Domo Arigato Tempo Rubato

An overview of musical expression, and some corresponding expressive capabilities of LinnStrument.

Image from wikipedia.org

Image from wikipedia.org

“The bow can express the affections of the soul: but besides there being no signs that indicate them, such signs, even were one to invent them, would become so numerous that the music, already too full of indications, would become a formless mass to the eyes, almost impossible to decipher.”

-Giuseppe Cambini

One of the great joys of playing an instrument is expressing thoughts and feelings through it. When played in solitude, a musical instrument can act as a relief valve for accumulated stress. When played in public, it can serve as a medium for expressing musical ideas and emotions. Music played expressively can even elicit emotional responses in the listener.

Of course, instruments vary in their capabilities for expressiveness, and there are many facets of musical expression. Let’s take a look at some of these facets.

Understanding musical expression

As Giuseppe Cambini articulated in the quote cited previously, it’s not practical or even desirable to notate all the “affections of the soul” in written music. I would add that expressing ones own soul, and often the soul of the composer, is the joy and privilege of the performer. Facets of this expression include pitch variations, dynamics, timbre, and phrasing.

Pitch variations

On instruments that support it, one very effective means of expression is the act of varying of a note’s pitch while it’s being played. Common examples of this include portamento (pitch bending and sliding), and vibrato (pulsating change of pitch). In a recent conversation with Roger Linn (inventor of LinnStrument) the discussion turned to musical expression as it relates to pitch variations. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say on the subject:

“Subtle variations in pitch are, I think, the largest part of how we identify a particular performer’s style. If someone’s playing, for example, a guitar, the volume and timbre of a note can’t be changed by the performer after it’s plucked. The only thing that can be changed is the pitch. Most people that are familiar with rock guitar music would be able to identify the vibrato of Jimi Hendrix from Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck as being unique and different after only a couple of notes. But the truth is that they were all playing the same guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, through the same amplifier, a Marshall. What makes them unique and different is a particular style, in large part characterized by subtle pitch variations produced with string bends and vibratos.”

On LinnStrument, pitch variations are accomplished very naturally by moving your fingers along the X-axis as if each row is a string. To perform vibrato, wiggle your finger horizontally. To bend or slide a note, move your finger along the row to the desired ending pitch.  The following brief video of the flute solo intro in The Marshall Tucker Band “Can’t You See” demonstrates slight pitch variations and vibrato on LinnStrument:

Let’s move from discussing pitch variations to examining the use of volume variations, more formally known as dynamics, for musical expression.

Dynamics

Another very effective means of musical expression is to vary the volume (loudness) of notes, which is often referred to in musical terms as dynamics. Some dynamics such as pianissimo (very soft), and sforzando (forceful accent) are concerned with the relative volume of notes when first played. Other dynamics such as crescendo (gradually becoming louder), and tremolo (pulsating change of volume) indicate changes in volume while a note is being played.

Most instruments allow you to play a note at a desired volume, but not all of them allow you to vary the volume of a note as it is being played. For example, you can vary the initial volume of a note on the piano with the velocity of a key press, but the subsequent volume of the note is not usually under your control. By contrast, most wind instruments give you continuous control of volume.

On LinnStrument, volume variations are accomplished very naturally by varying the downward (Z-axis) pressure of your fingers. To increase the loudness of a note, press harder on the note pad. To perform tremolo, repeatedly increase and decrease pressure on the note pad.

Now that we’ve discussed varying pitch (X-axis), and volume (Z-axis), we’ll move on to varying timbre (Y-axis) for a third dimension of musical expression.

Timbre

A sort of catch-all category, timbre is what makes two notes that have the same pitch and volume distinguishable from each other. For example, a note played on a trumpet has a much different timbre than that same note played on a cello.  Timbre is often referred to as tone color or texture, and characterized by terms such as bright, warm, and harsh.

Varying the timbre of notes is a very effective means of musical expression, as evidenced by many of the flute solos that Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has recorded, such as his flute solo from “My God.”

On LinnStrument, timbre variations are accomplished very naturally by rolling your fingers forward or backward on the Y-axis. The resulting variation in sound is dependent upon the corresponding feature in the synthesized instrument.

Please take a look at this video of Roger Linn demonstrating on LinnStrument the three dimensions of expression (pitch, volume, and timbre) discussed to this point.

There are, of course, more facets of musical expressions than just varying pitch, volume, and timbre. One of these facets, known as phrasing, is concerned with varying note durations:

Phrasing

One of the most natural ways to express oneself musically is to intuitively vary the duration of notes, shaping the notes in time. This concept is known as musical phrasing, and one of the core ideas is to use “stolen time” (tempo rubato in Italian) from some notes and give it to other notes.

So, domo arigato tempo rubato, portamento, vibrato, pianissimo, sforzando, crescendo, tremolo, timbre, et cetera, for enabling musical expression!

Regards,
James Weaver
Twitter: @JavaFXpert

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