How Does One Learn to Play More Musically?

“Play from the heart!”

“Try it again – but this time with feeling!”

I think we’ve all had teachers say something like this to us – especially in the early days of learning a new instrument when everything feels so awkward and unnatural, and we’re consumed with trying to overcome all the basic technical challenges of the instrument .

However, even as we advance and become more skilled, it can be easy to continue to prioritize clean playing over expressive playing. After all, there is something very satisfying about practicing for accuracy and getting to use our tuner and metronome apps. And sure, absolutely absolutely does matter, but focusing too single-mindedly on technical precision sucks a lot of the fun out of the experience, both for us and for our audience.

But…how does one learn to play more expressively?

Is it a function of simply “feeling the music” or feeling internally the emotion that we’re trying to express in a passage? Where this feeling is then naturally expressed in our playing and comes across to the listener?

Or is there more to it than that?

Three approaches to performing

In a Finnish study (Van Zijl researchers & Luck, 2013), asked four violinists – 2 amateurs and 2 professionals – to record the same phrase, but with a different set of instructions each time.

In one recording, they were asked to focus on the technical aspects of their playing.

In another recording, they were asked to focus on giving an expressive performance.

And in the third recording, they were asked to play while focusing not so much on their playing, but more on their internal felt emotions. And to make sure the violinists were all feeling a similar emotion, before this third recording, the researchers had them go through an exercise that was designed to make them feel sad. It’s not clear from the paper what exactly this entailed, but if I were to guess (it’s an educated guess, but still a guess), it was something along the lines of thinking and writing/speaking about an intensely sad and emotional experience in their own life.

So the question is…how were these three types of performances received by an audience?

Three ratings of performance

The researchers recruited 30 graduate students, all of whom had played a musical instrument for at least one year, to serve as an audience.

They sat in an auditorium, lights dimmed, just like a performance, and watched the recorded performances on a big screen.

They were asked to rate each performance in three different ways, on a 1-7 scale, where 1=completely disagree and 7=completely agree.

  • Prompt #1: “I like this performance”
  • Prompt #2: “The performer is skilled”
  • Prompt #3: “This performance is expressive of sadness.”

And which performance approach did the audience rate the highest?

And the audience preferred…

Overall, the audience preferred the expressive performance, over the technical and emotional performances. The expressive performances also led to the highest ratings of skill (the violinists seemed more skilled when playing expressively vs. focusing on technical emotions or felt alone).

The emotional approach did lead to the highest sadness ratings, but the audience didn’t seem to like the effect of this approach quite as much. As in, yes, they could tell that the performer was feeling or expressing sadness (they played slower, softer, used a wider vibrato, moved less, etc.), but the audience ratings suggest that they liked the performances better where the violinists were more focused on expressing dark than being sad.

What’s missing?

So it seems that playing more musically and expressively may be a little more nuanced and require a little more practice, planning, and skill, than playing only with feeling and expecting our body to intuitively do what is needed to convey the desired emotions, character, or mood to the listener.

So how can we learn to do this? To play more expressively in a way that resonates with the audience?

A study of conservatory students

An earlier study (Van Zijl & Sloboda, 2010) by one of the same authors provides a few clues.

They were curious to learn more about the process musicians go through from the beginning stages of learning a new piece, to polishing it up for performance. So they recruited eight conservatory and university music students, representing string, woodwind, brass, and keyboard instruments, and tracked their practice over time to find out what this process might look like.

The “Individual Playing Diary”

Rather than videotaping and analyzing every single practice session, the researchers came up with a nifty tool that enabled them to get a clear picture of what exactly the students did in their daily practice efforts. They called it the Individual Playing Diary (you can see a sample of this on the next-to-last page of the study here).

Essentially, this was a kind of guided practice log that enabled the musicians to describe not just what specific passages they worked on, but also give researchers a sense of how they worked on each passage.

The diary-keeping process

The first step was to note the specific section they planned to work on. But then they were asked to describe the interpretive details of the passage – like what sort of character they were aiming for, or where they wanted to build up or release tension. They were also asked to describe what sort of technical issues, like articulation, vibrato, bowing, they needed to work out in order to convey the desired interpretation. Or, whatever “inner techniques,” like auditory or visual imagery, they may have used to help produce a more musically expressive result.

They were also prompted to describe any emotion that they felt was in the music in that particular section (eg fear, nostalgia). And finally they were asked to note their own emotions when playing that section. Which was sometimes aligned with the emotion they identified in the music at that point – like sadness, I’m feeling because the section is sad. But at other times this was related more to how they were feeling about the passage in that moment – like frustration or discouragement when they were struggling with a technically challenging passage.

And after analyzing all of these diary entries, what did the researchers find?

What did they find?

Well, one result, even though this wasn’t the point of the study, was that the musicians all seemed to like the Individual Playing Diary and found it helpful in making their practice more intentional and effective.

Another finding was that the development of a musically expressive performance seemed to take place in four learning phases.

Phase 1: “initial exploration”

The first phase involved playing through the piece to get a general feeling and musical interpretation for the piece. Which factored in not just their intuition and feelings about the music, but also hints and instructions written in the score by the composer.

Phase 2: “mastering of technical difficulties”

In the second phase, the musicians seemed to be preoccupied with solving technical challenges, though some did seem to be cognizant of the musical emotions during this process as well.

Phase 3: “construction of an expressive interpretation”

In the third phase, the nature of the technical challenges seemed to shift. Where the technical challenges were less about playing the notes accurately, and related more to the expressive and interpretative aspects of the piece. Like how to increase dynamic contrast, or create a particular kind of sound.

The authors note that this seemed to represent a transition from simply feeling the emotions to knowing The emotions, and figuring out what musical features (eg tempo, phrasing, color, vibrato, etc.) would best convey these emotions/character/mood to the listener.

Phase 4: “construction of an expressive performance”

The final phase involved more run-throughs or trial performances, and centered around finding a balance between “emotional playing” and “expressive performance.” Where the goal was to deliver “an expressive interpretation (ie, their interpretation of the music combined with the knowledge of how to perform the musical emotions while in a convincing way) plus some felt emotion, keeping a sense of awareness or control of what was going on.”


So at the end of the day, yes, absolutely, emotion does have a place in performance. But it appears that felt emotions alone are not enough to deliver an effective musically expressive performance. And it also seems that too much felt emotion can be counterproductive in a performance as well.

Caveats and an action step

Of course, the researchers aren’t necessarily saying that this is the only or most effective way to cultivate a musically expressive performance. These studies were explorative in nature, with small sample sizes, and may not have captured the full range of individual differences that might exist.

But the four-phase process does sound like a helpful framework to start from. And the Individual Playing Diary seems like an awfully handy practice aid as well. It might take a few days to get used to, but I think it’s certainly worth trying out this week (here’s that link to the study again – the diary template is on the next-to-last page)!


Van Zijl, AGW & Luck, G. (2013). The Sound of Sadness: The effect of performers’ emotions on audience ratings. Oral presentation at the 3rd International Conference on Music and Emotion, 11-15 June 2013, Jyväskylä, Finland.

Van Zijl, AGW, & Sloboda, J. (2010). Performers’ experienced emotions in the construction of expressive musical performance: An exploratory investigation. Psychology of Music, 39(2), 196–219.

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