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I understand this question may be very broad and the answer may be very complex or allusive in nature. I hope I can get a little guidance from true musicians like you.

Last night I watched Ralph Macchio's Crossroads (1986) movie. It talked about the legends of Robert Johnson. There was a scene where a train went by, triggered by his emotion, Willie Brown started to mimic the train sound using his harmonica. He created beautiful phrases to paint an atmosphere for the scene. It could have been dramatized but I have no doubt that Blues musicians could easily come up with phrases to express themselves.

I played guitar for about 1.5 years. In my childhood, I had some training in classical music (violin/piano). In orchestra, I was generally given a sheet music to study and practice. When it's time to perform, I looked at the sheet music and followed conductor's gesture and signal. The mentality and mindset were very different from the guitar world. There was barely any focus on improvisation in classical music. Actually it was discouraged. I had received a bad grade for playing something that's not on the sheet.

Nowadays when I learn a solo or a song, I try to look at the notes' relationship to the underlying chord or chord progression. I would write the note's interval in relation to the chord.

From my experience of guitar lessons, most instructors generally focus on techniques. In fact, most ads I see on the internet are "Do you know the secret to playing fast?" "Do you know why you can't play fast?" I rarely see "do you want to understand the music you are playing?" Technique is certainly important, it's the foundation to everything. But at least to me, the road to develop technique is clear.

I tried to find patterns in all the solos I learned and understand why was it written that way. I'd look at solo, figure out what scale it uses; loop a live version on YouTube, transcribe what's being played. I also ask a lot of music theory related questions on StackExchange (once again, thank you all for sharing your valuable knowledge with me)

Maybe I am too inexperienced, I failed to see an obvious relationship. It's all very mystical. Is my approach to develop the ability of musical expression wrong? How did Blues musician develop their skill when they didn't have any formal training in a tough time like pre-Civil Right era? This could apply to many different cultures in this world as well.

Let's take a step back, what exactly is expression? A common set of interval changes that elicits an emotional response in human culture? In literature, writers have literary devices to communicate an idea, like metaphor, motif, theme etc... What's the equivalent in music?

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  • Did I get this right - the real question is, what is this "expression" thing to begin with? Or, you've been looking at lots of technique and theory tutorials, but none of them has explained which part of all that is expression - have you missed something in the tutorials? Or is it: how could one express oneself through the techniques and theoretical concepts? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 10:18
  • Please excuse me if my question wasn't clear. I'd say it's how to get to "one expresses oneself through techniques and theoretical concepts". For example, if I just practice/develop each technique in isolation, are they going to automatically come together? Or do I actually need to go extra step to integrate them? I can learn a technique through tens of thousands of repetition. I can understand theories, e.g. end a phrase with cadence, M7 gravitates toward root. – mofury Feb 21 at 10:37
  • But I don't understand how pro musicians just pick up an instrument and create phrasing right away. Like how I can type and express my ideas via words. Is it just through repetition? If I read enough of other people's writing, I can begin to express my own thoughts? I just want to make sure that my practices are helping me to progress toward that goal. – mofury Feb 21 at 10:39
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    @mofury I think the idea you have had of relating it to how we express ourselves through writing is a really good one that you should keep hold of. Do you know how you've become able to do it? Do you know, when you think you're expressing something, you really actually are? (i.e. in terms of how it's received by the reader) Perhaps learning an instrument is like learning to write in another language. What would your approach to expressing yourself in that setting be? – Judy N. Feb 22 at 0:18
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    @Aaron This is a different question. After following this question and the comments, I understood that the OP is asking, "if I keep studying and practicing low-level details, techniques, theoretical concepts, analysis, etc, then will that lead to being able to use those as self-expression", and my answer is no, not necessarily. You learn expression by using expressions in a context and observing the effects. You must put yourself in an "operational" situation. Like on a language course you should practice using the words and sentences to achieve something. That's self-expression. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 26 at 13:08

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I define expression as any sort of communicational means for advancing one's intentions. Or something. A baby cries to express hunger and/or other needs. Then there's artistic expression, which is basically the same, but through artistic means. Whatever art is. Musical expression is the same, but through musical means. For a DJ, selecting a song is musical expression. For a guitarist, things that can be done with the guitar are expression - which is a LOT of different things on many different levels. It doesn't have to be just about how to pick the strings right - picking the right piece for the situation can be within a guitarist's means too, if you like to see it that way.

You have a palette of things you can do, and you have some freedom for making choices, within restrictions and limitations. What are the things you can do technically, what is appropriate to do, what is suitable for the genre etc. Do you remember the name of the song or can you look it up? Do you remember how a specific trick is done? Even if you remember, will you be able to carry it out technically? Technical and theoretical exercises can give you more freedom by expanding your physical and intellectual abilities. Practicing pieces gives you freedom, because it increases your confidence in selecting those pieces. Etc.

It's possible to perform music completely mechanically or according to cultural conventions. "We always play this song in this situation, and we play it exactly like this." Ok. That can happen, and someone walking into that situation for the first time can be very deeply touched by the music, but I wouldn't say that the musicians expressed themselves very much. Expression should be about making choices.

But even if you have unlimited technical, intellectual and cultural freedom and confidence, how do you choose what to do? You should have some kind of an idea about what will happen if you select each particular song, chord, note, dynamic level, technique, type of vibrato, etc. The ability to predict the outcomes comes with experience, and to build experience you of course have to go through enough repetitions in practice, but you also have to have certain sensitivity to the effects of your actions. If you're deaf, you can't hear the sounds you're making, so you lack sensitivity - you might be able to see the effects from other people's reactions though, but I think that will be very difficult. Like, does the teacher say "good" or "not good"... Sometimes music education seems a bit like that! Deaf people trying to play instruments, looking at the teacher's reactions to know if they're doing it right or wrong. I think that's a slightly mistaken idea. Music should be about hearing, listening, feeling. Why are people so obsessed with theoretical descriptions of harmony, "M7 gravitates toward root", stuff like that. Have you ever dropped a ball - which way did it gravitate, toward the ground or away from it? Theory and teachers shouldn't be needed to introduce this basic phenomenon to students, or to confirm and validate the observation, only to give a name for the phenomenon. But unfortunately, sometimes the students haven't had a chance to play enough, like with toys, drop things and throw them around. In my opinion, such toying should be encouraged, to make sure that the students have personally encountered the phenomena in practice.

How to learn to express yourself through different elements of music? By practicing, listening and feeling. If you can't hear, if you can't feel any difference in different ways of playing notes, articulations, chords, phrase lengths, etc. that's going to be a problem. Whatever the thing is you want to utilize as your expressive tool, you have to practice doing that, with open ears. Teachers and lessons can provide you with new ideas to try and certain aspects of music to pay special attention to, and then you take those new ideas and start practicing them and focusing on the suggested aspects to get a feel for how they change things. If you can't technically perform them, or if you can't feel any difference even after trying the ideas for a long time in various situations and pieces, then maybe that's just something you can't use for expressing yourself. Find other ways of self-expression, there are many. Everyone can find some level and area of musical self-expression, and that defines them as a musician. Some people are content with selecting the right Spotify playlist, and that's perfectly ok, that's their level of musical self-expression. Some people might not notice any difference between any Spotify playlist or none at all, so then that's not their thing obviously. Though maybe if they're motivated, they can develop a sensitivity for it through persistent listening.

If you have trouble noticing the right aspects in the music you're making, a teacher could help you by giving ideas and feedback. "Your phrases are too long - can you try making them about the size of a line of lyrics, with some punctuation in between? Something you could actually speak or sing as a continuous phrase." And then, you take this new idea as part of your practicing, and perhaps you start paying attention to the lengths of phrases in music you listen to.

To sum up: you learn to express yourself by repeating expressions and sensing what effects the expressions have. Whatever level of abstraction the expressions are on.

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Even people who have spent most of their lives talking find it hard to express themselves fully. So it's the same with a musical instrument. And often the music itself doesn't make it easy to inject much expression.

So, complete mastery of the instrument is a good start point, along with complete mastery of the music in question. To put your own interpretation, slant, on a piece means you know all the nuances the instrument is capable of, with you at the helm, so you can concentrate solely of wringing all the meaning out of it.

Rubato, change of tempo, of volume, of tone all play their part in that expression, so your mindset needs to be right at that time too. You become an actor. You put yourself in a specific role. If you've just lost your favourite aunt, and been sacked that day, you're hardly going to make even the happiest piece sound that happy.

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  • Thank you Tim, your answer has always been very helpful to me. Does that mean I should worry less about expression, just focus on imitation and develop mastery by copying the masters? And eventually I will develop the ability to express myself? – mofury Feb 21 at 10:58
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    Most musicians have cloned themselves to some degree! We all like to pretend to be our heroes. Take the best bits from whoever yours, and copy them by all means. But at some point, you'll need to develop your own style, so the sooner that happens, the sooner your own expressions will shine through. Or not. There are plenty of musicians out there who lacck expression - or more accurately, don't transmit that expression well. And sometimes the listener doesn't get moved. It's a two way thing. Playing with others is another aspect to be considered. Check 'playing in the pocket'. – Tim Feb 21 at 11:34
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Dave's answer is a good one. Let me add something from the different point of view.

First of all, I think you're counting on some "universal expression" that will work for everyone, but there is nothing like that, not even if you only take Western cultures. It seems that for many people there is a thin line between "awesome, powerful, emotional music" and "random unlistenable gibberish". For instance, I happened to advance that line pretty far, so conversely, when someone plays "emotional" music to me, I can just shrug and mutter something about the harmony being too rudimentary and the melody being boring. So whatever you play, you can get puzzled looks from some people and/or bored looks from other. I think there is a partial cure to that, see below.

I tried to find patterns in all the solos I learned and understand why was it written that way. I'd look at solo, figure out what scale it uses; loop a live version on YouTube, transcribe what's being played. I also ask a lot of music theory related questions on StackExchange (...).

That's a great way to improve aural skills and your understanding of theory. However, be warned that you will NOT be able to understand "why it works" because the theory doesn't say anything about that. It only tells about what does work, but not why. On top of that, when you try to take an existing bit of music and explain it using the theory, you will probably get many different ways to apply the rules to generate that bit of music. I think that the theory works best for making the music, and not so well for analyzing it.

Maybe I am too inexperienced, I failed to see an obvious relationship. It's all very mystical. Is my approach to develop the ability of musical expression wrong?

You failed to see a relationship because there is none, as explained above. And yes, I think your way to develop expression is wrong. The worst thing about it is that I can't say much about how it really works, because, as you correctly note, it's truly very mystical :—). Here are some ideas:

  • The emotion a musician puts into the music is pretty much automatic but very complicated. It's the way you alter the tempo, the loudness and the timbre of each note. Learning this by "normal" means like studying books is impossible, just like improvisation. The books can help a bit but most of it is on you.

  • I think there is only one thing you can do to learn expression and improvisation alike: Do it a lot. You will get better over time.

  • There are also some ways to make it happen faster and better: 1) listen to a lot of music, 2) play a lot of music on your instrument and 3) learn theory. Take what you like, try to analyze that. Play it on your instrument — by that, you will learn how to really play what you like. In this way, you will slowly build up a repository of things that work for you and the physical, real ability to produce them whenever you see fit. That's really important — doing it "in your head" will not do. Then you use these things as building blocks for your music. At least that's what I do as a classical guitarist: from time to time, I listen to new classical guitar music and perhaps learn a piece that I really liked. If you know the theory well, you can even use it to improve on those building blocks and make your "own inventions" (at least until you hear that "invention" in a 300 years old piece, which invariably happens at some point :—)).

  • I said that there's not anything like a universal expression, but there is still something you can do to approach it, and that is having a good melody. Harmonies are great, but melodies seem to work on a different level ("closer to the heart"). The bad thing is that while there are at least some rules that make it possible to write good harmony, there are no rules for melody (or there are, but they are next to useless). The melody either comes to you or it does not, and you can't do very much about it. There's the same mystery in writing good melodies as in any other human creative process.

  • Still, there's one thing you can do, and that's — you guessed it — listen to lots of music. We humans tend to learn well by example, so do that. In particular, I would recommend going into folk music, because that is pure melody, and the best melodies were picked by "natural selection" over many centuries, so it tends to contain many hidden gems to learn from. (Take Celtic music: I think its boom is caused largely by the fact that it has beautiful melodies.) In many nations there were people who meticulously collected many of those songs, so you only need to search for those collections and you have it — both score and lyrics. You only need to take care that it hasn't been "artificially covered" by something else (like in my homeland, the Czech Republic: in the western part, the original music has probably been covered by the "artificial" 300–350 years ago, and it grew dull and boring; while the eastern, "uneducated" part, held onto the original beautiful melodies).

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You might be stepping too far back for this. The train thing was fundamental; the train beat is common to country as well, because it was a primary form of long-distance transformation. Chuck Berry mentioned the rhythm of the train in "Johnny B. Goode". That wasn't meant to communicate Ralph's character playing what he heard, but rather getting in touch with the blues tradition.

Later, after Jami Gertz leaves and Ralph plays the blues, that represents him learning to present his emotion through playing.

First and foremost with music is the social aspect. Music exists in church to allow the congregation to engage. Music exists in bars and parties to enable dancing and social interaction. Personal expression comes after many gigs, after mastery of those aspects. I would suggest you get to the point where you're expressing yourself well before you recognize that you're there.

Think about how you express emotion in conversation. It involves many things: if you're angry, you're loud. It. Could. Come. In. Short. Pieces. It could come, as Steve Vai's Jack Butler, by entering someone's personal space and taking all the air in the room. In contrast, Ralph's Eugene is sure of himself, and starts his trick bag, his electric interpretation is Paganini, with hammer-ons that say he's not done. There are never spikes that say "look at me" the same way that waving a guitar by the whammy bar in someone's face, but by playing impossibly hard technique with a reserve that says that there's more where that came from.

Contrasting, consider children. They are very early in their process of language development, but infants or toddlers can make it very clear that they're unhappy very clearly and insistently, even if, as the adults in the situation, we can't tell what they're unhappy about. You can tell that much music is similarly unhappy, even when it is hard to tell from the lyrics what the cause of the emotion might be.

I would put self-expression well after playing well with others as a priority for new musicians. Once you know the right chords and scales, and know how your playing works with those around you, then you can start worrying about expressing yourself.

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  • Thank you Dave. Let's put it in software lingo: Does it mean that for Blues musicians, when they play together, they follow a "protocol" like the 12-bar form? Then expressions are added via dynamics much like our oral communication to each other? Playing well together is a matter of understanding the API of a genre, while what you do with the API is the "expression" part? (Loose analogy) – mofury Feb 21 at 9:15
  • From an implementation standpoint, I should understand all the API (i.e. scales, harmonic functions, tight rhythmic timing, etc..) and play well with others, before I start worrying about "emotion"? – mofury Feb 21 at 9:22
  • That is an apt way of looking at it, yes. – Dave Jacoby Feb 21 at 14:55
  • Additionally, playing with others will tell you what you need to do to get better. Likely, it'll be more timing and counting more than fancy leads and chords. It's like the Integration Test. – Dave Jacoby Feb 21 at 20:16
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I fundamentally disagree with the answers that say, "First master your instrument."

  1. No-one with the possible exceptions of Liszt and Paganini ever completely mastered their instrument. There is no cut-off point where you or anyone else can say, "Now you are a master. It is time to start expressing yourself!". What a horrible thought!

Young musicians who go on to become virtuosi can show great expression playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, even though it will be years before they will be considered 'masters'.

  1. Listen to the early blues musicians. Their technique is often extremely rough and is usually restricted to three chords at the very most. I'm not kidding when I say that some of them could do a whole blues on just one chord. They have mastered a style of playing that is personal to them but nowadays any intermediate player could learn the technique from a video.

  2. All of the early blues players were ignorant of any theory. In fact there isn't much theory as far as Blues is concerned (at least there shouldn't be). In the old days people would learn by watching or hearing others and copying them approximately.

Expression in music comes from your feelings and emotions. Even someone who has a speech impediment or learning disability can put an enormous amount of expression into their speech if the emotions are strong enough.

One way forward, especially for something like blues improvisation, is to say a phrase, e.g.

My head is really aching. I shouldn't have drunk so much last night.

It's best if you are expressing a real emotion or event.

a) Say the phrase with feeling

b) Say it again and notice what happens to the pitch. Where does it go up or down

c) Sing the phrase without the words (but thinking them)

d) See if you can play the wordless tune on your instrument

e) Play it until you are technically fluent

f) Play louder where your voice would go louder. Place a bend where your voice tends to bend, etc.

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To "express" yourself on a mechanical or electric device you need to have mastered the physics of creating sounds on that device to the point where you do not have to think about it. Musicians will be familiar with the phrase "stay out of the way", or something similar, told to them by a mentor or instructor. What this means is that you cannot force the technique or even the "patterns" as you mention but let the music come out.

To accomplish this requires learning to relax, let go of ego, and just be. Sometimes when we speak we fumble our words, and so it will be with a solo. But if you are thinking about what lick you want to play 10 measures in to it the first note will be crap.

I'd recommend reading Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery to get a better idea behind this. Pepe Romero also devotes a considerable essay on this point in his book on classical guitar.

As for having something to say when the time comes? This takes a life of devotion to digging deep in to music. Listening to others and emulating your favorite passages from their solos. Building up a collection of your favorite phrases and even making up your own. Jerry Cocker writes about this in his book on Jazz Improvisation. Rather than spending months with play along tracks trying to follow the 3rd and 7th of ii-V in every key just keep a diary of licks and play with laying them over tunes, even where you wouldn't think they'd fit based on the "key". This approach is very harmonious with Werner's approach. They complement each other. One thing to keep in mind here is that it is better to be a minimalist. Rather than try to front load with 1000 licks just focus on a single phrase but go as deep as you can with it. Modify the phrasing, playing out of its usual context, e.g. if the lick is 3-4-5 in the major scale try in on 7-8-9 too. Play it in every mode. Throw a few extra notes on it, grace notes, turn or groupetto, here and there. You will find that in this process you start to develop your own language and that is when your solos will be distinctly YOU.

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  • Thank you, your suggestion is very practical, the idea of "going deep into one phrase" – mofury Feb 23 at 7:22
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Master your instrument. Gain experience of all the styles it can play in. Gain experience of the repertoire. Steal ideas, then steal some more.

When you feel impelled to play something 'sad' or something 'happy' you'll know some tricks. Your audience will marvel at your originality! You will realise how much it's a synthesis of how lots of previous musicians expressed those emotions. But don't let on :-) Audiences like to worship Art. We know it's mostly craft.

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It's not really clear whether you're talking about expression in performance or expression in composition -- these are two different things to me.

As a performer, expression comes from how and when you play each note. On guitar, you can play them very slightly early or late, dead-on the beat; plucked, strummed, hit, picked; sustained, staccato, muted, buzzing, dead, held a little long, cut a little short; on the bridge, on the neck, tapped, hammered off; vibrato, tremolo, whammy, bent, slide-on, slide-off; on different strings, on multiple strings, as harmonics; there's more, there's stuff I'm not even aware of. You need to know exactly how every one of these sounds, you need to be able to imagine a million different ways of playing exactly the same passage. When you read tab, or sheet music, or hear something you want to play, you should hear in your head exactly how you want the notes to sound, and then work out how to play that specific sound.

Expression in composition is, to me at least, more abstract and I'm not convinced it's something so well defined or understood. I don't particularly like the way some people mysticize composition, I just think "expression" in composition is highly subjective. To me it's "that shit you sing in the shower but done up to sound pretty", or "oh wow that's a cool trick ha ha I'm gonna do that".

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I don't understand these answers saying there's no such thing as 'universal expression' ... because of different cultures?

I think you'll find that 'expression' equals melody.

"Is my approach to develop the ability of musical expression wrong? How did Blues musician develop their skill when they didn't have any formal training in a tough time like pre-Civil Right era?"

Formal training in what ... creating melodies?

Why not focus on creating melodies and song writing instead of technical prowess?

David Gilmore ... great example ... he plays melodies in his solos. Solos from the first Boston album.

Typically faster players don't. They are more playing a 'song of sounds' than a 'song of notes'. Can you name a single fast guitar solo that has an amazing melody? ... or are they remembered because they're some amazing combination of sounds? ... like Eruption.

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My own method of learning to express myself started when I learned to talk. I listened to how others around me talked. I heard them express happiness, sadness, joy, anger, disappointment, pride, etc. and I learned to mimic what I heard when I felt those different emotions. Years later I did the same process when I learned to express myself with music. First I listened to others communicating a particular emotion. Then I learned to mimic that sound and I practiced using what I learned until it became automatic for me. Until you asked this question, I never really gave it any thought, I just assumed it was how everybody did it. I get my individuality of expression from the fact that as an individual, my interpretation of what I hear and see will always be slightly different from what others who hear and see the same thing will interpret. That's where I get my own personal style when I play it.

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  • Interesting perspective, thank you for sharing your view. I think my initial exposure to music gave me a mechanical approach to music. As a kid, I was evaluated based on whether I could deliver the note as it was explicitly written on paper. Now I want to move away from that mentality and learn to make music like it's a language/voice of mine. – mofury Feb 23 at 7:28
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Short answer. Its tradition. Know the tradition of the music you want to express yourself in. This means constant listening, transcribing and youll dig deeper and deeper. Creativity is never invented it is passed on! Whenever we express something, we learned that expression from somebody else. Whether is expression in the realm of classical music, or in Jazz. To get a little philosophical, I don't think there is a self to express, but rather a tradition that you want to continue is being expressed! It can also be a combination of traditions, into one you would wish to hear!

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