The Sin of Absence of Line

Richard Floyd • August 2023Commentary • August 20, 2023

Ask yourself. Can you imagine a compelling oratory void of pacing, inflection and nuance all purposed to deepen the meaning and importance of the message? And, what about actors? Do they simply speak words, or do they deliver their lines with passion and conviction? In either case, the words have little meaning beyond regurgitated grammar until the speaker infuses them with emotion, and relevance. Those elements of tone, gradation, and subtlety are core to all forms of auditory communication.

All the above is equally applicable to the wonderful world of music we live in each day. I’ve been told one of Maestro Fredrick Fennell’s favorite axioms was, “Live for the line.” An adage to live by for sure! But, regrettably, in our quest to recreate the accuracy of notation we see on the printed page musical line is relegated to a role of secondary importance or ignored all together. We simply march on note by note and from measure to measure seeking mastery of the ink we see with little regard for the phrase and nuance that is the essence of musical artistry.

I digress. Let’s return to our discussion of the spoken word. Actors ponder how they will deliver their lines. It’s not about the accurate pronunciation of the words but rather how the words will be paced, sequenced, and infused with emotion to ensure the true meaning and emotion of what is being spoken will be revealed. 

Consider the simple phrase, I Pledge Allegiance. These three words spoken without line or inflection communicate little. They are…just words. But what if we state the words three times with emphasis and inflection on the boldface word in each reiteration.’

I pledge allegiance.”

“I PLEDGE allegiance”

“I pledge ALLEGIANCE.”

Doing so completely reshapes the message and frames the phrase in vividly different contexts. There could be even more. What if the phrase was spoken in a questioning fashion as if contesting the speaker’s willingness to pledge. Something like this. 

“I?… pledge allegiance?”

The same three words now convey four totally different messages. The potential for these kinds of variations in emotion and meaning are ever-present in speech. The options are boundless.

This same richness of expressions is equally present in the music we make every day. However, in our quest to “get it right” we focus on the right notes, the right rhythms, acceptable tone quality, attention to tuning and the application of a broad array of ensemble skills. In short, we focus on the craft of music and leave the art of music to another day, if at all. We have sinned!

So how do we meet this challenge? How do we turn the objective black and white world of notes and rhythms into a vivid full color world of expressive music making? Can we simply master all the craft we see on the printed page and then hope the music “speaks for itself?” I think not! 

So, you might ask, “How do we turn the objective black and white world of notes and rhythms into a vivid full color world of expressive music making?” What are the artistic resources at our disposal? To be honest, we only have four options. We can play louder or softer, heavier or lighter, longer or shorter, and finally, slower or faster. That’s it. The good news is there are limitless combinations of possibilities we can draw upon to transform the cold print into dramatic, expressive, moving music.

While expressive music making is a lifelong journey with ever evolving refinement there are some guideposts, we can apply to minimize our sins. Consider the following:

Make music from the beginning. Daniel Barenboim stated, “When the technical problems of finger dexterity have been solved, it is too late to add musicality, phrasing, and expression. If we work mechanically, we run the risk of changing the very nature of the music.” Always rehearse with a musical motive.

Explore dynamic inflection not marked in the score. Pablo Casals declared that, in general, all music is a succession of rainbows. Robert Shaw said the dynamics never sit. There is always dynamic ebb and flow. Think of dynamics as decorations that adorn our music. Always.

Allow room for an element of rhythmic inexactness to be present in the creation of musical line. Many times, a slight flux in rhythm or tempo enriches and deepens the music communication. Let you and your students’ intuitive inner musical psyche sculpt the music. It is okay to “Color Outside the Lines!”

Be mindful that harmony helps define the line. Look for opportunities to bring the harmony to the fore and allow it to support, adorn or become the centerpiece of a musical moment.

Accompaniment and secondary parts can create continuity and reinforce the line. It is common for the accompaniment to move while the primary melodic line is sustaining. Be mindful that bringing those internal moving lines forward (we are talking about the use of dynamics here) will serve to intertwine the individual parts thus creating a more unified musical line. Remember “white” notes sustain the line and “black” notes connect the line.

To recap, line is the seamless aural representation of all we see on the printed page. It is what we hear and feel when the bar lines go away. When that happens, it is sinless music making. 

The next imperfection to be discussed will be the sin of Ignoring the Function of Silence in Music. All content in this series is explored in detail in The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making by Richard Floyd and published by GIA.

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