On Para-musical Performance Instructions, and Implicit Shaping

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By ‘para-musical’ I mean all those annotations around musical notation that tell you how, as opposed to what, to play or sing. Dynamics, articulation, descriptive words - often in Italian, though Satie had a nice line in metaphors in his native French. This post emerges from helping an arranger recently who was working on a saxophone quartet: the question emerged of just how much of this stuff is needed?

The answer that emerged as generalisable for all musical contexts was: use what looks like a normal amount for the genre you’re working in. You do this by going at looking at other music that the ensemble routinely plays. Norms can vary enormously. Some orchestral scores, especially since the mid-20th-century, micromanage almost every note, whilst barbershop, like baroque music, rarely includes any. It’s not, as I have seen claimed in some undergraduate essays, that they didn’t do expressive shaping in the C17th, it’s just that it was assumed that anyone with sufficient skill to read the notes would have enough nous to figure out what to do with them.

Hence, the goal for the arranger is to give enough detail that a performer feels comfortable that they know what’s going on, but not so much as to stand between them and the music. It is possible to get so focused on obeying textual instructions that you don’t engage fully with the musical narrative, so you want to write in such a way that the performers become partners in the story-telling, not simply subservient relayers of its message.

This conversation then led us on to the question of implicit shaping. What are the hints that a musician will take to inform their decisions, and how, as an arranger do you build them into the musical structures? For example, if you want to create a sense of build, writing ‘cresc’ will get you one in the dimension of volume, but it will be limited if the actual musical materials are continuing the same as before, just with more air going through the instrument (or a greater length of bow passing across the string, or hammers hitting the strings faster, etc).

If you want to create a more structural sense of build, you need to add energy in other dimensions as well, and we discussed various ways to achieve this:

  • Add more instruments to the sound (texture)
  • Raise the tessitura (with attendant tighter voicings)
  • Add dissonance and/or harmonic charge
  • Add rhythmic activity, e.g. multiple stabbing chords rather than one sustained one
  • Speed up the harmonic rhythm. This wasn’t actually appropriate for the example we were looking at, but I’m adding it to the list because it can be very effective when it will fit

When you build the dynamic shaping in like this, the effect of para-musical instructions changes. Now, the ‘cresc’ acts as a confirmation that the musical behaviour the performers would instinctively choose is in fact the right one. It can also, of course, act as a time-saver, as it signals to a player sight-reading a single part to what kind of action to expect from the texture as a whole, thus helping bring it alive on first run-through, rather than making them go back and figure it out once they’ve heard how their part fits with the others.

And this thought brings me back to the generalisation about making the music look normal for the genre. The norms encode not just information about the relationship between reader of the music and writer of it, but also about rehearsal and performance habits. If you only have your own part to read, it’s much harder to make inferences about the overall musical shape than if you work from a score that includes the full texture, so you probably need more para-musical information to guide you. If you don’t have very much rehearsal time to spend working together on how you want to shape the music, then likewise the annotations will help you find your way in quickly.

Conversely, there is a tipping point, when the profusion of para-musical information starts to slow things down rather than speed them up, as it takes time to absorb all the details and figure out the distinctions between them. Hence, one can speculate a U-shaped relationship between rehearsal time needed and the amount of para-musical stuff on a score. It takes more time with none or with loads, with a sweet spot of efficiency somewhere in the middle. Knowing how much to include turns out to entail discovering how the group you are writing for is likely to work.

And then the day I publish this, I come across an arrangement for saxophone quartet with the overall performance instruction: 'Not obnoxiously'

You have to wonder what happened to make the arranger think to write that!

Still, it's a good suggestion.

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