Three Shortcuts to Playing with Greater Expression


January 11, 2021, 4:35 PM · Playing with greater expression, finding deeper interpretations, finding a wider range of emotion, character, and colour in the music … these are all abstract skills that we as musicians and artists seek to develop and refine whilst we spend hours in the practice room honing our technique. But what exactly is musicality? And how exactly do we increase our musicality?

Violinist Lynn Kuo. Photo by Dave Howells.

When I aim to play more “musically,” I like to amplify what I call the four elements of musicality, or S.M.C.S:

  • Significance: Can I find greater significance in the notes that I am playing?
  • Meaning: Can I find greater meaning in the notes, phrases, and musical sections?
  • Character: Can I identify and amplify character in the music?
  • Shape: Can I create more shape (micro and macro) out of the notes on the page?

Alongside these four elements of musicality, I also look to create “musical T&R” or “tension and release.” A great story-teller knows the importance of creating tension and release, whether it’s in the form of a short story, podcast, novel, TV show, or movie. Creating conflict and how you resolve it is what makes any art form thrilling to consume and experience.

In music, it is no different: ‘tension and release’ can be found, created, and exploited between two notes (i.e., intervals), chord pairs, inside of cadences, or between larger musical sections or even movements.

The following three tips are musicality “shortcuts” which I have identified and consider useful in creating greater S.M.C.S: (Significance, Meaning, Character, and Shape) in the notes, as well as useful in creating more musical “tension and release.”

Musicality Tip #1: Fun & Funky Harmonies Technique

Always be on the lookout for ‘juicy’ harmonies (the harmonies that are a little more ‘fun’ or ‘funky’) that deserve a little special something musically.

Some examples of harmonies to take advantage of:

  • Neopolitan chords (Flat II chords), usually preceding a dominant (V) chord
  • Augmented sixth chords (French, Italian, German), (Aug6) which usually precede a dominant (V) chord
  • Diminished chords (chords built on minor thirds)
  • Any dissonance that needs resolving (chordal or melodic)

These all qualify as ‘juicy’ harmonies that deserve a little special something in your interpretation!

e.g., In Tchaikovsky (and in other Romantic music), listen for augmented sixth chords (French, Italian, German) and how they resolve, usually to dominant (V) chords.

Ask yourself:

  • Can you find examples of special harmonies in your repertoire?
  • Do these special harmonies inspire a special character? Flavour? Colour? Inflection?
  • How exactly do you achieve this on your instrument?

In Classical and Baroque music, can you hear how the frequent use of appoggiaturas create dissonance (the ‘funky’) and consonance? How do you use appoggiaturas to create and resolve musical ‘tension’?

Musicality Tip #2: The Note Before Technique

Oftentimes there are specific notes on the page or in certain phrases or sections, that you decide are climactic, special, or are deserving of musical attention.

Instinct may tell us to focus just on that note, however one of the best tricks I often use and find very effective is to focus my attention equally (if not more so) on the note before the desired note. Putting equal attention on the note before your desired climax has the effect of putting an aural “highlighter” around the specific interval, effectively drawing more attention to the upcoming note you want to highlight: “This is special/This is important/Listen to this”.

This technique works really well for drawing attention to the specialness of intervals, whether it is a close semitone, or an unusual interval like a tritone, or a large interval like an octave. This technique can also be applied to chord pairs (in a cadence), i.e., drawing attention to the penultimate chord before it resolves to the final chord.

Ask yourself:

  • Where can you find opportunities to highlight the note before a desired climax?
  • Can you locate intervals that you want to musically emphasize?
  • What happens when you give equal importance and attention to the first note of the interval as well as the destination note?
  • Does doing so make the interval sound more expressive?

Musicality Tip #3: The Highlighter Technique

When we read text with a highlighter in hand, we choose to emphasize certain key words or phrases. In music, we can similarly choose to highlight select notes or moments within a phrase. Experiment with your musical ‘highlighter’ and make musical choices about what you want to highlight in any particular phrase. When you make choices of what you wish to highlight, your musical interpretation deepens.

Now, this is where the fun begins!

You can then choose to move your musical highlighter. You may move it around to anywhere you like, choosing to highlight alternative notes/points in the phrase – just to mix things up and keep things spontaneous! This technique works especially well if you are repeating the same theme multiple times in a piece and want to add variety, surprise, and character to your playing.

How exactly does one highlight in music? You may select a note or group of notes and apply any of the following variables:

  • Change the timing/rubato (agogic accent)
  • Change the dynamic
  • Change the articulation
  • Change the colour/tone (achieved by playing with bow speed, bow pressure, contact point, and vibrato)
  • Any combination of the above!

What can you do each time you play a theme in terms of moving the highlight to a different note? Which notes will you choose to emphasize? With each time you play the same phrase, choose a different note or interval to highlight and observe how it changes the musical expression, flavour, or character of that phrase. Does it become more cheeky? More bold? More shy?

* * *

These strategies are just a sample of the number of artistically layered strategies one can apply to deepen your expression and develop musicality. I hope you have fun creating your own musical interpretations while experimenting with these concepts.

They are also what I personally use in my own playing and teach to my students inside my Violin Bootcamp. If you’d like to read more musicality strategies, my free 24-page guide How To Be A MUSICAL Ninja, is available for download on my website: If you would like to learn about my upcoming Violin Bootcamp that begins Feb. 1, please click here.

Enjoy the process of finding more Significance, Meaning, Character, Shape, Tension and Release!

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