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I am a pianist, and I often hear the term "interpretation" in phrases like –

  • "you must now develop your own interpretation of the piece"
  • "when advancing in music, subtlety in approaching the interpretation of the music is very important"
  • "For being a good musician, one must have good interpretative insight"

However, what exactly does it mean? What is an interpretation of music?, is it the dynamics, the changes in speed, the articulation, or something else? What concrete and practical steps can I take to develop my own interpretation of a piece?

Now if I play the notes correctly, play with the dynamics as given in the sheet music, and also the articulation, then what remains?

I have tried to ask some people and the responses I got were like "understand what the composer was trying to convey and convey it in your style" or "make use of all the musical tools you have (dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, articulation, etc.) to create your own impression of the song".

Now although they sound very philosophical and nice, yet I still haven't gotten something discrete I can work towards.

What I want to know is:

  1. What is musical interpretation and what is it made of? (i.e. what aspects of performance create the interpretation?), is it a general feature of a performance, or does it come out of tiny specific details? If so, what details? or what feature?
  2. How can interpretation be developed when everything is being done according to a given sheet music; from dynamic variations (crescendos, diminuendos, etc.) to tempo control (retardation, etc.)?, does interpretation come from implementing these in different ways, or does it use some completely different tool(s) not present in the sheet music?
  3. How can I understand and differentiate the interpretations of different performers (who are playing the same song)?
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    It helps to have a clear example of what is not an interpretation. Find a rendering of a simple classical piece by a simplistic MIDI renderer - all chords exactly the notated length, all piano or forte notes exactly the same volume - and you'll immediately see why it's important to choose these parameters more subtly. Finding good choices is what interpretation is about. Jun 26 at 10:44
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  • Regarding your "PS": just know, "accepting" an answer does not mean the answer is correct; it just means that answer was most helpful to you.
    – Aaron
    Jun 26 at 17:01
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    Your PS makes it more likely to be closed as "opinion-based"..
    – Tom
    Jun 26 at 18:54
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    Pity that this question is closed. I play mostly baroque music which has zero markings for tempo, phrasing, dynamics. So I need to analyze, what are the themes, motifs, which notes are important and which not. Then phrase the music and bring out what I think is important. Highlight similarites. &c. Jun 27 at 12:48

5 Answers 5

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While this question does not have a correct/wrong answer at all, I'll share my own thoughts and experiences.

There is a huge difference between 'playing' music and 'interpreting' music. You can play music just by reading a music sheet. Play the written notes and follow the written dynamics and indications. Just like a machine following instructions.

But when it comes to 'interpreting', you are not only reading notes. You are giving them a meaning. After all, music is intended to make us feel something. Fear, happiness, sadness, whatever. I think the more you make people feel, the better interpreter you are. After all, the right amount of hours of practice can make anyone able to play any piece of music. But not everyone can bring that music piece to life, no matter how much they practice that single piece.

And well, how do you 'give music a meaning'?

I've been playing my trumpet for 12 years now, and through my musical career I have been able to met some world class trumpeters such as Gábor Tarkövi or Rubén Simeó. Almost all of them, along with my regular teachers agreed in something: you have to understand what you're playing to make others understand it too.

You can't give music a meaning if you don't know what meaning you're trying to give it. You MUST understand what you are going to play. To do this, you can listen to other musician's interpretation. What do they make you feel? Try to recreate an image or a story in your mind where the music that's playing fits perfectly. You can also search for the author of the piece. What cultural movement do they belong to? Did the author 'leave a note' explaining something about the piece? This can give you hints.

And once you know what does that music make you feel, sadness, craziness, loneliness, whatever. Then you can start interpreting.

I think the best and only way to 'make your own interpretation' is trying to portray the feeling we were talking about before in your playing. That's it.

Music sheet says 'p' (piano) because now it gives a sad/mysterious/lonely/whatever vibe. OK. You don't have to stick to that dynamic. Make your own phrases, flow. Make your own 'p'. You can play a fortissimo piano or a pianissimo piano. All inside a single 'p'. You can play them both on a single phrase, all inside that single 'p'. You can also play with the tempo. Have you heard about 'rubato'?

Musical sheets arent computer code the same way you are not a computer.

There are no rules. You make them when it comes to interpreting. The sheet is your canvas. Paint over it!

I know this sounds very 'philosophical and nice' as you said, but music isn't a science at all and as a consequence there are no strict methods and responses. And remember, progress comes after experience

(sorry for my poor english, i'm spanish and learning)

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"Now if I play the notes correctly, play with the dynamics as given in the sheet music, and also the articulation, then what remains?"

You are interpreting of course. You're interpreting everything you play. Perhaps you simply don't realize you are because you haven't compared your version with anyone else's. Interpretation has to do with your understanding of the music, and your technique.

Understanding the composer and his/her music is a large part of it. If you love the music you're an advocate of it: you want your performance to convince the audience that it's a good piece. What could you bring to Poulenc's Mouvements Perpétuels? What would be your take on it? How would you sell it to your friends? Whatever you do to persuade your audience it's worth listening to is your interpretation. Your salesmanship!

If you examine your own playing you might find that, in certain pieces, you often arpeggiate slightly where there's no direction to. Without your being aware of it this might be part of your interpretation of those pieces. Being aware of it you can choose whether to do it or not.

Even where there is no rubato or tenuto marked, pianists do often 'rob' and 'hold': it becomes part of their interpretation. You may be doing this without being aware of it.

Pianos in Beethoven's day weren't as big or as loud as ours and when playing his music on a modern piano you can legitimately use its huge dynamic range or choose not to. That too would be part of your interpretation.

The emotional weight you give episodes of passagework - which might simply be the composer wondering what to do next - is part of your interpretation. Are you overstating the piece? Some music can be played coolly as well as warmly.

There's not much room for interpretation in Boulez.

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Ever seen portraits of the same person, pictures of the same landscape, done at the same time by different artists? All will be recognisable as that person, that place, but will be rather different from each other.

They're seeing the subject through different eyes, and maybe using different techniques too.

Try listening to the same piece of well-known music played by several different musos. They're going to be all different, too. Maybe differences in tempo, arrangements, mood, and maybe even key (which sometimes does make a difference, depending on instrument).

So, your 'interpretation' of any piece should reflect what it makes you feel. Dynamics play a large part in the inspired performance, and rubato, even in a fixed tempo piece, will give it some of your signature. It won't necessarily happen in every piece, but by allowing the music to take over, and getting sucked into it, for want of a better term, your own interpretation should be apparent.

Like a character actor would do, approach a piece with different attitudes. Have an imagination of a serene scene by a gentle brook for a piece that possibly evokes that kind of feel; get an angry feeling before playing a lively, pounding piece; consider a lost friend when playing a somewhat melancholy piece - it should become even more melancholic. Your mindset will go a long way to your interpretation of any piece.

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HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR OWN INTERPRETATION

  • Pick a piece and, say, recordings of 5 different performances of the piece.
  • One of the performances has to be a mechanical computer performance that just executes the score "correctly".
  • Analyze all possible technical differences you can find between the performances. Dynamics, tempo, articulations, pedal use, any possible technical aspect you can think of.
  • Analyze the feelings you get from each performance. Are there any differences? Do the human performances all feel exactly the same as the mechanical computer rendition?

Then the really important points:

  • Which aspects of the feelings do you like? Does the mechanical computer "performance" give you the best and nicest feelings? Which performance do you like to listen to the most? Why? Maybe each performance has some particular aspect that you like? Maybe you like the handling of tempo in one performance, but the dynamics and articulation in another?
  • What would you like to sound like?
  • What CAN you sound like, given your current technical ability?
  • Try to play the piece in a way that evokes the kinds of feelings you want YOU to sound like.

Then how to get better at it:

  • Record your playing and listen to the recording.
  • Is it good enough? If not, fix something and repeat.
  • You could ask for opinions and feedback from a teacher or someone else, but remember it's THEIR own opinions, not yours. In some circles it may actually give you more credibility if you do the exact opposite, just to annoy them! You'll get praise for a "unique and daring interpretation". ;) There's no better way to get attention than controversy. Or maybe not.

(Disclaimer: I am not a classical musician and I completely made this up from the top of my head in five minutes.)

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Interpretation is what make every rendition of the same sheet music played by different pianists (or even the same pianist at different times) sound different from each other. It is the sum total of every little detail you sink into your performance, including but not limited to these:

  • Specific dynamic/volume levels (e.g. how loud are your forte and pianissimo, really? How much louder do your crescendos get?)
  • Precise way(s) you play articulation markings (e.g. is your staccato roughly equal to half the written note duration? Is your portato/"sticky staccato" roughly equal to 2/3 or 3/4 of the written note duration?)
  • Specific tempos, including tempo changes (e.g. how quickly do you decelerate in ritardandos? What tempos do your ritardandos go to?)
  • Use of pedal, including when it is not notated in the score (such a use of pedal is why I don't like Jack Gibbons's interpretation of Charles-Valentin Alkan's "Scherzo diabolique" in his Op. 39 set of etudes as much as Bernard Ringeissen's) and whether you full pedal or half-pedal (or even quarter-pedal - this is possible with the upright piano in my house)
  • Relative volume levels of musical lines/parts/melody/accompaniment (this is especially important when playing fugues: do you keep playing the highest line the loudest, or do you increase the volume of every single appearance of the subject at the expense of all other lines?)
  • Accenting of on-beat or at least emphasized notes, however subtle or overt (this is often more important in dance music (such as gavottes that start halfway through a measure and hemiola-loving Eastern European furiants) and syncopated music)
  • The precise way you play ornaments and grace notes in the score (e.g. "how fast is your trill, really?", "on what beat did you put that turn that is notated between two notes?", "are your grace notes on the beat or slightly before it?", "is that 'small 8th-note' appoggiatura louder than the note you played after it?")
  • Use of arpeggios for large enough chords, especially when this is not notated in the score (sometimes, your hands just aren't big enough)
  • Addition of ornaments not in the score (this is mostly relevant in interpretations of Baroque music, but I have even caught this in multiple recordings of Mozart's works)

Regarding your "2. How can interpretation be developed when everything is being done according to a given sheet music; from dynamic variations (crescendos, diminuendos, etc.) to tempo control (retardation, etc.)?, does interpretation come from implementing these in different ways, or does it use some completely different tool(s) not present in the sheet music?": interpretation indeed does come from implementing these in different ways, and as I mention above, it also comes from what you put in the score that is not written in the score (and that others may even consider to be mistakes), such as pedalling that is not written in the score.

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  • "I have even caught this in multiple recordings of Mozart's works": also Scott Joplin.
    – phoog
    Jun 27 at 5:51

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