22 Making music work

22.2 Musical dynamics and musical shape


Quite a few researchers over the past century have thought about musical dynamics in the sense in which I was using the word in the previous section; but yet the notion has not become part of everyday musical talk. This may be partly because we’ve used the word in English to mean loudness, which is confusing – it’s not a particularly good word for loudness (nor is ‘volume’). Or perhaps it’s because the quantities that contribute to musical dynamics are easier to discuss as qualities (timbre, intensity, tension, shape). Woody (2000, 15) summarises some of this research:

Truslit (1938)… believed that the dynamics of inner motion are acquired through extramusical life experiences, and that these dynamics ‘can be described in rules, but simple application of these rules does not result in living expression’.

Clynes (1977) theorized that there are characteristic brain patterns associated with basic emotions which are manifested as similar patterns or ’shapes’ of expressive music performance devices… Sloboda (1996) [proposed that a] repertoire of templates is acquired, using analogies borrowed from a number of domains, ‘the most plausible being those of bodily and physical motion, gesture, speech and vocal intonation, and expressions of emotions’.[1]

Clarke (2002, 67) notes that

other researchers have demonstrated that performers’ spontaneous timing patterns follow the temporal curve of objects moving in a gravitational field, suggesting that a natural-sounding performance mimics the behaviour of physical objects moving in the real world.[2]

In other words, the sense that music moves, is lifelike, and is like other kinds of changing feeling states and other everyday experiences (more in this in Chapter 12.2), may be rooted in more basic experiences and responses to the world around us.

Musicians frequently talk of these aspects of musical experience in terms of ‘shape’. In our book about Music and Shape (2018) Helen Prior has looked at this kind of talk,[3] and I have suggested some mechanisms by which music may seem to have shape, looking especially at the ways in which musical shapes seem to model the shapes of human feeling states.[4] Music’s shapeliness seems, therefore, to be vitally connected with the ways in which it moves and engages us as performers and listeners. This means that when we speak, apparently informally and loosely, about the shape of a passage of music, we are speaking of important and fundamental features of it; and what we say tells us much more about what matters in a performance than the informality of the language might suggest. How a performance is ‘shaped’ and how it feels are inextricable, and are vital (essential and lifelike) in ways that its historical or philosophical or biographical relatedness are not.


Continue to Chapter 22.3 ‘Expression is dangerous

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[1] Woody, Robert H. 2002. Learning Expressivity in Music Performance: An Exploratory Study. Research Studies in Music Education 14, 14–23.

[2] Clarke, Eric. 2002. Understanding the Psychology of Performance. In John Rink (ed.), Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding (Cambridge University Press), 59–72. Clarke here references Todd, Neil P. McA. 1995. The Kinematics of Musical Expression. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 97, 1940–9.

[3] Prior, Helen M. 2018. Shape as Understood by Performing Musicians. In Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and Helen M. Prior (eds), Music and Shape (New York: Oxford University Press), 216–41. See also the Introduction to the same volume, pp. xxv–xxxiii.

[4] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2018. Musical Shape and Feeling. In Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and Helen M. Prior (eds), Music and Shape (New York: Oxford University Press), 359–82.

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