Can musicality be taught/learned?

October 13, 2007 at 11:43 PM · Can true musicality be taught and learned? Does it come from so deep a level that it must be innate (will it feel calculated or false otherwise)? Is there a such a thing as true musicality versus creating the impression of musicality through technical means (shading with the bow and vibrato, dynamics, principles of phrasing, etc.)?

Similarly, what about "style"? My gut feeling says that style is something that has to come completely from within you and can't be "learned" through imitation, otherwise it will leave the impression of fakeness. Can style be successfully imitated?

What do you think?

Replies (32)

October 13, 2007 at 11:44 PM · Yes, it can be learned and it should be taught. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. I think it's a complete copout for a teacher NOT to teach musical expression!

October 14, 2007 at 12:57 AM · Yes! Yes! Yes!

Musicality, or the term I prefer, musical artistry can be taught, nurtured, encouraged, enriched, broadened, refined, strengthened, built up, added to, modified, matured, etc. etc. etc. We are talking about an ongoing process that every musician goes through for a lifetime. The principal player in this process is the musician him/herself. Other people contribute to this process including, teachers, colleagues, friends. Artistic growth also is nurtured through going to concerts and listening to recordings. Also on another level artistic growth is fostered through life experience.

I totally reject the notion that musicality is something you either have or don't have. It's all about growth in which musical expression and instrumental technique are inextricably linked.

October 14, 2007 at 01:52 AM · It depends on the person and their ability to mimic what they've heard. I do teach my students to be expressive. Some catch on and are able to use their technique to accomplish this. Some simply cannot--or cannot without being shown how first (and the next lesson it's evaporated). One thing I've learned when hearing students who play at a low level is not necessarily to blame the teacher.

October 14, 2007 at 04:55 AM · One must have the musicality gene imbedded in your system--it must be contained within the artist.

Music,I believe,cannot be cultivated unless you have an imprint of musical and genetic structure allready contained within your psyche,from conceptualization.

All you need is the spark to ignite the flame within---if the spark is not there allready,then forget the concept.

We all know tis a gift that we,hopefully,adhere to and be thankfull that we have the opportunity to enable others to at least tap their fingers upon the table---OR even smile when the sounds of the violin are offered to others.

Music is one of the greatest gifts to share;to not try to pass on your knowledge of music to others is a neglect of a life experience which is unacceptable.

Music has been handed down and taught,from one generation--to the next, forever.

Perhaps,a predisposition to the musical genre---probably,no one really has the wearwithall,or definitive answer to pinpoint a conclusion to such a lofty question,yet it makes for a great discourse upon a topic which is large to our being, as musicians of the muse and loving the process involved.After all,that's what it's all about!

October 14, 2007 at 02:15 AM · I'm not sure if people here have the same idea about musicality. If it means the ability to mimic what we've heard, a talented parrot or canary comes to mind:)

I think to refine one's mind's ear matters a lot more and that does take a lot of cultivation as Roy described. If one’s artistic goal is to create his/her own sound and style, then the last thing he/she want is mimic someone else, even as a beginner.

October 14, 2007 at 02:55 AM · A few thoughts on a very complicated topic.

Saying someone is not musical is like saying someone is not interesting. If you can get to know a person, they become interesting. So to me, a musical person is a person who is musically open and thus expressive. Everyone has musicality, it's just the degree to which it's expressed. The trick for a teacher is to find out how to unlock it. Not every teacher has the ability to unlock the musicality in every student, or vice versa.

An interesting person is someone who is willing to truly open up their thoughts to you.

The degree to which one is talented at music is a complicated combination of things. Hopefully one is blessed with good posture, or in AT terms - good usage, which comes from a young age mimicing one's parents. This gives one the tools by which to express. It "greases the skids" by which expression is allowed.

To quote Drew Lecher, everything affects everything.

October 14, 2007 at 04:28 AM · I believe it can be taught and learned. I think an average student should start with imitation, especially in the area of style. After a while of imitating your teacher, you eventually start to develop your own thought process and begin to come up with your own interpretations of the music. That's my opinion.

October 14, 2007 at 07:13 AM · I don't think mimicking is a terrible thing in the beginning. It's how we learn to speak. It's how other artists learn expression, i.e. visual artists paint replicas of the masters when they are learning.

One has to learn the vocabulary of music, and a certain amount of mimicking is necessary to do so. Then eventually, when one has something to say, one has the expressive tools to say it. Not just technique, but expressive tools.

October 14, 2007 at 04:43 PM · One problem with Suzuki is that after the first few pieces they are not neccessarily child friendly and to a very young child a Bach minuet doesn't mean very much so yes they have to mimic.I like to choose pieces with titles that evoke an image in the childs mind like 'The ice cream' or 'The runaway bus' or 'Cowboys and Indians'.This means each piece can be discussed as to the character,tempo and dynamics and becomes the childs own interpretation.Some children gobble down the ice cream whilst others linger on every lick.If children start by using music as a means of communication rather than imitation they very quickly become musicians.

October 14, 2007 at 05:32 PM · "true musicality be taught and learned"

Like with language, once you are fluid, you can exercise more and more variations in the words, tone and style you choose. We become fluid speakers by copying our parents, experimenting, and formal instructions. In school, we learn the rules of grammar and how the language works. It would seem to me, if you are not fluid in music, but hung up on overcoming technical issues, shyness, or any other type of obstacle, you would seem less musical than someone who had a mastery of the technique necessary. Just as when I speak Spanish, I am not fluent, so I can never be really natural, or musical when I speak that language. So we could conclude that you are taught technique, to allow whatever natural musical ideas manifest that might be inside you. If someone does not seem musical at first, it does not necessarily mean that is an inherent lack of ability, but possibly the wrong tools, or some other type of obstacle. I like the ideas of Orff in this regard. He removed obstacles and technique to let children express themselves freely.

October 14, 2007 at 08:07 PM · I think that musicality can be taught and is in everyone but ony to a degree. One must be able to notice a great many things to be a good musician and some people are not as adept at this as others. It comes naturally for some.

Was it Mozart who was told to listen to every great musician he could, but to imitate no one? That's a difficult thing to do.

October 14, 2007 at 09:00 PM · Ah yes, the age-old "nature" vs. "nurture" argument. Is it inherent (nature) or is it teachable (nurture) ?

Becoming a good musician has so many factors to it: athleticism/coordination, exposure to music/art/literature/good conversation, training, psychological stability, environment conducive to doing some hard work. Because of this, I am pretty reluctant to putting hard/fast lines towards someone being musical or nonmusical.

That said, it is generally pretty obvious when someone at present has "got it" or when the switch has clicked off to musical expression.

October 14, 2007 at 11:28 PM · I am convinced musicality, or musical expression, can be taught. It is like teaching a vocabulary so that what is inside can come out and be understood. There are definitely conventions of expressiveness in various musics, and that is part of what we can and should teach. I do think that some people come to this so quickly and naturally that it seems innate; that could be one definition of talent. I also believe there are many who hear or see but struggle mightly to mimic expressiveness, much less innovate, expand or "make it their own." Sue

October 15, 2007 at 01:01 AM · One definitely can and maybe should mimic certain musical expressiveness to start with, but phrasing, the mood of the whole piece, let alone individual color and tone, imho, better be coaxed or left to the person's own exploration.

Mimicing others in singing is a bad thing. The voice teachers that I’ve worked with all seem to be more sensitive about this point and would encourage me to learn songs that I've never heard before and work them out without first listening to them, regardless I may not have all the right technique or understanding to get them right the first place. I find this approach of individuality-musicality precedes technique very rewarding musically.

My strong aversion towards mimicking also comes from growing up in a culture that requires years of strictly copying replicas in all sorts of classical Chinese arts and fine arts (such as Chinese painting, calligraphy and Classical Chinese poetry). Sure, it’s a safe route to learn the basics and to be acceptable by the field, but it is also a sure way to suffocate the self, imvho.

October 15, 2007 at 01:01 AM · One can be taught to bend music into a facsimile of musical expression but if it is to be real then it must be discovered by oneself.

In that respect, each of us is self taught.

October 15, 2007 at 12:43 AM · oh boy, back to this topic again. definitely one of my favorite, besides saying someone has bad intonation:)

as some have pointed out, "musicality" covers a wide spectrum of meanings.

it can mean something as simple as saying someone is able to pick up musical concepts faster, or learn a instrument faster and sound convincing faster, carry a simple tune with more emotional involvement/expression...

or it may be someone without the benefit of education able to grasp the deeper spirit of music, to have a profound connection with music, beyond just an acoustic experience, to the point that it is so visceral that it makes one sick or well,,,

as in a bell curve, i think a few are thick and very indifferent to musical stimuli and a few who will blossom no matter what and then the vast mid tier where it becomes a multifactorial proposition. some gifted kids brought up in a non-musical environment may go through life without fully exploring their musicality. some average kids nurtured in very supportive musical environment may end up going to places.

on a different level, if one states that musicality can be taught, a question follows,,,what can be taught, to what level and what cannot be taught...

October 15, 2007 at 06:47 PM · ok here's my thoughts on this topic.

I don't believe that you can teach a person to understand music artistically. If you are a responisble teacher you will and should demonstrate a musical idea or phrase (I don't believe that the violin can or should be taught by anyone who can't demonstrate to a student and that includes technique as well as repetoire)

If a student has the ability he or she will be able to pick up on the muscial ideas that are being demonstrated, if not no amount of nuturing will help. That is why I feel that technique can be taught and learned to a certain degree, but musicality, either you have it or you don't. It's hard enough to be able to play the violin with a pleasing sound and good intonation. Those who can do that and also be able to convey a musical idea convincingly are violinists and musicians. Those who can do both outstandingly are artists.

October 15, 2007 at 07:47 PM · Hi,

Yes, I believe it can be taught to some extent. Things like understanding a score, learning how to listen, and how to translate musically what is in the score are things that can be taught. You can also help a young person to overcome many of the barriers that prevent their musicality, whether they be technical, physical and to some extent conceptual from the mental point of view.

What you cannot teach or change is personality. If a person has personal barriers that prevents them from being a good musician, those can only be overcome by the individual himself/herself. The teacher can do little with that (sometimes a little bit).

I think that one of the most important lessons to learn in this regard is that one needs to commit 100% to the violin and the music at all times, never to one's self. This, I find as a teacher, and performer to be the greatest barrier to acheiving a surpassing musicality and expressivity.


October 15, 2007 at 08:15 PM · I had six girls in a group lesson. They all came from different teachers. They all knew Humoresque. For fun one day, I threw out six different emotions--happy, sad, crazy, angry, superior/stuck-up, afraid. I gave each of them an emotion and asked them to play it as if they were totally committed to that emotion--to convince me with the music that they felt that way. I listened then gave them each a different emotion to work with. By the time we were done, everyone had worked with each of the emotions. We played our funny version of Humoresque for the parents and other kids at the end of class. Each girl had chosen one of the emotions so that all six were represented. We gave the audience the list of our six emotions and asked them to guess who was whom. Here are the results:

The audience got every answer correct with no confusion. The girls were able to convey those emotions convincingly. Each girl was able to demonstrate the differing emotions through music. I could hear each one finding their own ways to make "crazy" in Humoresque. Some of them were more adept and more interesting than others. Some had their own ideas, some needed coaxing. Some were imaginative and some were calculating. Some were less pronounced, others were more dramatic--but, the basic emotion and ability to convey it was present in each of the girls. Each of them gave an interpretation which was not far removed from their unique personality.

I think it would be correct to say the factor which plays a greater part in display of emotion is personality (like Christian says). If we are to nurture expression, it seems logical to provide the student an environment in which to feel safe in communicating and sharing.

October 15, 2007 at 08:45 PM · Personality! Isn't that always the case? ;-) However, doesn't Suzuki actually believe even *that* can be trained/taught? I have to agree that personality can be trained at least to some degree though you obviously would need to start at the earliest age possible -- perhaps as early as the last few months in the mother's womb(!).

Personality affects a great deal of things afterall, including how well we practice and learn things via particular methods, etc.

Certain prevailing studies and research conclude that we pretty much learn all the crucial/primary/fundamental things that make up our personalities, general behavior and learning patterns and such in our formative, first 8-or-so years of life. That's why it behooves us to not wait too long to start training/teaching our kids whatever's fundamentally important during those early years, including music. And actually, seems that certain age old, proverbs (religious or otherwise) also observe and espouse this principle.

FWIW, we may indeed be genetically predisposed in certain ways that make us completely unique. But that doesn't preclude the possibility that one can be trained/taught something complex via some less "common" or "standard" means/methods that happen to be more suitable for a particular individual, which some have already pointed out in this discussion...


October 15, 2007 at 08:51 PM · Another wonderful post, Kimberlee!

If we are to nurture expression, it seems logical to provide the student an environment in which to feel safe in communicating and sharing.

This is very insightful comment. Someone mentioned that you either have anything interesting to say or don't when playing a piece. I'd argue that if you like a piece, you are most likely to have something to say about it. People don't "say" anything when playing often because they don't have the confidence to express rather than they don't have anything to say. This is similar when it comes to expressiveness in ordinary language. When I look around, a lot of people aren't demonstrative or expressive not because they lack of emotion or interesting thing to say. A lot of other factors preventing people from expressing them to their own satisfaction therefore they appear to be inexpressive/inarticulate.

October 15, 2007 at 09:59 PM · There is a lot to be said for people born with talent, and even more to be said for those who develope it through dedication. Both forms of skill (inherent and learned) are legitimate.

The only way to become expressive through any medium is to become comfortable with it. This kind of comfort is difficult to achieve.

As far as the term "personal style" goes, lots of people are overly protective of their own personal style. I endured the nonsensical notion of "personal style" throughout college, and it was usually found in comments made by those unwilling to hear about their handicaps, or a smoke screen for hasty work. We live in a world filled with tons of previous experience; it would be foolish (and impossible) to shield ourselves from everything that was and is, in the hope of preserving self. Everyone's personal style, admittedly or not, has influences.

If I look at a painting by Klimpt and admire his color choices within a shadow, should I make note of it, and avoid making similar decisions within my own work (to preserve my own style)? If I am painting a portrait later, and recall the choice choices (perhaps subconsciously), am I copying his work? This is where we enter the realm of being "inspired by" someone, which can be just as touchy of a subject as style with most artists.

Who likes to hear, "Your work reminds me off..."

Everyone would much rather hear, "Wow! That's amazing! You are so talented!"

There are also good and bad ways to be inspired, or to mimic someone. It's important that whatever aspects you mimic, they eventually become a seamless part of how you express yourself. If they are forced, forget about it. Prolonged pure mimicking is "fakeness".

So basically... some people are born with talent, and others have to work for it. As far as style and mimicking goes... be reasonable. It depends on the person, and how they incorporate new things into their routine

October 15, 2007 at 10:31 PM · OTOH, we often think someone is talented just because what he/she puts out happens to suit our own particular tastes (and idiosyncrasies) just as some may best learn certain things in particular ways that happen to suit our own preferences, biases, agendas, etc... :-p

I think more often than not, if one holds a rather obstinate and absolute position on the matter, it probably says a whole lot more about one's own self and perhaps lack of certain talent or skill or whatever else than it says about the other person on whom one is attempting to pass judgement. :-p That's not to say one can never be sincere and honest in offering good constructive critique and appraisal of another's abilities, but it probably wouldn't be the best way to go about it considering none of us are remotely close to being perfect in the first place -- nor can guarantee that our obstinate and absolute views are perfect. ;-)


October 15, 2007 at 10:58 PM · “Originality is nothing by judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.” Voltaire

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Salvador Dali

A great part of art consists in imitation. For the whole conduct of life is based on this: that what we admire in others we want to do ourselves. Quintilian

October 15, 2007 at 10:53 PM · Greetings,

the preceding stuff is all so brilliantly hard core please forgive me for just chucking in a couple of comments that have staye dwith me for a long time.

Tziganov commented something like` you must be be a cultured person. If you have nothing to say nobody will wnat to hear you play.`

Then Heifetz said that he didn`t like studnets listening to recordings but if they were unable ot come up with musical ideas it was really the only option.



October 15, 2007 at 11:25 PM · It's my observation and firm belief that the strongest determinant of a budding student's development into a musically expressive or stylistic performer is whether s/he is raised in an environment where s/he hears a lot of good music of all kinds, artistically performed, from childhood--recordings, concerts, etc. One is more likely to have a "natural" sense of phrasing, vibrato, intonation, and so forth if one has heard it done beautifully all one's life. A teacher's primary job should be to impart technical knowledge that allows a student's musical ideas and emotions to be communicated. Yes, a teacher should demonstrate for the student, but that may amount to maybe 5 minutes out of a lesson, and if that's all the artistic playing a student hears in a week, it's pretty much a lost cause.

As for the dangers(?) of imitation: ideally, the student has heard many different interpretations and will, consciously or otherwise, develop his or her own musical concepts that are a synthesis of all they've heard and felt. (And frankly, I can imagine worse things than one of my students coming into a lesson and sounding exactly like Heifetz. . . .)

October 16, 2007 at 01:28 AM · depends whether you mean his playing or his accent....

October 16, 2007 at 06:21 AM · I'd like to draw together a couple of threads and Buri's latest blog.I find children have no difficulty in expressing themselves once they have learnt to use the whole of their bow.At the same time they practice more because the experience is more enjoyable and those who have behaviour problems calm down.Its all in those vibrations that enter our body.

October 16, 2007 at 01:54 PM · I believe musicality has a lot to do with personality. I find that many musicians who have not matured as a person yet have difficulty expressing the music to the audience. Many times, after they come out of their shell, the musicality also develops

October 16, 2007 at 02:37 PM · "I believe musicality has a lot to do with personality. I find that many musicians who have not matured as a person yet have difficulty expressing the music to the audience. Many times, after they come out of their shell, the musicality also develops"

I would imagine you are referring to kids who play music written by DWEMs. Yes, I hear lots of unmusical music played by parrot-people.

However, age has nothing to do with true musicality. There is nothing more delightful than the inner music of a child, expressed through his/her own playing. His own licks, riffs, melodies, harmonies or those that he/she has taken on as 'is own. I have had the good fortune to hear this on a regular basis and I can assure you that yes, musicality is innately part of some and not of others, regardless of the schooling.

October 16, 2007 at 03:24 PM · A few posts back, but just wanted to say - your Humeresque example was terrific Kimberlee! :)

October 16, 2007 at 08:32 PM · Bilbo,

I don't think most of us are saying "schooling" in its most commonly understood definition (as in those precious few hours per week spent w/ your music teacher) will ultimately define any individual's musicality or lack thereof. Even Suzuki does not believe that at all.

Rather, it sounds to me like most of us agree that it takes a whole lot of immersion into music (and culture and the arts in general) as well as life experiences of all kinds that help shape and mold us as personalities, etc. to develop whatever seemingly "innate" musicality one possesses. By the time you pick up the violin and play, you're coming to it w/ a personality and perspective that's beyond just the act of learning to play the violin. Still, that doesn't mean the teacher is not responsible for helping draw out whatever there is inside or to help shape and refine what's inside into what works on the violin, etc.

In Suzuki philosophy, you're supposed to start as early as when the baby is still inside the womb by exposing him/her to music (and probably whatever other noble and virtuous things as early as possible). Suzuki talks about building character and personality at least as much as learning/teaching the violin -- and indeed, as I understand it, his view is that the violin is more an instrument to help develop a noble spirit and character in the person (as the end goal) than the other way around.

But yeah, in practice, I guess there is only so much a teacher can realistically do to teach musicality (so to speak) to a particular student. Sometimes, a different teacher w/ different background/perspective/method/etc. might be more suitable for a particular student. One size doesn't really fit all unless you can really guarantee that everyone has the exact same starting point -- and we all can agree that's just not going to happen. :-p

In any case, I suspect most of us are just saying more or less the same things, but from varying perspectives. ;-)


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