Jonathan Vaughan

Jonathan Vaughan, Director of Music at the Guildhall School, considers some of the challenges in developing musical interpretation and learning to play expressively in performance. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Expression and meaning in performance

The Reflective Conservatoire Conference is always an opportunity for all of us to get our heads out of the day to day clamour of running our respective institutions and give ourselves a moment’s respite and a licence to dream. I often consider what might be next in the evolution of Guildhall School’s teaching and there is one particular area which is relevant to research that I would like to discuss here.

Enabling all of our students to fully express their musical intentions

The focus on this item may surprise some of you. Surely this is at the heart of the conservatoire training? Well yes it is, or should be, but I still hear too many performances where students, to paraphrase Eric Morecombe, can play all of the right notes in the right order, but who have very little to say musically, psychologically or expressively. I’m puzzled by this because all the evidence of my observations suggests that the majority of our teachers are very clearly engaged in trying to address it. We all write comments on assessment forms about developing a more expressive response or giving a work more musical meaning but what any of us specifically means by this is more difficult to explain.

If we get into the subjective question of “meaning in music” we can consider researchers, the likes of Cross, I. & Tobert, E., (2009, p27-34), who highlighted two possible approaches to the understanding of meaning in music – referential, where a symbol system such as musical notes refer to something outside of the symbol system (program music and songs are a prime example of this where a story is implied or proposed thus giving the listener an immediate suggestion of the sound of the sea or the first cuckoo in spring) or aesthetic, where music exists to simply be beautiful (a difficult argument to sustain when much 20th century music has deliberately challenged ideas of conventional beauty in music). For a wide ranging audit on this subject I refer readers to Chapter 13 & 14 of Tan et al (2010) Psychology of Music from Sound to Significance.

In truth I don’t find either of these definitions very helpful when it comes to understanding what assessors want when asking students for more “meaning” in their performances. A more practical definition for our purposes comes from two sources cited by Tan et al.; Kate Hevner (1936) and Eduard Hanslick (1891/1986 p10) both describe the interpretation of “motion” through harmony, resolution and progression, its twists and turns of melody around the keynote, ideas of increasing and diminishing acceleration and clever inter-weavings which carry the suggestiveness of meaning in music.

I was recently at a masterclass where a teacher told the accompanist he “wanted to feel her suffering”. We all understood what he meant and she obligingly, without need of any further explanation, was able to show us – mainly by the subtle illusions, shaping and changes of emphasis described by Hevner and Hanslick above.

Tan et al. have further descriptions of cognitive and emotive approaches to performance where cognitivists say that “we understand a certain musical performance to be expressing an emotional state” and emotivists say that “the music object is causing an emotional state in the listener through physiological responses” (2010, p253). In other words cognitivists might say that music expresses or represents emotions but does not elicit real emotions, while emotivists maintain that music induces real emotions in listeners.

And herein lies the difficulty as I perceive it for our less expressive students. Many of our undergraduates have not stopped to ask themselves why they are musicians or what outcomes they want to achieve from their next performance. Furthermore, in terms of expression or “meaning” in their performances many expect to rely upon inspiration on the day – that the muse will somehow descend from the mantelpiece and solve all the expressive and psychological implications of the piece with which they have hitherto neglected to grapple. They seem to believe that true expression can only come from a moment of inspiration, and that therefore any tampering with these qualities by affecting or manufacturing an emotional response beforehand, or to offer anything where the performer does not truly emote in the moment, would somehow be disingenuous. There seems to be a sense that if the technical challenges of a work are overcome the “interpretation” will, at least to some degree, take care of itself. However, there is very strong evidence to suggest that the stress and anxiety of public performance often eclipses any ability to access the emotional responses required for a particular piece. Furthermore, there are many who would advise against even attempting to access the full gamut of emotional responses during a live performance. Actors report that the moments when they do fully indulge and immerse themselves in the feelings of their character their performances often become incoherent to others.

There are clearly a number of conventional gestures and devices which represent certain expressive and psychological responses to music – a kind of emotional cue if you like (at a very basic level for example, the slow ponderous beat in a minor key for a funeral march and the fast bright major sound of a dance to lift the spirits). Many of our best teachers automatically integrate expression into the early preparation of a student’s work and understand that “on the day” a performer may not be in the mood for whatever response they are attempting to illicit. The teachers know that these expressive gestures can and must be prepared and pre-programmed beforehand. So why are students so reluctant to follow their cue?

Here I think we have much to learn from acting. Acting, at least as it is practised at the Guildhall, has a far greater sense of permissive failure; students can stand in the wrong place and misquote their lines as long as they commit and access the emotional/psychological traits of the piece. In contrast many new music students entering the building, after years of painstaking coaching outside, are obsessively fixated with playing the right notes, regardless of their “meaning”.

Daniel Barenboim and our own John Sloboda both extol the virtues of improvisation.

Daniel Barenboim “The three permanent questions that a musician must ask himself are: why, how and for what purpose. This is why improvisation…..going in an unexpected direction, allowing the fingers, the heart, the brain, the gut, to cooperate in an unpremeditated way…is a very blessed state in life of a human being, as well as the basis for making music”. Music Quickens Time (2009)

John Sloboda:    “…formal task-oriented practice encourages the development of technical rather than expressive skills, whereas exploratory and improvisatory activities encourage the individual’s expressive development. Successful musicians are those who have been able to achieve a balance between these types of activity.”  (2005, p269).

But the fixated student obsessed with playing the right notes becomes ossified and prevented from experiencing the liberation of experimentation for fear of playing the wrong notes thus somehow hampering their technical development. I suspect that their reluctance is also bound up with the fact that they may feel better equipped to monitor their own technical progress objectively than they are able to gauge their more subjective emotional/expressive development.

There is now a large catalogue of research on neurological and psychological responses to music and performance. Dong-Eog Kim outlined an experiment where intense repetition of movement activated new pathways in the brain’s centres for visual and aural sensory impulses:

“Musical processing (i.e. performance, perception and comprehension) involves multiple brain systems including the motor, auditory, limbic and executive systems. These processes thus require integration of activities in all areas. Motor and musical sciences are discovering a common field in which they can interact positively, and future studies are expected to elucidate training-induced trans-synaptic connections between musical representation and motor areas.” (Dec 2004): p188-9)

In a recent essay one of our very gifted Masters students, Ed Whitehead (Repetiteur), considered this research in connection with Daniel Kahneman’s two system, problem-solving model of the brain (2010) and came up with a compelling question.

“…if the above research of Kim et al. is indeed correct, and the physical process of performance is intrinsically linked with other brain processes, then surely one could use the same process of repetition to “learn” the emotional or intellectual processes in a musical performance, making it into an unconscious, internalised and therefore perhaps more convincing display. If this were possible then a musician could still obtain all of their artistic objectives as a performer, but the approach would be neurologically intertwined with technical, physical practice, which would lend itself to the natural learning process rooted physical playing technique….Thus it is possible to “learn” a specific emotional reaction.”

I believe that many of our professors have a very strong grasp of the issues I have discussed, either through their own experience and intuition or through a lifetime of careful, purposeful study and observation. However, the School as an institution has yet to define and condense down the essence of “Guildhall-ness” in its teaching. Were it possible to do this we could strengthen and refine our teaching culture and be able to successfully pass on our ethos in a clearly articulated manner to future generations. A more systematic approach to these subjects through the connections between research/ data and the practicality of the day-to-day teaching experience would benefit us all. Yehudi Menuhin had a very appropriate quote;

“Let us keep open the connections whereby the human spirit may freely move between the arts and the sciences, and thus make more of each.” –quoted in Tan et al (2010, preface)

It is the grasping of these principles – the notion that expressive response can and must be experimented with and to some degree prearranged – which seems to elude those students who are unable to really access expressive live performance. The purposeful exploration of this subject through both integrated reflective research for our teachers and practical training for our students will, I believe, develop a more clearly prescribed and understood approach to its teaching and therefore a higher rate of success and satisfaction for our students in performance.

The other great inhibitor for successful live performance is of course performance anxiety, but that’s another story…


Cross, I. & Tobert, E., (2009) Music and meaning. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (eds), The Oxford Handbook of music psychology (pp.27-34). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Tan, S. Pfordresher, P. Harre, R. (2010) Psychology of Music from Sound to Significance, Psychology Press, Hove, E. Sussex

DanielBarenboim, D. Elan Cheah , E. Music Quickens Time by, 2009 (6 Mearsd St, London W1F 0EG).

Sloboda J, (2005) Exploring The Musical Mind (New York).

Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. (2010) Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dong-Eog Kim. Musical Training-Induced Functional Reorganization of the Adult Brain: Functional Magnetic Rosonance Imaging and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Study on Amateur String Players. Human Brain Mapping 23, no 4 (Dec 2004)

Jonathan Vaughan is Vice Principal and Director of Music at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He was formally Director of the National Youth Orchestra and before that, Chairman and playing member of the London Symphony Orchestra. He studied Double Bass and Piano at the Royal College of Music.


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