Music and Feeling: An Inquiry into the Relationship of Notation and Technique by Daniel Durand

Chapter I - The Problem


Miss Lind had sung her song, and had received a round of grateful but not enthusiastic applause. "Thank you, Mr. Connolly," she said as she left the platform. "I am afraid that Spohr's music is too good for the people here. Don't you think so?"

"Not a bit of it," replied Connelly. "It is only that they will not admire a song because it is classical, or by this or that, or the other composer. They won't take Spohr's good intentions for granted unless you realize them."

George Bernard Shaw The Irrational Knot 


In a fascinating outburst Verdi wrote to his publisher, Ricordi, that he wanted a single creator and that he would count himself happy if conductors would per­form exactly what he wrote. Later he wrote to Ricordi again and exploded that he did not need conductors and singers to discover new effects, for no one yet had suc­ceeded in producing all the effects he had put into his scores. What did singers and conductors fail to observe in Verdi’s scores?

Ravel said that he hated to have his music inter­preted and that it suffices merely to play it. But then, what role does the performer have in the recreation of the composer's music? It seems that Ravel implied that his music has its own interpretation. If so, how does he make that clear to musicians trying to bring his music to expressive performance, whereby both performers and hearers are moved by it?

 Mozart wrote to his father that to play prima vista (i.e. to sight-read) consists of playing all the notes, appoggiaturas, etc., with the proper expression and taste, as it is written (mit der gehörigen expreßion und gusto, wie es steht auszudrücken). Does that imply that the musical ideas which a performer sees on the page contain a guide to the emotional processes needed to touch the listener?

Music is, among other things, an emotional expe­rience, both for the performer and the listener. In Western civilization, the performer has to have this experience while recreating the musical feelings of other people (composers). The re-creation of "dead" music (it is dead once on paper, as opposed to spontaneous improvisation) has to rely on the principles which led to its creation, as written by the composer.

This writing, or notation, by the composer commands our attention in this treatise. The history of musical forms, the history of the evolution of notation, the functions of harmony and counterpoint, formal analysis, the history and influence of specific works, and the lives of the great composers are all very inter­esting and necessary, but we will re-examine the idea of notation in general as the daily language of singers and musicians.

First we define what is meant by feelings or emo­tion in the performance of music. Neither the B Minor Mass nor the Matthew Passion will tell us of Bach's emotional states that resulted from the abandonment issues resulting from his parents' deaths. Nor will the full-blown personality defects of Beethoven, an adult child of an alcoholic, be displayed

in the Ninth Symphony or the Kreutzer Sonata. In this sense Stravinsky was right when he said that music cannot express composers' feelings.

However, the performance of music is an act of communication; we communicate musical ideas. Communication implies mean­ing. Copland once said that music has meaning; we just cannot define the meaning. Music does consist of ideas, whatever the meaning. Beethoven understood this when he said to Ries, a student, while listening to a rehearsal of Mozart's C Minor Concerto, "My dear fellow, we shall never get any idea like this."

Thus, music communicates ideas – that is, great composers communicate great musical ideas. But, communication also implies feeling or emotions sim­ply because we are endowed with bodies. Our bodies convey the emotional meaning of ideas through the central nervous system. If this were not so, we would not have had to evolve functioning bodies with a cen­tral nervous system; instead we would have evolved into balls of grey matter rolling around on the ground, communicating by extra-sensory perception. Unfortunately (or not -- depending on the momentary point of view) we cannot communicate with each other except by means of our bodies which, because of our central nervous system, have feelings.

And to our purpose, written communication is also (usually) emotional, the novel and poetry proving the assertion, even though poetry was originally an oral art. Thomas Mann once said something to the effect that poets perfect the interrelationship between thought and feeling. And Charles Williams pointed out that great poets are, if nothing else, accurate. Their accuracy of thought and feeling at the highest levels fills us with awe and humility before such beauty of expression. In this sense of accurate communication we will look at composers doing the same thing in music.

Berlioz wrote that music has more than the single purpose of charming the ear; it is also concerned with the expression of feelings and passions. He also said that only music appeals at one and the same time to the imagination, the intellect, the feelings, and the senses. Having mentioned the novel, we quote Leo Tolstoi: "Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions, which let themselves be described in words with such diffi­culty, are directly conveyed music, and in that is its power and significance."

Thus, composers communicate musical ideas with their proper emotion (as we shall see), and per­formers communicate them to their listeners with feel­ings. How do composers convey the emotional context of their musical ideas? How do the composer's feelings come through those of the performer? The subject of this treatise is the definition of the emotional con­-veyance of musical ideas, i.e. musical expression.

 Ideas are not knowledge. Knowledge is only knowledge. It is but one of seven spiritual gifts. Two other gifts, closely related but very different, are understanding and wisdom. In today's society we appear to believe that if we know enough all our prob­lems will be solved, the falsity of which notion is evi­denced daily in the headlines of the press and on the Internet. A corollary to Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) has developed into I know, there­fore I can. This contemporary view of human endeavor becomes disastrous when applied to the arts which require emotions to communicate. More accurately, Thomas Aquinas said that there is nothing in the intellect that does not come from the senses (nil in intellectu quin prius in sensu). He got it from Aristotle. We must remember that what we are about to discuss evolved before the Cartesian revolution. It was the shift of educational pedagogy rooted in that revolution that Bach confronted so often when he complained of the choice of students for the Thomas School in Leipzig.

Today we still read musical ideas from a notation that evolved over a period of fifty years from 1600 to 1650 C. E., a system of durational signs for sounds and silence governed by a time signature and bar lines on a staff of five lines that indicates pitch dictated by a key signature. This notation has been understandable but not always understood for the last three hundred and fifty years, called the common practice period, a term not much in use anymore but nonetheless functional.

The roots of the common practice period will be found partially in the more and more frequent use of the bar line, which we can define precisely as a periodic stress repetition. This periodic stress repetition came from dance music, although it had also been used in tablatures and some keyboard music. Thus, the bar line became a technical apparatus for noting musi­cal expression which arose in contrast to and, paradox­ically, in fulfillment of proportional mensural nota­tion's reliance on arsis and thesis for expression, i.e. rise and fall of melody. (This rise and fall must be carefully understood. It is not a matter of high and low pitch, for melody is linear in time, vertical neither in space nor on a staff. It is precisely a matter of linear tensile strength grown into a highly complex art from the same linear tensile strength of Gregorian chant).

What the bar line did was to enable composers to give stronger emotional stress to particular words and syllables. Because it came into regular use by 1650, we can assert the relationship between the development of its use and the rise of dramatic music, i.e. opera and the musical forms, vocal and instrumental, which grew out of it. It is important to emphasize that the enormous energy, which made instrumental music one of the glories of western civilization in the last three hundred years was a direct result of this shift in musical notation. In this way, instrumental music falls into the purview of this study.

In monody, most notably Gregorian chant, pure melody has harmonic and rhythmic implications which are just that and no more. In polyphony two or more voices make simultaneous melody, but the harmonic aspect is now manifest. Gradually harmony moves from a coincidence in polyphony to an actual part of the structure of musical expression in its own right, i.e. harmonic rhythm with its stressed and less stressed chords. When the bar line comes into play (borrowed principally from dance music) and with the centraliza­tion of modality to major-minor tonality, the harmonic process increases in importance through the Baroque, Rococo, Classical, and Romantic periods, until the post-Romantic era asserts the triumph of harmony as an equal aspect of musical expression. Then with the apparent exhaustion of harmonic soil, the only thing left for composers to explore and to be stimulated by was rhythm, and so it happened that rhythm became the focus of musical expression in the twentieth century. (This is an egregious oversimplification of historical processes, but musical expression is the matter under scrutiny, not history.) The important fact to notice is the convergence of the bar line, harmonic rhythm resulting from the triumph of major-minor tonality, and the rise of operatic forms at the same time in history.

We now consider what the bar line means. All music dictionaries agree that the first beat in every bar has a specific expression, but dictionaries differ from one another in their definition, some saying that the first beat is an accent, others that it is a stress. The latter is preferable, precisely because stress is by definition emotional and music is an emotional art. Unfortunately the modern connotation of stress is neg­ative, but for musical purposes we rely on its defini­tion as a more prominent intensity given to a sound or word or syllable. This keeps stress in the realm of healthy emotion.

Stravinsky said, “The bar line is much more than a mere accent, and I don't believe it can be simulated by a mere accent, at least not in my music.”


Feeling and emotion are related to neural activity. The central nervous system is the means by which the body is activated by the mind's realizing what it desires through recognizing truth, goodness, and beau­ty in the object. When we are drawn to music by those qualities, and when we desire to communicate that music, we activate the communication through feelings naturally.

Emotions not only allow us to communicate ideas (including knowledge of our feelings), they also allow us to embody the process in the only effective way pos­sible. The operative word here is the verb to embody , and this can only be done through feelings. To travel from brain to musculature and bypass the feelings as the trigger to the musculature is inhuman and makes the performer (whether singer, instrumentalist, actor, dancer, or athlete) tense. Feelings induce the body to provide the correct pressure of muscular reaction to produce the activity which can lead to exaltation and even ecstasy. Pressure controlled by muscling, shortchanges the activity because the only feeling is of hard work being done by the musculature; there is no feeling of the music either before or after the fact. Truth, goodness, and beauty now are relegat­ed to a position of inferiority to the performer's mus­cular ability to control instead of being in the position of inspiring and nourishing the performer.

The emotional use of bar lines in non-dance music must be explained. We know from source read­ings that in the Baroque period, measures are grouped in two-bars and in the classical period they are grouped in four bars. The shift to a major-minor tonality, allud­ed to above, resulted in what is called harmonic rhythm, which allowed the first beats in the bar to acquire flexibility and variability of emotional stress or weight, resulting in the capacity to group bars into phrases. The most important issue here is the definition of a phrase: that which is terminated by a cadence.

Because the first beat of a bar regulates the rest of that measure only, first beats can have variable weight in relationship to each other. It makes perfect sense to look at the rise of opera as being possible because this variable emotional weight can influence the flow of dramatic exposition, whereas the regularly recurring weight required for dance music cannot. (Tchaikovsky was the first important composer to overcome that hurdle.)

This view of first beats means that each first beat in the phrase acts as a terminus a quo and terminus ad quem at once, by means of which the phrase is given the qualities of fluid motion and buoyancy. The terms terminus a quo and terminus ad quem, imply motion and movement in time, which will be seen later as an important factor in emotion and feeling.

First beats that are stressed have the capacity to give music emotional expression, whereas accenting first beats leads to singsong with all the immaturity and shallowness that singsong entails, especially falsifying the style. Understanding this will lead to greater depth of musical expression. The coincidence of the Baroque revival, with its emphasis on beats with little differen­tiation of weight from beat to beat and from bar to bar, and the rise of rock-and-roll in the same decade makes for fas­cinating meditation.


We arrive now at the very crux of musical expres­sion in the common practice period. It is essential to understand that if the first beat of the bar is stressed more than any other beat in the bar, then it follows that every other beat in that bar has relatively less emotion­al weight than the first beat stress. Especially, the sec­ond beat in the bar has less weight, even if it is higher on the staff. Musical style and musical expression in the common practice period depend on this, and any other approach is both false and unmusical.

This Bach theme loses linear strength if the three E's on the second beats of bars 55, 56 and 57 are made heavier than the first beats of those bars.

In melodic analysis the term échappé gives cred­ibility to the truth of the assertion that the principle of intentionally added weight going up the staff is stylis­tically wrong. The epistemological justification for this assertion comes from the principle of the bar line.1

Style in common-practice notation demands that we conceive of subdivisions of beats emotionally instead of rhythmically. Just saying, "one-ee-and-uh, two-ee-and-uh," is already an emotional expression (unless one says it in singsong -- a rather difficult thing to do). When so conceived, the rhythm underlies the music, giving music buoyancy and flexibility of expression instead of a rather dry and brittle surface. Feeling subdivisions instead of thinking rhythm makes rhythm a result instead of an intent. The most important aspect of rhythm is to underlie the musical forward motion -- thereby keeping intact the linear movement from attack to cadence.2

A second thing to be noticed about rhythm so conceived is that the resulting flexibility and buoyancy of the musical expression make the performance more attractive because the performer is not abusing the physical instrument, whether vocal or mechanical, and the listener is not being hammered.

Given the above ideas we can assert that when emotional weight comes into play in musical matters, the performer must refer to his or her feelings, and not to knowledge or to the musculature. Webster's Dictionary, in one of its definitions of the verb to feel, says "to have one's sensibilities marked­ly affected by." Another of Webster's definitions says, "to be conscious of an inward impression, state of mind, or physical condition." This means that the per­former acquires a "responsive awareness involving physiological changes that prepare the body for vigor­ous action" (also from Webster's dictionary). The operative word there is "responsive". This is very simply what we call feeling like singing or play­ing. Webster's also says it is related to the affective aspect of consciousness. Thus music becomes neither an intellectual process nor an act of athletic prowess, even though intelligence and physical fitness are required. Rather, it becomes emotional expression.

We conclude that notation in the common prac­tice period not only gives pitch and duration but also, equally important if not more, the emotional content of the composer's ideas. Great composers feel more deeply than we mortals do; indeed, all creative artists fit that statement -- poets, painters, etc. If we as per­formers believe that we feel as deeply as the great composers, why are we not writing our own great music? The egotistic absurdity of thinking that the musical score is a skeleton to be fleshed out by the per­former becomes obvious. This misreading of notation became such a commonplace partially because it fits hand-in-glove with the hopeless idea that people gifted with technical talent have the intelligence to interpret as they please. (There was the conductor who spoke of "My Beethoven"!) Such an idea is chutzpah and is pro­moted by those very performers for their own ends without any historical justification. Debussy said of conductors performing Beethoven symphonies that this one hurries, that one takes his time, but it is Beethoven who comes off worst in the end.

Indeed for musicians and singers, humility before the score is a prerequisite to arriving at an understand­ing of it. Knowledge and understanding are two different things. Wisdom teaches the difference and leads us to objective conclusions about the emotional content of what we see on the page.


On August 28, 1791, Mozart arrived in Prague and nine days later, on September 6, La Clemenza di Tito was given its first performance on the very night of the day on which the emperor Leopold and his wife were crowned king and queen of Bohemia. An interest­ing digression: at the coronation ceremony that morn­ing Salieri conducted a mass by Mozart, apparently on Salieri's own initiative.

Nevertheless, the fact that the opera was rehearsed and given its first performance within nine days can perhaps bolster the argument that notation has emotional content, for there is no other way that new music can be learned and performed with any artistic merit in such a short period of time (even if it wasn't what we today would call an ideal performance).

Certainly the wealthy would not have poured so much money into such an art form with new works pre­pared for important state and family occasions with remarkable frequency if they were not moved by it (and we know the Hapsburgs were profoundly moved by it as an art form, pace the Empress who thought that La Clemenza di Tito was a German piggery).

Perfectionistic thinkers will assert that it must not have been an ideal performance, but that is a twen­tieth century viewpoint of people who think that recordings are the perfect embodiment of musical masterpieces. People who approach performance emotionally are less critical of imperfection, whether real or perceived.

Many have stated that Bach's cantata perform­ances in Leipzig must have been wretched, given the number of cantatas that were performed with so little rehearsal. Yet of the people who performed them, his son said that his father took fast tempos (surely a sign of adequate performance) and a student said later that the music was hard. Nothing about low standards has come down to us. Surely this can point to the possibil­ity that the common practice notation at that time con­veyed emotional meaning as well as pitch and rhythm. It has also been stated that Bach wrote instru­mentally for the voice, but it should be pointed out that Bach was a professional singer until his voice changed in his late teens, (as was Haydn) and he later taught singing in the Thomasschule. K.P.E. Bach wrote of his father that he had a good penetrating voice of wide range and a good manner of singing. The long lines that J.S. Bach wrote for voice, whether solo or choral, are emotionally elongated spoken vowels, and when the singer stays with the vowel (the words voice and vowel come from the same root and are essentially the same thing) instead of singing endless notes, the musi­cal result is remarkable.

When Handel went to Italy, he certainly went for more than the study of Italian forms. Surely he came to understand singing during his years there. Also, there was the famous cook who knew more counterpoint than Gluck; he was Handel's bass soloist. Mozart, too, was a trained singer. He studied with two different castrati, one in Italy and one at the cathedral in Salzburg. Mozart was reputed to have a sweet tenor voice.

All the vocal background that these great com­posers shared naturally had some relationship to the vocal music that they produced and the way they wrote. Bach and Handel were musically educated within fifty years of the notational development that we have been discussing. Haydn received his training within less than a hundred years and Mozart only twenty years later. The correlation between notation and the art of singing must have been more real for these men than the textbooks have ever pointed out.



  1. Great composers will not be limited by rules. Therefore this assertion of weight is not regulatory; it has to do with emotional expression. All these distinctions do not result in doing something to achieve a musical result. They lead to complex emotional experience. Furthermore, we distinguish between the strength and weakness of beats and the inflection required to attack a note. 
  2. The author once sat under an American composer conducting his own music. At a certain point in the rehearsal, he stomped his foot and shouted, "No! That's German rhythm! I want American rhythm." The timpanist, an excellent musician in his own right, looked at me and asked what the difference was. I said I didn't know. That was in 1980. I know now that the difference is precisely between rhythm underlying the line or dominating it.