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The elements of music - part one

6 years ago

Pitch, time, tone, shape and performance are elements at the heart of all music and they also form the basis of our marking criteria. To bring these elements alive, we’ve asked musicians to share their thoughts on these musical building blocks. Here flautist and conductor Richard Davis and double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku explore shape and performance.

Shape: bringing music back to life

Richard Davis

Music is essentially a live art form and every performance will and should vary. Listening to the great orchestral works, conducted by several conductors, will highlight such differences. You will encounter, for example, a variety of tempi and differing approaches to articulation, balance and rubato. However, when playing a solo, or a piece with piano accompaniment, there is no conductor to inspire you. You have to become the music director and personally shape each piece. The first thing is to consider the context: what was the composer thinking when he composed the piece? Was he inspired by something visual or perhaps an emotion? Either way, he was compelled to translate his thoughts and feelings into music. Unfortunately musical notation by itself – the sheet music – is lifeless and the composer’s intentions, his musings, his visions, are all squashed flat. His phrases are trapped in this two dimensional form and it is the musician’s responsibility to bring them back to life. Here are some methods that may help you and your students.


If students can discover what the composer was writing about, that will help. Even if they can’t, they can think and imagine their own landscape, or emotion, or story that fits with the piece. Does the piece seem happy and joyful or dark and scary? Visualising in this way will allow the phrases to breathe again. The listener should immediately recognise greater shape and musicality.

Reconsidering bar lines, phrases and semiquaver passages

When we are younger we are often taught to indicate where the bar lines lie in our playing. Initially, this can stop the student from rushing and instil an inner pulse. But, as students progress, overemphasising the bar lines can become habit and musically destructive. But we don’t want to play without direction either, so we need to re-think where the phrases are going. Sometimes they will be on the bar line but at other times they will be in surprising places. Students could try looking at the music without playing to see what shapes appear – bar lines are musical packages that need unwrapping. Highlighting the groupings of semiquavers can be a wonderful tool to prevent students from rushing and to aid neat finger work. But this can also damage the phrasing. Once the tempo is set, and the finger work secure, encourage students to think of running semiquavers as waves, moving horizontally with varying power, rather than adding artificial vertical pointers, every four notes!

Style and musical notation

It is vitally important for students to know something about the era – and its performing practices – of the piece they are playing. How much vibrato, for example, did players of the day use? It is interesting to note that musicians’ views about accents and articulation have changed throughout the ages, and yet the markings we see on the page have not. Therefore an accent in Mozart’s day could be considered in a different light to one in a piece by Schubert. Mozart expressed that an accent should be a ‘thrill’ with decay while Schubert requests that some of his accents should be considered ‘smiles’. More modern composers, like Stravinsky, would perhaps require a violent ‘stab’ when writing an accent. These are very different gestures and yet they are all marked in the same way on the page. It is therefore important to interpret them in an appropriate manner.

Articulation is the language of music

Encourage students to think of articulation as an artist’s paintbrush and about the way they display their phrases. No artist would have just one paintbrush – they would have various sizes each with different textures of bristle. They would have pastels, crayons and pencils too. As musicians, we must think in the same way and develop a wide array of articulations in order to paint beautiful phrases on to the music canvas. Once students begin to explore these ideas, and develop a few more of their own, they will begin to play at a deeper level. Their musicality will translate more easily into performance and the music will have greater shape. Shape

Performance: telling a story

Chi-chi Nwanoku

Amongst a zillion happy childhood memories one of my favourites was bedtime stories from my mum or dad. My brothers and sisters and I would be bursting with excitement waiting to hear them, and it was probably the only time in the day when all five of us children were pin-drop silent, all at the same time! These stories were especially thrilling – they were spontaneous and made up – because my parents had both come from societies with strong storytelling traditions. Depending on whether we had been mischievous during the day or done really well at school, mum’s stories, in particular, always incorporated something special from what had happened that day. We would hang off every word waiting to recognise which of us she might be referring to. Although she never used any of our names, we liked to imagine being the hero or the villain – and usually recognised who she was referring to.

An unfolding story

The idea of storytelling is something that has followed me into music, in the way I feel and experience it. From the outset I was always fascinated by the relationship between notes – the interval distance from one note to another and the way the sound and feeling changes when two different notes are played simultaneously. It is harmony that really captivates me and was the hook for drawing me further and further into the wonderful discoveries and sound world of music. Every different melodic progression or harmonic arrangement is like a story unfolding. I love how the mood of the music and my feelings are so affected by the rhythms and harmonies, and how there are endless stories within them to be told. Sometimes there may be a title that immediately sets the scene. When there isn’t I try to imagine the story in the composer’s mind as they were writing the piece and by really listening ‘in between’ the notes and the harmonies I can get a sense of the adventure the music takes me on.

Creating a sense of occasion

It’s amazing to imagine the sheer number of people playing the same piece, especially during exam time, so as performers we must try to find the confidence to put our own interpretation and personality into a performance. The music deserves it, and should not just be a series of notes! Listeners – including examiners – will always feel the sense of occasion if we are truly able to express something of ourselves in our performance.

Finding the characters in a piece

I might imagine characters representing certain lines in the music, even giving them names sometimes. I find it’s always helpful when I remember that the notes on the page are merely the guidelines to the music. A kind of melodic satnav I suppose! Then once I have thoroughly familiarised myself with all the notes and characters in the piece, I can really start to ‘play’ it – imagining and telling the story. Doing this usually makes me much more engaged with the music, and helps me to make it my own. Either my childhood imagination was encouraged to be vivid, or perhaps it was because some of the stories were so vivid that my imagination was stimulated by them! Whichever way, these early experiences have been central in bringing that communicative dimension into performances of any piece I play, whether it is a solo, chamber or orchestral work. And in turn, the joy and thrill of performing a piece of music is made all the more satisfying when the audience can share and sense my commitment and enjoyment too!

  • Read the second article in the series

This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Richard Davis is a conductor, flute player and author of Becoming an Orchestral Musician: a Guide for Aspiring Professionals. He is Senior Flute Tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music and a coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Chi-chi Nwanoku is Principal Double Bassist and founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Endymion Ensemble. She is a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and also works as a broadcaster. In 2001, Chi-chi was awarded an MBE for services to music.

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We are always interested in hearing your feedback on our magazine. Please contact the Libretto editor to share your thoughts. Lucy North T+44 (0)20 7467 8253

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