Identifying Emotions in Music
By Alyssa Cowell
An argument for encouraging music students to develop their vocabulary skills.
As musicians, we understand the importance of expression when it comes to interpreting a piece. As teachers, we want to help our students develop technical skills that will allow him/her to perform in a manner that touches an audience. In order to decide what techniques to apply, however, a musician has to have a clear understanding of the message they’re trying to share. What happens when a student doesn’t have the words to describe what the song is about? I would posit that in a present where emojis are used as quick (and often apt) shortcuts to describe how we feel, we risk losing our ability to communicate our feelings succinctly. In extension, musical expression suffers from a lack of nuance when there are only a few emotional states that a student can identify.
This line of thought began after discovering that many of my vocal students struggle to identify the intended emotion of their vocal assignments. The first question I ask a student after they’ve had some time to learn their piece is: “What is this song about?” Very often students recite the words of the song back to me, or use the title of the song as their explanation. Yes, the song “My Favorite Things” references several pleasant items that the singer likes to remember when times are tough, but how does Maria feel in this moment of the play? When we try to dig a little deeper into the song, a student will pause – either because they didn’t do their homework, or because they are genuinely stumped by the question. If finding words to express how a character feels is this difficult with a time-honored piece from the Sound of Music, how much harder is it with a piece of standard repertoire written in 17th century Italian? What about the instrumentalist who has no lyrics to help them decide? Of course there are expression markings written into the music, but in order to connect with a melody there has to be an investment of emotion by the artist.
To see how my student’s awareness of the emotional tone of a piece might improve, I’ve begun an experiment with some of my vocalists. Each student has started a list of emotions in their notebooks to use as a reference for times when they’re really not sure how the speaker for their song is feeling. We start by creating a page that is divided into 3 columns with headings for Happy, Sad, and Angry. Interestingly, once we start to write a few emotions down the first question I receive is: “But what about feelings that fall into more than one column?” The fact that a student is, without prompting, articulating the idea that emotions are more complex than what was first understood tells me we’re already making progress. Students who become more aware of the varying intensity and subtle differences of emotions are more equipped to give performances that are thoughtfully expressive. Taking the time to sift through lyrics and speculate on why a dynamic marking has been chosen takes on new meaning when viewed as a means to express a specific emotion or set of emotions.
In just a few lessons, students are amazed to discover the amount of emotions that one song can cover in a short period of time. Occasionally, a song that seemed completely un-relatable takes on new meaning as a student realizes that they can call on the personal experience of feeling the way a character from a song feels. I plan to keep my students’ emotion lists open-ended; as we explore new songs, I’m sure we’ll come across some that we haven’t written down yet.