What is the Art of Interpreting?

To interpret means to be able to read a text, comprehend it, and convey the meaning clearly to another person.

Suppose someone says to you in a monotone voice, “John walked there alone.” Compare this to: “John walked there alone.” The latter sentence clearly expresses someone’s surprise that John walked there by himself. Or suppose someone said, “John walked there alone.” It’s now a different meaning: of all places, John walked there. Or this: “John walked there alone.” How surprising that John didn’t drive or at least take the bus! Or this: “John walked there alone.” John (of all people!) walked there. When we emphasize different words, different meanings are revealed. An artful interpreter is aware of all the possible meanings within the text, and chooses to convey the desired one.

Likewise, in music. Play the following five-note melody, emphasizing the downbeats. The “same” five-tone melody now has different “meanings.”


For another example of the art of interpretation, read each of these statements aloud:

Let’s eat! John! Quickly! (Spoken by a busy, tired parent.)

Let’s eat, John. Quickly! (Spoken by a roommate in a hurry.)

Let’s eat John quickly! (Spoken by an over-scheduled cannibal.)

When we speak the words with different inflections and pauses, we change the meaning and the message!

In a similar way, the same five-note phrase shown above can be changed according to how it is phrased.


Beyond Correct to Creative

Like most music educators, I want my students to have the ability to read music and play the notes of a piece accurately. And yet, I now believe that I generally “moved on” too quickly after a student was able to fluently play the notes. In other words, I taught my students to play accurately, but I didn’t help them raise their playing to the art of interpreting.

Now I spend more time in lessons exploring ways to play and interpret phrases. I may play the same phrase by Bach or Chopin in a number of slightly different ways to bring out various “meanings,” and ask the student to try doing the same thing. As we see above, there are so many different ways that the same five-note melody can be played!

Which is the “correct” way? Well, sometimes all the different ways are correct ways. Sometimes only one interpretation best fits the spirit of the piece. But often, we don’t know until we explore a number of options. Exploring options is usually the necessary prelude to the art of interpretation.

Enhancing Speech, Not Replacing It

Why did Bach write the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Inventions? Many assume that Bach wrote his music to be publicly performed at concerts. We may also assume that Bach wrote them so that the public could buy his music at the local music shop. But these would be examples of projecting the present onto the past, like a child looking at a picture of a 1920’s telephone and asking, “But how did that connect to the Internet?”

The public concert was hardly born at the time of Bach’s death. There were no stores dedicated to selling printed music because there was hardly any printed music. Of all Bach’s output, only eight works were printed in his lifetime!

Bach wrote the Inventions because he was an educator. These pieces were written for his students. Let’s see what Bach said in the preface to his Inventions:

“Honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard – especially, however, those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”

Bach says a lot here! As expected, he mentions “to learn to play in two parts” and then three. He also writes, “To achieve a cantabile style in playing.” While some people advise mimicking a harpsichord when playing Bach on a piano, Bach would probably say to mimic a singer instead!

Then there is this line: “Not only obtain good inventions, but to develop the same well.” Bach borrowed the word “invention” from the field of Rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of speaking, was then still considered to the the centerpiece of a university education. Bach was writing the Inventions to be models of improvisation and composition. They provide illustrations of how to develop ideas, so the student “acquires a strong foretaste of composition.”

To embrace the Four Arts of Music model of education, it helps to realize this: In Bach’s time, improvisation—musical speech—was the central art of music making. Musical essays (compositions) were written to provide models for musical speech, and thereby enrich one’s ability to think and speak musically. In short, Bach composed his keyboard music to enhance our abilities to improvise and compose, not to replace them!

A Wider Style of Interpretation

Bach also wrote his English Suites and French Suites as models for improvisation, not replacements for improvisation. Any self-respecting keyboardist of the day could immediately come to the rescue of someone who felt an insatiable urge to dance a Gavotte or Minuet. The ability to spontaneously create music for dancing was (and still is) part of being a working musician. A musician had to clearly understand the difference between playing an Allemande and a Sarabande. Bach wrote those pieces so his fellow musicians could more easily create dances in the desired style and manner.

Once we understand this, then the range of the art of interpretation is vastly expanded! When we play a Gavotte from a Bach Suite, part of our interpretation may be to then improvise a Gavotte, perhaps borrowing ideas from Mr. Bach. Or, at the very least, we could improvise ornamentation on the piece, as was the practice in Bach’s day.

Musical scripts should inspire us to think and speak more fully, not silence our creativity!


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