What truly distinguishes music that feels warm and human from music that seems cold and computer-like? Intention. We can teach expression in music nearly from day one, by thinking of the intention of the music we play.
When a computer plays music from a MIDI file, it plays the correct pitch and note value of each note at the correct time. A musician may play that same music with relatively correct pitch, note value, and timing, because there is an intention to lean in one direction or another. In some music software, computer programmers have added a “humanize” feature, which simply randomizes the starting time of a note very slightly. The programmers imagine that the difference between computers and humans is perfection vs imperfection. They don’t realize, or maybe just can’t possibly program, the real difference: intention.
A musician (except on an instrument such as the piano where there is no pitch control) will play a pitch that sounds best within the context. For example, an F# in the key of D may be played higher by a human than an electronic tuner believes to be the correct frequency. That’s because in this instance the F# defines the major third and we may wish to broaden and emphasize that effect. An F# in the key of G may be quite high because it is leading our ears into the tonic G.
Note value example: A musician may hold a beat note a touch longer than written and catch up to the next beat by cheating the length of the non-beat notes. This can enliven many types of music, but perhaps the most obvious use of this concept is in swing, where the feel of the eighth notes approaches the rhythm of a triplet, but not perfectly enough to write it down that way. We certainly cannot write down (or reproduce on computer) the difference between a musician who swings and one who “swings hard.”
Timing example: Very often a good musician will lean each beat of a phrase progressively forward, or hold each one progressively back, and then return to the beat on the next phrase. This kind of expression can be felt over the length of a phrase, but defies mathematical analysis.
Learning and teaching musical notes by function
As teachers and performers, we can make use of these thoughts in several ways. One is to recognize that when learning and teaching music, notes are not merely punch holes in a music box roll. They are flexible, depending on where the notes are placed. We don’t need to think of individual notes as worthy of memorizing or learning in their own right. Each note has a function, and we can learn notes according to function, rather than according to note name, or note value.
Suppose you are teaching a passage that begins with two pickup notes, D and E, followed by an F# on the beat. The student does not need to memorize D, E, F#. They can learn the beat note, F#, and know that the D and E are leading up to the beat note. The pickup notes serve the function of introducing the F# from below. Thinking this way focuses a student on the important note, the beat note, and places the pickup notes into the proper context. Even if they forget the pickup notes, they can reconstruct them or something functionally similar, because they understand why they are there, rather than memorizing each note individually. The student is also more likely to play these notes more musically, because they are no longer individual notes but are a group. Thinking in this way makes a musician more likely to lean through the pickup notes into the beat note, without needing anyone to write a crescendo mark underneath or a slur on top.
Whether we are talking about pickup notes, or an arpeggio, or a seemingly random discordant note, it is possible and even most desirable to teach a student to learn and play music with intention, to understand the function of notes and why they lead us through a line of music. This is not merely for advanced players. In fact, it is difficult to insert intention into music if it has first been learned mechanically.
In more advanced studies, musicians learn more than notes based on their function; they learn whole passages this way. Complex chords serve to lead from one key to another, and can be understood as a group of notes that take us somewhere. Improvisors select notes from one group and lead us to the next, sometimes even anticipating an upcoming chord, which resolves when the chord arrives. Those who memorize note by note cannot possibly grasp these larger musical movements because they are based on function, the way a V leads to a I, or a II to a V to a I.
It is never too early to introduce function to a student, whether showing them how a simple pickup note leads from above or below, or how an arpeggio takes us quickly to a high note where we want to start the next phrase. Soon enough they’ll be writing new music, or improvising, or grasping whole passages and retaining them without drilling for endless hours.
It’s for this reason that I never talk to students about “memorizing” a piece of music. I only speak about their “learning” it. There is so much more to a language than its letters.