How to put emotion in music

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So today’s video is a question I was asked a while ago – how to put emotion in music. I’ve contemplated this question on and off, and I’ve put off doing a video on this topic because I don’t feel like I have a definitive answer for you. I think this is the kind of question that would have as many answers as there are musicians.

So even if there isn’t one true way, I could at least talk to you about how I do it.

Putting emotion in music

Sometimes when I’m reading a particularly good book, I’m like, “Wow, that was so cool and subtle, I want to try writing something like that.” And then I try writing something like that, and it comes out basic and elementary and obvious. And then I get exasperated and go back to reading.

I use this example because you can have an excellent ear and great taste – you can hear how masters weave emotions so delicately and commandingly into their performances – but completely fall flat in your attempts. Hearing is one thing, doing is another.

So this sounds like I’m saying “might as well give up now”. I promise I’m not! But learning how to emote through an instrument is a skill that takes a long time to develop, just like anything else.

Tip #1: Don’t be subtle

So with that said, my first real suggestion is: don’t be subtle. Masters of musical emotion can be subtle, but when the average person attempts subtlety, it usually just sounds like nothing. Practice swinging to extremes. Blast out those fortes and pindrop those pianos.

Have you ever been in a drama class? Compare that memory with a really good movie you’ve watched. What’s the difference in acting? In drama and theatre, movements and expressions need to be exaggerated, because the audience is generally far away (in the stands). Without that exaggeration, the people in the audience would perceive the actors to be like robots.

Now in a movie, the opposite situation happens. Cameras zoom up on actors’ faces, catching every microscopic detail. Movie actors can, and must be, extremely subtle in how they convey emotions – otherwise they’re just look silly on the big screen.

I bring this up to you because I find beginner and intermediate students too timid in expressing dramatic emotions. I feel like in order to be subtle, you need to master the dramatic first.

And a lot of times, you might think you’re being dramatic on the piano (“That was a loud forte!”), but a listener will hardly notice any difference. It’s like an actor going up on stage, and then talking and moving their body in a normal way. From far away, I can’t tell what emotional state they’re in.

I think you need to exaggerate a little more than you think you should. Especially at first. From there, you can tame your emotional expression and develop subtlety. Exaggerate first, then subtlety.

Tip #2: Think like singing

I don’t know if this is just me, but since I do a lot of singing, I actually find emotional expression through singing a lot easier than through the piano. And even if you don’t sing much, I still want you to listen to this next point.

Phrasing. It’s that thing where you have slurs sectioning the song off. For a really quick review, phrasing means that, if you were singing this, at the end of the phrase you would take a breath. On the piano, we convey that sound with a slight lift from the keys (to create a “break” in the sound).

But so often, within a phrase, we play notes in a flat line. We play them all the same volume, with no movement. It’s somehow easy to miss on piano, but it’s very obvious with singing. If you try singing a phrase with every single note the same volume, you’re going to sound like a robot. No one sings like that, even bad singers.

So whether you’ve got a nice voice or not, think about how simple it is to emote with your voice. You don’t know how many times I’ve overheard people belting out Celine Dion or top 40 hits in apartment buildings. You’ve probably had at least one “pour out your heart while singing in the shower” experience in your life.

Think about that when you’re looking at phrasing. Think about how you would sing it. If you can play it like you’d sing it, that will go a long way toward emoting through the piano.

Tip #3: Art is Storytelling

I wanted to include something about technical mastery in this video – like, the better you get, the more control you’ll be able to have on expressing emotion. But then I realized it just isn’t true. There are so many bands and artists that have very little skill, but have so much energy and emotion that we forgive them their shortcomings.

There are also artists who have perfected their craft, but their work seems empty. It might be completely beautiful, but it’s missing that energy and emotion.

So the truth, I think, is that you can convey emotion through music right from day 1. You can do it when you’re playing Mary Had a Little Lamb or Moonlight Sonata.

And it’s something that goes beyond exaggeration, dynamics and phrasing.

So this is going to be a little abstract, but I hope you’re bear with me.

What is art?

To me, art is storytelling. Not storytelling in the sense that it has to have a beginning, middle, climax, and denouement – though it can. But, boiled down to its essence, art is communication from one person to another. What is a painter telling you with her painting? What is an author telling you with his book? What is a performer telling you about her character? And so on.

So because art is this two-way communication, a lot of us get focused on what we want the other person to know, or learn, or see. If we’re a writer, we might think, “I want the reader to understand this character is a sociopath, so I’ll have her say something that alludes to her lack of empathy.” A musician might think, “This is a sad, tragic piece. I want the listener to feel sad and maybe even shed a tear when I play this piece.”

But I actually believe that’s the wrong approach.

I don’t think you should be focusing on making the other person feel something. I think you yourself need to feel the thing which you’re trying to convey. Instead of trying to make someone sad with your piece (people don’t like being told what to do anyhow!), how does it make you sad? What’s your story when you play it?

Whatever emotion you’re trying to convey, whether it’s contented peacefulness with Mary Had a Little Lamb or romantic passion with Liszt’s Liebestraum, the one who has to experience that feeling is you. And when you’re experiencing an emotional story while playing, your listeners will pick up on that.

So what is your song about? If it’s a piano song, there’s a good chance there are no words – maybe the title gives some clues, maybe it doesn’t. So you have to create a story for that song. There are so many ways to do this – I’ll give you a few ideas, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Ways to “feel” your song

-Get to know the actual story of the song, via research. Who was the composer? What were they going through? What was their life like when they wrote the song?

-Invent a story. Say your piece is called “Minuet in C”. Maybe you can conjure up feelings of joy and enthusiasm by envisioning two characters dancing at an old-fashioned ball.

-Invent lyrics. I know this one sounds a little crazy, but I did it all the time back in the day. I find this especially effective with light-hearted, jovial songs – you can come up with hilarious lyrics that make you want to laugh, which will cause you to play in a laughing manner.

-Connect music to artwork. Playing a dramatic Beethoven sonata? Find a piece of art from Beethoven’s era that you find represents the sound of your piece. Play with that painting in mind (maybe even in front of you), as though you’re painting with the piano.

-Sing the melody. How would you sing it if you were auditioning for American Idol or The Voice?

-Imagine that the song you’re playing is a background track to a scene in a movie. What’s happening in the scene? What are the actors doing? How is your piece amplifying the mood?

-If you were to attach the song you’re learning to one of your life memories, which would it be? Re-experience that memory with the song as your background track for it.

Conclusion

Adding emotion in music is a very personal process, and I’m sure everyone does it a little different. Still, I hope that my subjective experiences are able to give you some ideas of your own, or at least get your brain-wheels turning. Have fun!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.