It can be so frustrating. You hear a comedian tell the absolute funniest joke in the world. It’s so funny that you’re on the floor for five minutes, shrieking hysterically. The next day you tell the same joke to your friends and their reactions are, to say the least, more subdued. Now you’re devastated. “Don’t you get it?” you ask. They tell you that they did get it, but that it just wasn’t all that funny. “Oh, well, I guess you had to be there,” you mutter.
Often it’s not so much the joke that puts you on the floor, but the way it’s told. Comedians are masters of expression, voice-tone, timing, and all the subliminal little things they do that make their renditions sparkle. Without these, yours will most likely fall flat.
In music it’s the same way. It’s not just the notes you play, but how you play them. And an important part of how you play the notes is articulation.
Articulation means how the notes are struck, held, or connected. A lifeless string of notes can be invigorated with the right “attack.” They could be played smoothly (legato), choppy (staccato), hard (accented), or short and hard (marcatto). You can slide quickly into a note (grace-note), or from one note into another (glissando). You can flutter up or down a step from the note you’re on (trill), or, on most instruments, waver the pitch up and down (vibrato). Then there are things you can do to the volume: crescendo (gradually increasing the volume during a note or phrase), and diminuendo (gradually decreasing the volume).
Of course, many of these can be combined within the same passage. In a single six-note phrase, for example, you could play legato for the first three notes and staccato for the last three. The possibilities are endless.
These are simply suggestions for you to consider. If you are a beginner and are unsure how to execute some of these, there is no shortage of instruction books written for your instrument that you can consult.
Of course, it is possible to overdo it. Part of the process of getting good is to develop a sense of tastefulness. Even just a few well-chosen accents here and there can do wonders for a melody. But for most students I’ve worked with, overdoing it is not the problem. Under-doing it is.
Most published music will give you at least some suggested articulations. Certainly, you should try them. But you should also consider putting in some of your own.
Listen carefully to players you admire. Listen to how they articulate. Very often their melodies may be quite simple and still very effective. The sparkle in their music is due to much more than their articulations, of course, but the articulations definitely help.
For now, experiment with articulations. Take a simple melody you know well and try playing it legato, then staccato; add some accents here and there; vary the volume; trill a long note; add vibrato to another. Then mix and match and discover what you like.
Playing music really is like telling a joke. Sometimes, it’s how you play it.
The truth about sheet music, or any published music, is that it was written and typeset by human beings … imperfect and biased human beings. Like its makers, it is not 100% perfect. There are simply too many things that can go wrong. This does not mean that every piece of music you buy is flawed. But it helps to understand what kinds of inaccuracies do occur so that you will be better able to correct them when the time comes.
For starters, if it sounds wrong it may very well be wrong. Check and make sure you’re reading and playing it correctly (not forgetting any sharps, flats, or naturals, for instance). Try again. If it still sounds wrong, consider the following:
Typos happen. A fatigued or inattentive proofreader may have overlooked a tiny detail. A hurried typesetter may have typed a G instead of an E. If an individual note sounds wrong to your ear, try other notes until you find something that sounds correct.
Rhythmic notation is sometimes only approximate, particularly in contemporary music where syncopated (off-the-beat) rhythms may have been reinterpreted by the artist rather than delivered exactly as you see it. Some rhythms are just too complex to be notated perfectly within our system of rhythmic notation, which works best with simple fractions of beats such as halves, quarters, or thirds. In many cases, a publisher will simplify a rhythm to make it easier to read, with the understanding that you will need to reinterpret it in order for it to sound right. This happens even with professional-level music (fake books, for instance), not only in beginners’ books. If you are unsure about a rhythm, try to get a copy of the recording to hear exactly how it was done. Whenever I play for a theater musical, I always buy a CD of the original Broadway production. It is well worth the money, as theater guitar books are notoriously inaccurate!
Older songs that have been around the block a few times (“When the Saints Go Marching In,” for example) have acquired different interpretations or editions over the years. You may have to rework them to fit the way you feel they should sound.
Some musicians are aghast at the suggestion that they change their part to make it more suitable to their needs. They feel that printed music is somehow sacred and is not to be touched by their hands. But music is art. Art is subject to a renderer’s personal interpretation, playing style, needs, and creative choices. It is your artistic license to play a song the way you wish it to be played.
When you read a story to a child you probably interpret it to fit the situation: Changing your voice for different characters, changing words you don’t think the child will understand, adding sound effects, and so on. In short, you exercise your own creativity to make the author’s words work better for the child, to make the story more memorable. Why should it be any different with musical notation?
Of course, if you’re playing with a band or ensemble of some sort, your interpretations may not fit with everyone else’s part. In these situations limit any changes to correcting typos only, unless you can convince everyone to change their parts as well.For the rest of the time, it is your call more than you may think.
When you were four or five years old you were probably given the advice: “Don’t talk to strangers.” That’s good advice for a young child since they haven’t yet developed the ability to weed out “good” strangers from “bad.” But the time comes when we have to modify this once infallible rule. Otherwise, how would we ever make any friends? In time we rework it into something like this: “If you sense something unsavory in a stranger, refrain from dealing with that person. Otherwise, walk up and say hi.”
Many rules are simply guidelines to keep beginners on course. They are meant to be learned, understood, respected, and followed. But they are not meant to be followed blindly forever. They are not meant to entrap us or prevent us from trying new things or exploring new possibilities. To every musical rule there are exceptions. Virtually all have been broken successfully by someone great.
There are certain realms, math for example, in which exceptions to rules are virtually impossible to find. (When does two plus two not equal four?) But music is not math, it is an art form, thus it is subject to taste and opinion.
So, if you’ve been playing or songwriting for a good while and you find yourself tempted to break a rule, how do you know if it’s a good idea?
Simple: Just try it.
Try it. That’s all. Does it sound good? Better yet, does anyone else think so, too? Then break it.
If, on the other hand, it doesn’t sound good, that doesn’t mean that the rule can never be broken. Just not in this case.
One of the great rewards of trying to break a rule is that it is one of the most common ways for new ideas to be discovered. Over the years, broken rules (accidentally or intentionally broken) have given us new chords, scales, instrumental techniques, and more. Some may have sounded strange or even harsh, but that may have been the very element of reality the artist was trying to convey at that time.
Don’t deny yourself the right to contribute something new to the world courtesy of a broken rule. Somebody has to do it. If everyone followed all the rules all the time, everyone would sound the same. One of the ways in which a musician’s own unique style is defined is by the particular rules he breaks.
Here are some examples of rules that can be broken successfully:
“Play in tune.” But in blues and rock, notes are routinely “bent” out of tune to darken the mood.
“Keep your eyes on the music.” If you’re being led by a conductor, you would do well to keep your eyes on him from time to time. And if you know some passages, or an entire piece, by heart, it’s a good idea to not look at them. Just listen … closer than you’ve ever listened before.
“Play in key.” Chromatic (out of key) notes can be found in countless songs and improvised solos. Handled carefully, they create the “spice” in a song.
The music of today, like society itself, is certainly less bound by hard and fast rules than it used to be. But even great composers of the past such as Bach and Beethoven had no qualms whatsoever about breaking a rule whenever a certain piece needed to go somewhere new.
So, yes, learn the rules, learn why they exist. Then, after you’ve mastered them, come to regard them as something akin to your backyard, where boundaries are “soft,” not a prison, whose walls are impenetrable. Don’t break them just to break them, but when you have the creative urge ... go for it. And, hey, if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll know why.