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Music Interpretation, part 1

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The 21st century digital world has many resources available to the music student and teacher. Just a few years back, in order to hear how someone else performed a given work, one had to go to the record store, buy the vinyl or cassette or better yet, go to live concert. Now with iTunes, YouTube, Vimeo, et. al., one can find virtually any work performed somewhere across the globe. This is not to imply that they are remarkable performances, which gets at the subject of this article: interpretation.

What is interpretation of music? Reading the comments under a given YouTube performance, undoubtedly one will run across the phrase, “I like (or in some cases, hate) this interpretation.” After reading the comments in a few hundred different performances, one begins to wonder if the persons commenting really have a working concept of interpretation. Perhaps, they are just saying, “Hurrah!” or “Bravo” or “Boo” – a verbal thumbs up or thumbs down. Somehow it seems the word “interpretation” is being used in many cases to advance musical sophistication. That is, to impart intellectual rigor to one’s comments.

First question: is there one correct interpretation or can there be many correct interpretations? If many are likely, then when two of the many correct disagree, why is it often stated that one is wrong? Perhaps it is because the person commenting is more disagreeable than the interpretation, preferring one so strongly over another that emotion overcomes the reasonable sense to accept the difference. To be sure, humanity is by nature subject to this possibility. Perhaps it is not really interpretation with which they disagree, but some other aspect of the performance, say the tone of the instrument or voice, the acoustical environment of the recording, perhaps the recording itself! Perhaps they are simply unhappy people who refuse to appreciate anything someone else does? Now that is strong, but it seems more prevalent than ever.

Back to interpretation. Of the facets of interpretation under a performer’s control, most would agree historic knowledge and sensitivity are the best place to start. After all, if someone else wrote it, we would like to “quote” them or “recite” their words (work) accurately, lest someone develop a false opinion about a composer or work. We need to bring many of our performance elements under the sway of historic integrity; such things as form, phrasing, tempo, rubato, dynamic, length of note-tone, articulation, etc. Some items which make an “interpretation” different or unique are more rightly dubbed personal choices in our hearing of a phrase.

Varied musical emphases within a phrase can create varied shapes or shades of meaning, yet not harm interpretation. Since these variations will likely affect surrounding phrases, one would hear a unique rendering of the work under consideration. For example, take the phrase, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross….” It is possible to emphasize at least 6 different words in the phrase. Emphasis on one over the others will draw your attention, which can then be used to set the context for a subsequent phrase. For instance, emphasizing the word “old”, could give contextual permission to say “how old” in the next phrase (though that is not where the text actually goes) but does not necessitate it.


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