Musicality---what the heck is it?

October 16, 2007 at 04:28 PM · The other thread on whether musicality can be taught has left me quite confused---some say yes, some say no, almost no one says why or why not, and at the heart of it, I suspect that not everyone is even talking about the same thing. So what is it, really? Is it completely tied to technical ability (can you have it without excellent technique)? Is it made up of things like intonation, timing, dynamics, etc.? Does it depend on originality? What about mimicry of various sources combined in the musician's unique fashion? How do you know if someone is musical or not? Or does it not really exist at all?

A corollary to this is---if it can be taught, how?

I haven't made up my mind on any of these things yet, but there are many musicians here who seem to have strong opinions on the subject, and I'd like to learn more about it. All input welcomed!

Replies (41)

October 16, 2007 at 04:45 PM · You can teach anything, but learning anything is another matter entirely.

October 16, 2007 at 08:24 PM · "Is it completely tied to technical ability (can you have it without excellent technique)? Is it made up of things like intonation, timing, dynamics, etc.? Does it depend on originality? What about mimicry of various sources combined in the musician's unique fashion? How do you know if someone is musical or not? Or does it not really exist at all?

A corollary to this is---if it can be taught, how?"

I am sure you can have "musicality" without excellent technical facility on the violin. Everything makes up "musicality" - having musicality to me is having the ability to manipulate your technique to generate a certain sound and convey some sort of emotion. The dispute over whether or not musicality can be learned is pointless. As in every area in life, some individuals are naturally adept towards music making and excel "musically" for example, and thus a sense of music is essentially born with the individual. And, being musical is certainly subjective. I think that the best question on judging "musicality" is to ask yourself whether or not you could feel emotion in the playing, although that is probably far off considering I normally don't have a set criteria on judging one's musicality, and I usually don't even think about it, as I rarely go into details when listening to someone play. I like to sit back and enjoy.

October 17, 2007 at 01:42 AM · Yes, in the other thread there were probably no two people talking about the same thing.

But whatever you want the term to mean, I agree with Bilbo that anything can be taught. Whether that thing can be learned by a particular person in the allotted time is a different matter. Whether or not a particular teacher can teach it in the alloted time is also a consideration :)

Regarding imitation, from the other thread, it's mostly imitation, with a bit of originality. That makes it recognizable as in-tune, recognizable as a good sound, recognizable as a particular style, as part of some tradition, and so on.

October 17, 2007 at 02:33 AM · Think of it this way--not all athletic people become good athletes... Then my man Mike comes along and does both B-ball, and Baseball...

But the question is, that with work can most become more athletic? Sure.... It's all relative and a matter of degrees.

October 17, 2007 at 03:33 AM · My teacher, a very good violist, compares me to the Maxim Vengerov of violas except not as techinically advanced. I move every were when I play. My face "moves and plays with the music" for sadd or melancholy peices my face expresses that and for happier or more upbeat peices I smile or smirk hince the name "the Maxim Vengerov of violas". The weird thing is is that i dont realize im doing it or when she says not to I make wierd faces.

Answering your questions I think that musically is something that comes naturally, and I fully agree with Bilbo in the fact that yes somebody can try to teach it but i think that it would be highly unsuccesful and would look fake. Musicality makes no difference in musician tomorrow the next Heifetz could be born,and he/she could be as stiff and emotionless while playing as a board.


October 17, 2007 at 04:05 AM · In the book "An Actor Prepares", Constantin Stanislavsky speaks of a technique called "emotion memory" that requires the performer to truly get in touch with the deeper feelings involved in a role/act/scene.

Music being what it is, and having the power that it does, with the above in mind, musicality can be taught - although it is more a matter of bringing what's inside of the performer OUT.

October 17, 2007 at 04:31 AM · it has been a long time since i laughed as hard as i did when i read the title of this article. i mean that in the most respectful way possible

October 17, 2007 at 08:31 AM · In my opinion, if one is able to listen to music and feel whatever the composer and musician is trying to bring across, then that person is musical, whether or not they can play a musical instrument or not.

Being able to express musicality on an instrument obviously requires a technique, which primary function is to recreate the sound that you hear in your head. But I think there are many other attributes that a violinist would need to express their musicality, for instance: interpreting the music in an appropriate and creative manner, havng good sense of style for the particular piece of music that they're playing, being able to judge how the sound comes across in various acoustics, being able to select the best sound/tone and vary it etc

October 17, 2007 at 02:16 PM · There are so many things.

When I used to play in a lot of masterclasses, I remember a number of great teacher/performers talk about the importance of balance - subjective/objective or feeling/thinking. One needs to feel but a little quality control can help.

Another great teacher said that if you find yourself being tremendously moved by your own performance, there's a good chance that you are the only one who is.

October 17, 2007 at 02:48 PM · I think that being musical is analygous to being a good writer or a good speaker. So what makes someone a good writer or a good speaker? Here's a start...

Perhaps, a good writer has a broad vocabulary, has a good knowledge of our culture, a good knowledge of other literature, an ability to work hard, connections with others to help get published, and a vivid imagination - ideas to communicate.

A good speaker will also have a voice that projects, a decent appearance, good hygiene, as well as all of the above. A good speechwriter would also help.

A good musician: good technique, command of different strokes, knowledge of other literature, connections with others, good ideas to communicate, an ability to work hard.

A good musician who is a performer will also have elements that a good speaker has.

October 17, 2007 at 03:06 PM · i am going to be the contrarian by quoting the once- in- a- while brilliant jim...

"in the other thread there were probably no two people talking about the same thing."

October 17, 2007 at 09:15 PM · "A good speaker will also have a voice that projects, a decent appearance, good hygiene, as well as all of the above. A good speechwriter would also help."

I think my hygiene is pretty good at the moment.....

October 18, 2007 at 01:26 AM · My point was mainly that most people don't want to see a performer who looks like crap. But one can look like hell and be a hell of a violinist and record a whole bunch of great recordings.

I guess it's pretty fair to say that I am skating off slightly off tangent.

But I think it's a fair comparison that what makes an interesting writer/speaker and an interesting musician is similar. Both require technique, and to have "something to say."

October 18, 2007 at 03:15 AM · This is what musicality means to me.

Listen to Mitsuko Uchida's Mozart piano sonatas. They received a rosetta from Penguin Guide. Her touch, tone and timing are just devastating! There have been times when I have pulled my car into the garage at home and just waited for the piece to finish, and then a moment of silence. It's like -- that moment with music -- you have fallen in love with the most beautiful person in the world. That's what I mean -- I mean to respond to this question about musicality.

Now there are some other pianists who snear at her recordings, stating that she does not follow the timing exactly as the notes are written on the sheet music; that her timing is not precise, as though she should be a mechanical machine clanging away to the one-thousands-of-a-second precision. Rubish!

The notes on the paper are not the music itself. The ink on the paper gives clues as to how the music should be created, but the dots on the paper are not the music itself. The paper does not make any sounds. It does not even include explanations of basic things, like tones and moods. It is assumed that the performing artist interprets that part of the music making process.

Musicality is not mechanically recreating ink specks on paper. It's creating music!

October 18, 2007 at 03:36 AM · I know those Mitsuko Uchida Mozart recordings and I think they are terrific. I have had a similar experience misting up because they are so beautifully played.

But I would argue that they are actually very rhythmnically well-played. Uchida takes time and gives it in such a way that all of her phrases do actually in the end take up the same length of time. That is good rhythmn.

Hers is also an example, IMHO, and for a variety of reasons, not just rhythmic, of good musicality.

October 18, 2007 at 04:06 AM · I love Uchida's Mozart playing.

Clara Haskil playing Mozart is also one of my very favorites.

I would say that a performance by either one of these artists would be an example of 'musicality'.

October 21, 2007 at 04:57 PM · I think musicality and emotional playing are two different things. To play musically, you must know more than the notes. You must study scores, historical styles, and have a genuine understanding of what your music is doing, and what the composer intended a given passage to accomplish. Is it a mood change? a bridge? a development? an ornamentation? a variation? a new theme? The function of a given passage will give clues to how it should be played, and what sort of colorization is needed.

Emoting is also an important aspect of playing, but what you personally feel while playing is not important - it's how your playing makes your audience feel that's at issue.

Making 'faces' is sometimes a symptom of tension, rather than musicianship, if it's constant. It can also distract the audience from the music, focusing them on YOU instead. Lang Lang is a prime example of someone we love to laugh at on YouTube, while still admiring his virtuoso performances :)

That said, even classical music still has a 'showbiz' aspect. Bottom line - you're an entertainer. An elite one, perhaps, but still an entertainer. Paganini used to have strings 'break' and go up on a lower one. Ysaye talked of the emoting (even to actual tears!) that he did during his concert years. It's all good :)

October 22, 2007 at 01:55 AM · I've tried to stay away from this thread because everyone seems to be talking about something other than what I envision musicality to be. For me it is the inate understanding of the musical language. It is the ability to anticipate how the music works and where it is going. I trruly do not think that it is the ability to simply go eins, zwei , drei through the entire score and getting to the beat and pitches on time without any inate understanding of how the music works. So far I haven't heard anyone say anything like this. If I have to explain what I'm talking about then I'm afraid we are not even talking about the same art form. My 2 cents.

October 22, 2007 at 02:44 AM · Jay, you've used the word "language."

Pardon me if I attempt to steer the subject in my direction, but does that not also suggest "speaking, singing, perhaps even sentences and paragraphs" as well?

October 22, 2007 at 12:30 PM · I feel with Jay. Menhuhin in one of his books tells the story, how Enescu was sight reading and played with Ravel his sonata. And then played a movement again by heart. I feel that this is an outstanding example of a musician understanding the language of music.

October 22, 2007 at 02:03 PM · it is cool to see people offering different opinions on the shapes of cloud:)

still, there is a difference between musicianship and musicality,,,i would think, except i have no idea what the difference is:)

October 22, 2007 at 08:47 PM ·

October 22, 2007 at 03:48 PM · We are about to launch off into a mysterious netherworld. Once we start explaining ourselves, we could be onto a different subject.

October 22, 2007 at 03:55 PM · .... or perhaps.. musicianship needs to be applied, whereas one can feel, think, or sense musicality in other ways?

Heck... I don't know!

Where am I?

October 22, 2007 at 04:34 PM · terry, wasn't there a supreme court judge who penned that he did not know how to define pornography but he knew when he saw it? :):):)

so, i am waiting for you guys to say that, heck, we cannot define musicality but we know when we hear it? :)

jay, see above...:)

October 22, 2007 at 04:46 PM · Cop-out, Al - though there is some truth in it. Even if we never find a complete answer doesn't mean that searching for it, or trying to capture it in words, is pointless. That's what makes the whole thing interesting.

October 22, 2007 at 08:47 PM ·

October 22, 2007 at 05:37 PM ·

October 22, 2007 at 05:28 PM · Well I'll go ahead and launch into this. Yes, I think that music is a type of language. A few musical words that might suggest this are:

musical language (Jay's favorite)













There are even some pieces which have been given phrases to suggest their opening theme. For example, "Answer the telephone" for the Mozart piano quartet.


October 22, 2007 at 07:48 PM · megan, by no means are my posts suggesting to you or anyone in particular that YOU cannot share how you feel on this subject. in fact, if you have read the other thread, you would have read what i thought about the topic in the first place. easy, no one is out there to censor you or disrupt your contribution to the discussion. however, once in a while, or more often than you like, you may come across things that do not go along with your own line of thinking. hmmm, what can i say? as a musician, is there a problem trying to catch not by words but by feel?

jay, you may feel you know something others do not and therefore sounding condescending is the way to go about it? but guess what, you have picked the right target because of all people, i know close to nothing about music!:) if you do not care to share what you think about it, (since it will bother you to explain), feel free to delete it and get it over with. you know what i mean? saying you don't feel like showing up but show up anyway...

by the way, i disagree with your assessment that musicianship is applied musicality.

i think musicality is something that you are born with, at varying level. what you add on later is musicianship.


October 22, 2007 at 07:32 PM · Al, I didn't mean to offend you in any way - why can't one express tone of voice on the computer? Sorry if it came across wrong.

But that's the interesting thing in abstract qualities - love, beauty, musicality. We know it when we experience it, but how do we know if what we experience corresponds to what others experience? Trying to capture this leads to great philosophy and to great art - and that's why I think the search, or the exchanging of ideas, sensations, experiences, is crucial.

October 22, 2007 at 07:52 PM · megan, i still think the definition of musicality is rather confusing to grasp. at least much tougher than, say, maternal love. it is much easier to identify the latter, universally, than to come to terms with a consensus on musicality.

sure, it is very fun to talk about it and see how others see it, particularly when you know ahead of time there will be a gamut of varying perspectives.

going by the analogy i have provided later, i myself will be satisfied with the notion that a performer or a kid exudes high level of musicality, as long as i hear it and feel it, and to borrow partly from jay, violin case closed. haha

ps. only i can offend myself:)

October 22, 2007 at 09:07 PM · I think musicality is like the love a small furry animal has for its offspring, but much more complicated. In fact, it's so complicated, words cannot express it. Which is why I've decided I will stop trying. Either that, or I had some bad pizza last night. :)

October 22, 2007 at 10:34 PM · ther eis no such thing as bad pizza...

October 22, 2007 at 11:00 PM · What about the kind with white fuzz on top?

October 23, 2007 at 12:39 AM · I think that it's necessary to retain a somewhat mystical (as opposed to musical) outlook. Some people don't believe in global warming while others don't 'believe' in God or Organized Religion.

Nobody can argue that some people have red hair, some have blond. No one argues if one person is taller, ore weighs more, or is better at writing, math,archery, or anything else. Some babies stand sooner and some walk sooner. Some learn music at an early age with seemingly little help. Some love it and others do not.

How do we explain these things? Dogs bark and cats meow. Grass is green and sky is blue. Why is an elephant large?

Why is all of this?


October 23, 2007 at 02:51 AM · Music is the language of emotions when they are unsullied by words.

This does not mean that "it's all good". If one doubts that nonsense is possible with any language - including music - one need only open one of those spam emails which try to trick the spam filters by putting in a layer of randomly generated words. Sure, it's words. Sure, there's punctuation. But it's not language nor communication, just a misuse of both. And though it is far more subjective, far less quantifiable than words, music can also sometimes render nonsense. Or, rather, a sincerely felt but ultimately idiotic interpretation can render nonsense.

October 23, 2007 at 04:17 AM · Most cultural anthropologists agree that art of any form is intended to "express the inexpressible." So in that sense I would agree that music is "beyond words."

But I can't think of anything better than words, as an analogy for music.

And obviously, depending on the arrangement of words, one can have a work by Shakespeare, by Voltaire, by Dickens, or by Dr. Seuss.

Getting back to the original post, musicality would be the expression of those notes. Analygous to a Shakespearean play, it would be an interplay between the characters, dialogue, scenery, costumes, etc in some beautiful proportion.

The difference for the musician is that the tools of the trade are the bow, the violin, one's technique, one's understanding of the architecture of the music, one's personality, etc etc etc.

October 23, 2007 at 06:51 AM · Soon comes classical music is Milton and everything else is comics. Can you imagine a ballerina ripping the dancing in a Hopi ceremony? If she thinks they're idiotic, then just please god just kill her and put everyone out of their misery. Or at least make her stay home. "Ach! Dey vud not do dis in Bolshoi !" (Sorry, I've never paid attention to Russian accents, so that might not be an accurate one.)

October 23, 2007 at 12:28 PM · You can substitute superman comics, toddler paintings, disco, acid rock, Tuvan throat singing (from Jim's hometown), or Maasai warrier jumping contests and the concept is the same. Whatever is the norm for the "beauty" becomes the standard. It doesn't matter if it's "high" or "low" brow art. But there is a "standard" for all of these forms of art.

October 23, 2007 at 10:24 PM · I know that I may be a tad too analytical about this so, if you're feeling touchy, postpone reading the rest of this one... Cheers, -vk ;-)

Seems like to have a chance at agreeing about what musicality is, one needs to agree first on what music is. For a start, I looked up:

"The definition of music is a contested evaluation of what constitutes music and varies through history, geography, and within societies. Definitions vary as music, like art, is a subjectively perceived phenomenon. (...)"

I found it really interesting to see lots of people's comments show up in the articles in one form or another.

I also got the impression that people just mean different things when they use the word "musicality", so curious as a non-native speaker I looked that up, too.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

musicality -

1 : sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music

2 : the quality or state of being musical : melodiousness

A bit less sparse but consistent with Merriam-Webster's is the definition of musicality from the Meyers online dictionary (in German):

"Musikalität [lateinisch], musikalische Begabung, die angeborene oder erworbene Fähigkeit, Musik aufzunehmen und auszuüben. Zu den wesentlichen Komponenten der Musikalität zählen das Erkennen von Tonhöhen-, Tondauer- und Tonstärkeunterschieden, das Auffassen und Behalten von Melodien, Rhythmen, Akkorden usw. sowie für die Musikausübung die Fähigkeit der musikalischen Gestaltung und der Geschicklichkeit im Umgang mit einem Musikinstrument."

let me try a translation:

musicality - musical talent, the inborn or acquired capability to understand and make/play music. The main components of musicality are the identification of the height, duration and differences in intensity of tones, the understanding and retaining of melodies, rhythms, chords, etc. and for the making/playing of music the ability of musical arrangement (of a piece beyond what's in the manuscript) and the skilled handling/use of ones instrument.

Also interesting to note is that German does not have a word for "musicianship". It is included in "musicality".

Hope someone besides me gets something out of this. ;-)

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