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"Musicality": what is it and can you define it?


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I've heard and read the term "musicality" often and would like to gain a better understanding of it. I suspect that there is more to it than meets the ear. ;) Does it indeed have a technical side to it...as in the way a step is performed? I'm hoping to hear from some of the boards teachers, choreographers and dancers - thanks! :)

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Great question, BW. Thank you for posting it. (I also think it would be interesting to hear how audience members define it. It's a term nearly everyone uses.)

I'm sure there are a variety of definitions, and it can be quite controversial. Makarova was one example. American critics generally, as I remember it, praised her for her musicality, but I also remember reading several different British reviews that would say something like "her one sin, lack of musicality." So obviously people were using different definitions!

To me, it's when the dancer is inside the music, and that means that what I see matches what I hear; there's no air between the movement and the music. An unmusical dancer, to me, is one who gets in the way of the music, who's "off" the music or, at worst, is fighting the music.

Choreographers use music differently, and I think one should be aware of this, and not expect Tudor to be danced like Balanchine, or vice versa. Some choreographers set dances on the melody, others are more aware of rhythm.

I have two stories about dancers and musicality, but I'll wait to post them until there are other responses :)

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I think Alexandra and Doris have both defined musicality really well. I think another indication of a dancer with musicality would have to be a generosity of spirit - the dancer is (often unconsciously) open to the audience. Not mugging for us, but including us. There are some dancers who are perfectly on the music in every way and technically clean yet they fail to engage the audience.

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I've decided, somewhat regretfully, that there are so many different conceptions of what musicality is out there that at best we can make personal "I know it when I see it" definitions for it. I've heard choreography I considered to have an absolutely pedestrian use of the music (getting the counts, but not the architecture of the score) be called "luminously musical" by others. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what was meant.

There are many different ways to be musical. When I danced, the other company members provided examples of different ways of being musical. One of the women was the most reliably musical; she was consistent and hit the same count that was set everytime. She wasn't mechanical, just extremely consistent. Another friend was the most interestingly musical dancer in the company. Her musicality was based on a response to the music as she was hearing it each time. It was wonderful to watch, but it also meant that she was not consistent, and it made it tough for her to be in the corps (a good thing she was strong enough to be a soloist!)

In choreography, as I implied earlier, for me musicality means getting beneath the skin of the music. If a choreographer is musical, I'll know why s/he used that piece of music to set a dance; the dance will have made me understand its relation to the music. If after watching the dance I still have no idea why the choreographer chose that music, even if the dance fits the bar lengths, in my mind, it isn't musical.

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Leigh, thanks for those links - I knew I'd read a discussion earlier on this subject but guess I didn't choose the right "version" of the word in my search.:)

I find it quite interesting to read the different and, sometimes, only slightly different interpretations. I especially enjoyed Michael's turn of the phrase when he wrote:

Also, at the risk of being a obscure, a strong argument can be made that what is most "music" is precisely what most evades verbal definition -- that the essence of "musicality" is the thing which most refuses to be pinned down in words. By virtue of that fact alone, it is most what is worthy of being irreducibly called "music". You can't catch the movement in the stream as it flows by, you will be left with a handful of water, not the flow.

I'm still hoping for a bit more discussion, if that's not beating the subject into the ground. Leigh, you as a choreographer seem to come to the question with what I might dare to call more of an architectural approach. Vagansmom, as a musician, knows the underpinnings of the music - yet still seems to approach this with a more visceral reaction...am I right on this, Vagansmom? Doris R, although I do not know your "musical" background, it seems you are more in Vagansmom's stream. And Alexandra when you write:

To me, it's when the dancer is inside the music, and that means that what I see matches what I hear; there's no air between the movement and the music. An unmusical dancer, to me, is one who gets in the way of the music, who's "off" the music or, at worst, is fighting the music.

Choreographers use music differently, and I think one should be aware of this, and not expect Tudor to be danced like Balanchine, or vice versa. Some choreographers set dances on the melody, others are more aware of rhythm.

...I feel you may be combining these two approaches. Naturally, I am probably simplifying everyone's responses, but this is the "Discovering Ballet" forum, and I do want to try to understand this subject ...so forgive my own more remedial approach! :)

Leigh, I know you have been a dancer...are there any other ballet dancers out there who might give us their views as well? Other choreographers? Just to get some more input and see if there are similarities or differences?

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Thank you for those comments, BW. I don't want to interrupt THAT flow, and am popping in only to say that even though we have discussed this, I hope we can talk about it again. These questions bubble up every six months or so, and there are about 600 people who've registered since our last discussion, so please, chime in!

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And what about the occasional dance without music? Can we even discuss musicality in those cases?

I think so. There are still dancers who have a robotic response to the music. There's a sameness to everything they dance although their technique might be above reproach. No color, no nuance. So maybe the musicality of a dancer has to be considered not in terms of just one or two dances but a body of dances.

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This thread seems to have run its course, but....

Years ago at the ballet a beautiful young dancer with technique to burn took the stage in Detroit. I was extremely impressed and wrote about it in alt.arts.ballet—this predated BalletTalk. One of the terms I used in describing this dancer and my response to her was “musical”. Shortly after the post appeared I received an email asking if I really thought this dancer was musical, since the that was one attribute that had never occurred to him concerning this dancer.

I realized that I had simply used the term “musical” as another signifier for the term “I was thrilled with this performance.” The definition of musical is one I have thought of a lot since then.

One of the first things to understand is that an artist will interpret music. She doesn’t only “play the notes as written” or “dance the steps as choreographed”, but will add her own creative sense to it. If the music is not interpreted one might as well simply read the score or the dance notation.

Music has form—to oversimplify, there is the vertical movement of melody and the horizontal shape of harmony. But musical phrases have their own shape, which can be seemingly simple, such as the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its rhythmic dah-dah-dah-DAH.

An example of what musicality is not is the use of “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi . It has become overly familiar. Used for lots of commercials and in pieces in movie scores, synthesized into unmusicality so that only the melody remains. You can hear it, it may trigger the hoped for response, but it has little to do with what Puccini, the master melodist, had in mind.

Two other examples from the world of opera are Maria Callas and Irina Mishura. Callas, of course remains famous years after her death. Mishura is a mezzo-soprano from Moldavia, currently based in Detroit, who is the toast of the regional opera circuit in the USA but only one of a seemingly endless supply of talented mezzos on the international stage.

In 1949 Callas was taking the operatic world by storm. By 1965 her voice was shot. What was always part of her make-up, though, is her intense musicality, her ability, even with her instrument in tatters, to shape a phrase in such a way that you knew that Verdi, Donizetti or Puccini would have loved it.

There is a bootleg tape of Callas in Dallas in 1957, rehearsing with conductor Nicola Rescigno and a pick up professional orchestra (there is always a bootleg tape of Callas). The orchestra was having difficulty with the bel canto style of an excerpt from Anna Bolena until Callas sang the final trills with their lengthy ritards a capella for the orchestra to show them the rhythmic peculiarities, which they then grasp. Quite amazing.

Callas was one of the only singers (and the only prima donna) who regularly attended all rehearsals, including those for the orchestra or chorus only, so that she could better understand what they would be doing.

Irina Mishura has made many of the dramatic mezzo roles her own. She is wonderful as Delilah, Azucena, Ulrica, Amneris. She inhabits roles in the way that legendary mezzos like Guiletta Simonetta did and simply pours herself into the music. In one of the three great arias for Delilah there is a very tricky descending chromatic scale that goes on and on—just the type of thing to fudge, especially in the middle of several performances. We saw five of the six Delilahs that Mishura did her in Motown and she hit every note on that run every time, gave each note its full value and seamlessly blended each to the next.

One thing that both of these artists have in common is hard work—really hard work. Singers, dancers or instrumentalists are not born with musicality. It is developed, nurtured and fought for.

Which isn’t to say that years of study will be enough—conservatory graduates of schools in the USA can sight read Stockhausen, and learn all three Donizetti queens while on the plane to London. But they can’t interpret and shape musical phrases to increase the audience’s understanding of the music and enjoyment of the performance.

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Louis Armstrong was once asked what the definition of jazz was.His reply was"Man,If ya gotta ask"...Jazz can be defined but really just has to "be done." Musicality in dance is the same way in a sense in that the musical dancer moves and moves the audience by expression.When a dancer uses musicality in dance the dancing looks effortless.It flows with the music.The dancer knows the music,how it is put together,and can do any movements with ease.I believe skills can be developed relating to rhythm,musical form and style,but I do think some people are born with it,while others never quite get it.The naturally musical dancer is less concerned with the steps-and you can see their ability to feel the rhythm and move to the music expressively.You can see it.This kind of dancer is more than a master of the steps.He can anticipate phrasing,pauses and emphasis in music.It is harder to explain but you can indeed see it.

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This is going to sound really vague, but as a dancer, I think musicality is dancing with the music as opposed to dancing to the music. Let us not forget that the musician needs to be involved here too, which is why taped music is so unsatisfying.

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I think musicality can be different things in different ballets. In some ballets, it means dancing to the music. Sometimes it means dancing with it, and sometimes there's an extra, undefinable quality. I remember Judith Fugate dancing the second woman in Concerto Barocco and knowing that she was dancing to a violin (or at least a bowed string instrument) just through the quality of her movement. That kind of musicality you don't see too often.

When I do see it, I think of the dancer as being inside the music.

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That's a very good question (as your questions tend to be :ermm: ) And it makes a very good point -- if a viewer is concerned about musicality, whether he/she is a musician, or has a highly trained ear, or sense of rhythm, or simply listens to a lot of music, s/he is going to be more aware of musicality than someone who never listens to music or is tone deaf. (If you're color blind, you won't be as excited about color as someone who can see the full range of colors.)

I think, like a lot of things, one can train one's ear and eye -- if you want to. It's being aware of the music. How do the dancers' movements relate to the music? Sometimes, to me, it looks like the music is doing one thing and the dancer another (and, of course, that might be what the choreographer wants). Sometimes there's an obvious musical cue -- a loud crashing chord, say -- and the dancer waits a second before making the loud, crashing leap. Sometimes you have to SEE a sequence you've seen before danced musically and then you get it. (I'd seen the first act pas de trois in Swan Lake dozens of times before I saw a man who timed his jumps with the music in the coda. What had previously been music + dancing became music/dancing, two separate things were suddenly one. That's an inadequate explanation, but the best I can do at the moment.)

As this thread has shown, there are different viewpoints on musicality -- for some, it's rhythm, for some it's melody, for some it's analyzing a score. It might be interesting, the next time you see a ballet you've seen before, or whose music is familiar, to pick one part and listen to the music as hard as you usually watch the dancing, find the dancing through the music -- I hope some of this makes sense :)

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My experience is that musicality is extremely rare. I just don't see it very often. I've heard a number of conjunctions throughout this thread -- the one I would be inclined to use is dancing THROUGH the music. There should be a sense of sound and movement interweaving.

I also believe it combines skill with feeling. In other words, even though I have been trained as a musician and had musicians as parents, when I dance, I do not count. It's a matter of having something so ingrained in you that you can actually 'forget' it and let instinct take over.

If you think about it, the highly trained dancer doesn't say to herself while on stage, "Okay, I've got to remember to take a deep plie here, then stretch my legs out, oh, and yes, land through the foot." Not only is she not focusing on her technique, she's not focusing on the actual combination either. "Okay, this is where he enters and I've got four counts to reach him, and then he's going to place his hands just so, etc." At this point, the skill is at the level that things become instinctual. I know some may disagree with me on this, but I think instinct often follows solid training. It's true that some people have inherent gifts, but you'll often discover that they picked up a great deal via osmosis in their early environments.

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Cliff, is any of this useful? If not, speak up! (And others, too.)

Another thought is that if you ever had social dance lessons, whether it was counting ONE two three ONE two three for a waltz, or if you found yourself moving to the music and then the rhythm changes and you have to change the pace of your dancing -- that's musicality. A reaction by the dancer to the music.

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Sometimes (less often than I'd like) a segment of ballet is exceptionally beautiful. The dancer sort of flows in a way that seems both elegant and natural. I'm guessing that this is what is meant by musicality. Yet, to me, music doesn't seem to be a factor. It is wallpaper.

Music has precise timing. So is musicality another way of saying that a dancer dances with precise timing?

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Others might answer differently, but I'd say that precise timing isn't necesarily musicality. Precise timing might let a dancer who wasn't musical SEEM musical. But to people who are musical, music isn't wallpaper -- great phrase; it means you're not really conscious of the music, something that's shared by many people, I'm sure. It's the impetus for their dancing.

Cliff, if you don't enjoy music, then this aspect of dancing might elude you, at least for awhile. If you start listening to music, especially ballet music or symphonic music, you might become more aware of it, and it might add to your enjoyment of a performance. I grew up with music -- we played at least one album every night, and I was told who the composer was, and something about him -- and I played the piano, so I was lucky in that respect. (And I liked music, which helped!) But I did have huge holes in my music education, and I bought the Time-Life series of albums (this was right when I got out of college, years ago, when there still were albums). It was bits of this composer and that, but it exposed me to a lot of music with which I was unfamiliar. I think if you listen to music, and when it starts to become familiar, you might even begin to try to move to that music -- walk to it, find the rhythm, have the experience of matching your own movement to what you're listening to -- that might help. It also might be way too much work :) But to me, one of the great pleasures of watching dance is its relationship to the music, so becoming more aware of it may bring great rewards.

If you're going to delve into music, start with something you like, and branch out from there. If you hate Tchaikovsky, then making yourself listen to the whole "Swan Lake" 6 times probably won't make you like him more. I'd want to be systematic and start with Bach and work my way through the centuries, but I do not love Bach, try as I may, and I'd probably never move on. So I'd suggest if there was one ballet you heard, where the music wasn't wallpaper, get that CD and listen to it. Then more by that composer, then others in that time period, then something a bit before and a bit after. Balanchine, especially, will mean more, I think, the more you're aware of music.

Thank you for bringing this up -- I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way and have the same questions.

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I'd also suggest signing up for a basic course in music lit -- if there is a public college nearby. It would be well worth it. Such courses emphasize being able to absorb both with the mind and the ear. And -- to be aware of what was happening in the other arts and with the world in general at the time various compositions were written. That helps a great deal as well.

Precision is a starting point, but not the be all and end all. It's important to be able to 'feel between the lines.' Teachers can help facilitate this by emphasizing how important this aspect of training is to students. We don't want to take away that universal excitement about getting the first pair of pointe shoes, but they simply have to understand that to make their mark in this business they are going to need a lot more than pulled up thigh muscles. We can do this by such things as pushing them to keep the foot out in frappe until the last possible moment before bringing it back in, or to emphasize the stretch and sensuality of a rond de jambe en l'air. To take the deepest possible plie before chasse. Or by ensuring they really BREATHE prior to grand plie or doing cambre forward. We can give regular exercises where they are required to hold 2, 3, 4, 5 counts and so forth. Or during jumps all together in center, have the pianist strike one chord every 8 beats and challenge them to feel in sync with each other. We should certainly be demanding that they hold their ending positions until the last faint note of music, but how often is this really done?

When we give musicality the same emphasis as other parts of training, it will happen. I simply don't believe it's stressed enough here (in the U.S.), but rather left more to chance that a few naturally gifted (or trained) will display it as the rare quality it currently is.

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When I listen to any good music: good soul, good classical, good ragea, good rap, good pop, I respond. The music triggers emotions within me. Some symphonies make me feel empowered, some make me feel small and isolated, others make me want to go out and do something good with my life. I think that to be musical, one's body must translate for the audience how the particular music makes them feel. If a certain phrase makes one want to take a deep breath, I want to see that reflected in the dancer. If another phrase makes one want to raise one's arms in reverance to the sun, I want the dancer to convey that somehow. I want to see the dancer projecting, radiating from within them how the music makes them feel. That's all that matters.


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