused and dedicated to the piece at the present time of performance. I actually do not enjoy playing the piano without getting emotionally involved in the song I am playing. It just seems like a waste of time if all I am doing is poking at the keys or basically just making noise. I would be playing only notes – not music.
When I am part of an audience listening, being on the other end of the performance allows me to either experience or not experience a sense of emotion. It is usually very evident when a person is emotionally involved in a piece he or she is playing. This in turn gives me the chance to not only have a connection with the song, but also the performer as well. Sometimes I am able to “see” a certain event happening while one is playing simply because of the so called “give and take” notions used. These occasions are very important to me as a performer because they give me insight as to what an audience really wants to feel.
As with many others, understanding the theory behind the music I play has only improved my skills. However, this knowledge could never replace the sensation that I need to feel to allow someone else to shift emotions when hearing what I play. Both the emotional and mechanical components of music are necessary in playing music as one can not be truly successful with just one of these elements. However, most musicians fall under only one of these two categories, which allow them the opportunity to really focus on what they believe to be important in how music is interpreted to their audiences.





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