Music as Metaphor

I was always befuddled when a piano teacher would tell me to “say something” with a piece of music. Of course, intellectually, I knew that it meant that I was supposed to be more expressive, shape the phrases, sing out the melody, keep the accompaniment softer, etc. But no matter how much I tried to play musically, I was never quite sure if I was saying what I was supposed to say, if I was saying anything at all, or if in fact I had anything to say!

I try not to be so vague with my young students and sometimes we come up with quite silly sentences to go along with the music. This helps with everything from tricky rhythms (think Mississippi Hot Dog) to sentences that go along with unusual phrasing, and very often, story lines to convey emotion similar to Bernstein’s Beethoven example above.

Two days ago I found a surprise gift in my mailbox at The Music Studio – The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein.  What a treat!

Agree with him or not, it’s fun to see how Bernstein compares music to language where a note is a phoneme, a phrase – a word, a section – a clause and an entire movement – a sentence. I find this fascinating, not only because my old questions about how to “say something,” but because it brings back memories of my 9th grade English class and diagramming long and complex sentences. And, I loved those assignments!

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