Music is as dramatic and emotive as a play or a movie. Actors and musicians spend a lot of time trying to convey messages to their audiences. Our job is to help our audience feel empathy – that they’re not alone, that we get it – and that requires displaying emotion.
When a stage actor gets a script, they read through it, do any research they need to, and get to know the story and their character. Once they start practicing what the character is feeling, they go through the script and make notes.
Now, these notes are not emotions – the actors don’t write “sad,” “happy,” or “confused.” If you play an emotion, just straight up, it will look like you’re acting, not being the character. You’ll seem very forced and two-dimensional, not believable at all.
Actors who use the Stanislavski method go through all their lines and try to find the changes in their characters’ emotions; they note the subtle shifts and break those into sections. Think about how your responses and emotions shift in conversations – it’s life, it’s realistic. The actors figure out the emotion and then put an infinitive verb there (e.g.to sneer, to question, to laugh).
These infinitives give them something to use to demonstrate different emotions, and as they go through each section, they’ll change the infinitive.
For example, let’s say there’s a scene where a couple is breaking up. The girl is the one dumping the guy because he hasn’t been there for her. He’s angry and upset because his pride is wounded since he’s the one being dumped. Let’s put ourselves in the girl’s shoes.
The scene opens with them on the couch, and she turns to him to speak. Her first emotions might be fear and awkwardness. As she progresses through what she has to say, those emotions change to anger and hurt. As he interrupts and argues and tries to defend himself, that anger deepens, betrayal shows up, and maybe even hatred, disbelief that he’s denying all these things, and probably determination to make him pay for all that he’s doing to her right now and has done before.
See the progression? It’s not just “sad,” “angry,” “really angry.” There’s a reason her emotions shift, and it’s based on the conversation. What you’d probably see in the script would be infinitive verbs progressing like this: to fumble, to determine, to cry, to plead, to recount, to demand, (as she’s getting angry, more visceral verbs come into play) to bite, to scream, to wound, to gloat, to betray, to hunt, to hate, to shock, to attack, and so on through the scene. The verbs change as the emotions of the character progress.
That’s cool and all, but how can this technique improve my musicality?
We’re going to look at your music like a play and use this technique to bring out nuances of emotion. It will come out differently in different genres and depending on whether or not there are words.
The first thing to do is to is to get an overall sense of the general emotion of the piece; we call songs “happy” and “sad,” so figure out what kind of song it is. Then find the message of the piece, what it’s talking about. This is easy to do if there are words – just read. But if there aren’t any, think about what kind of scene would work well to this music – a marriage, a break up, a birth, a quiet moment at home, seeing a new place for the first time, a fight, a race, a victory, a defeat. Now, play that story out in the music.
Once you’ve got your overall emotion and story idea, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of the “lines” in the story.
Outlining sections with analysis.
As usual, we’ll start with analysis. Take out your music and look through the sections. Where are the changes in speed, dynamics, octaves, voices, and feel? Each time you find something that seems different, like a change in the emotion of the piece, draw a line in pencil to mark that section, and repeat with the entire piece. These changes can happen in the middle of a measure or a phrase, just like we change emotions mid-sentence. Don’t let the formal structure of the music get in the way of finding the emotional story arc.
Outlining sections by listening.
Find a recording of the piece, if one exists, and really listen to it. Imagine a scene going on and note all the changes in mood and emotion throughout the piece.
Listen for speed and dynamic changes, key changes, and the overall feelings you get while you listen. Make note of those changes and sections in your music by drawing lines in pencil.
Outlining sections through playing.
If playing through it is the best way for you to figure out what you feel where, great! Play through the piece several times, and have a pencil handy. When you feel a change in the emotion of the piece, however subtle, draw a line to show the end of that section.
Pay attention to how you feel, the emotions that come up. Each emotion gets its own section, so take note of the shifts you feel and find a way to help yourself know where those sections and shifts are.
Where do we go from here?
Once you have all your emotional sections outlined, it’s time to start applying infinitives. Figure out what’s going on in each section of the piece, and find an infinitive that will help you convey the emotion in that section. Write it within the lines you made for that section. Make sure the infinitives all link and flow – don’t just throw random infinitives up there, or you and your listeners will be frustrated and won’t be able to keep up.
Now that you’ve got your music all marked up, it’s time to practice. What Stanislavski method actors normally do is to say the infinitive as they mean it, and then speak the line. For example, if the character is angry and spiteful, the infinitive might be “to spit.” So, the actor will say, “To spit…” and continue with the line, but every word including the infinitive is said thinking of the action of spitting and what it feels like to want to spit in someone’s face.
Here’s another way to think of it: you can’t do emotion, but you can do action. That was Stanislavski’s idea, to have the actors choose verbs to enact to help them bring up the emotions, instead of trying to act an emotion or convey the idea of the emotion. Here’s a two minute video that explains it from a director’s perspective that might help you get the full understanding of the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJOld95sDGU
Getting back to your music, you can speak the infinitive you’ve written before playing the section. Each time you come to a new infinitive, speak it as you move on. This will help your brain engage with the changes and make them happen in the music.
How exactly does this technique improve my musicality?
Instead of focusing on the dynamics and fingering and all the musical techniques, focus on the infinitives, and you will automatically follow those dynamics and techniques to produce more musicality in your pieces.
Using these infinitives helps you internalize the emotions in the piece and draw on them as you perform. Instead of vague feelings you can’t quite pin down, you know exactly what you want your audience to feel. This will help them be more engaged with your music and remember it (and you) better.
There’s nothing wrong with just feeling it as you go and not using this technique. If that’s better for you, go for it. But using this will give you much more precision in communicating your message and more breadth in your musicality, because you’ll be able to show nuances much more clearly. It will also help you pinpoint those nuances so you can bring them out.
I’ve got a song that has words. How do I use this technique?
Most of the hard work is done for you. Read through the lyrics or listen to them, and think about what the author is really trying to drive home. Then, pay attention to the emotions they use, the heartstrings they’re tugging on.
There are multiple kinds of lyrics; there are stories, there are messages directed at certain people (like love songs, breakup songs, worship songs) where the singer is singing to those people directly, and there are introspective songs where the singer is singing about themselves in an effort to let others know they’re not alone in an experience.
Story songs will probably have the broadest range of emotions because they’ll usually include happy and sad moments, hope and regret. There’s usually more ground covered than in the other two kinds of songs because story songs recount multiple incidents and memories.
Follow the story and notice where the emotions change. Color those scenes through the overarching emotion, if there is one. For example, the Irish song “Galway Girl” is about a guy who meets a girl and falls in love with her. They have a wonderful evening, but then she leaves him. There are sweet, happy moments at the beginning of the song, but the end is full of longing, sadness, and loss. That’s a wide range to cover. Since the song is a recounting, the storyteller has the end in mind, and he’ll tell about this girl and the time they had with some regret and longing, even during the sweet memories before she left him. That’s how the song will still be colored through the overarching emotion.
If you’ve got a story in the present, coloring the scenes through an overarching emotion may not be the best choice. For example, a story of love that ends tragically, but the storyteller doesn’t know it ahead of time. This would be different from “Galway Girl” because the storyteller is recounting memories, whereas some songs have stories that unfold as they go. You’ll have to pay attention to whether it sounds like a memory or something that’s happening now. If it’s happening now, don’t spoil the end by coloring the whole song through one overarching emotion; follow the story and the emotions as they unfold.
Message and introspective songs are usually more nuanced, since they typically center on a certain incident (or set of incidents), or a call to a certain action or change. Take love songs; those are usually happy and romantic, so they typically avoid the negative emotions. This narrows the field and creates nuances in feeling. Michael Buble’s “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” is a hopeful, romantic song. You can play the song just “happy,” or you can go through and figure out how the he feels in each line and bring out more emotions. Think about how much more your audience will relate by going through hope, longing, and wistfulness. Take Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” as another example. He talks about how beautiful his girl is and about what he tells her to help her believe it. You can try to play an emotion like “romantic,” but there’s so much more in the song that could be brought out; he’s in awe, happy, in love, sad that she doesn’t believe him, desires her, and encourages her. It’s not all just “happy.” You’ll help your audience relate to what’s going on in the song if you draw out all of the emotions and nuances.
Message and introspective songs can be a bit tricky to distinguish from story songs sometimes. The key thing to look for is lines directed to specific people, like a boyfriend, ex, friend, self, or organizations like the government, “the man.” But in those lines there needs to be an expression of a message, like “you are this to me,” “I still want you.” If the song is just telling stories, it’s a story song, but if it’s using those stories to try to persuade someone to do or feel something, it’s a message song. If it’s a personal narrative that uses those stories to express regret or a change in belief or attitude, then it’s an introspective song.
You’ll apply the same exercise to lyric songs as you would to those without lyrics. The difference is that you have more context to work with. The author has given you a story or a certain message to play off of.
What if I change my mind later about what I think the music is saying?
The good news is you used pencil! Right…?
Actors change the way they play characters all the time. Sure, they’ve got to keep it pretty consistent while they’re doing a run, but if they get the same role a few years later, they’ll change it up. Maybe a character that they had played as pretty gruff, they’ll decide to play as more regretful and show a more vulnerable side that we can sympathize with.
You are always able to change what you play. If you write in your infinitives and come back to that piece a few years later, it’ll probably hit you differently, and that’s great! Let the piece speak to you again and inform your musicality. Erase the words and lines and write new ones. You’re absolutely not locked in to one way of playing and expressing a message. Have fun with it!
The amazing thing about music is you can connect with it emotionally and discover its beauty. Music touches the soul in a way no other art form does. You get the chance to touch another human being’s heart and give them hope. The stories in music are powerful. As you draw them out, your audience will have the chance to experience a connection to music that words can’t really describe. And that, my friend, is a talent worth developing.