Emotional Expression in Music Performances

Instructor: Sarah Porwoll-Lee
In this lesson, we will discuss strategies for teaching students how to sing or play an instrument expressively in a group, or independently. These strategies include musical and non-musical ways to encourage expressive performance.

The Importance of Musical Expression

Music students often have a more difficult time developing expressive performance skills than learning to play or sing correct notes and rhythms. Notes and rhythms are either right or wrong; expression is more subjective. While technique is important, it is really there to support expression. Imagine what your favorite song would sound like with no expression. If all music were at the same volume, played with the same emotion (or none!), and had no variation in tone, it would get pretty boring! How do we encourage music students to play or sing expressively?

Expressive Tools

We must first understand the techniques we use to show expression. Some important tools are tone, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing.

Tone is the quality of sound being produced. This varies by instrument or voice, but also by the performer's intention. Musicians may alter their tone to sound sweet, harsh, mellow, bright, or anything in between!

The term dynamics refers to volume in music. Music can happen at any volume - from barely audible to extremely loud! Musicians use words like forte (strong), piano (soft), crescendo (gradually become louder), and decrescendo (gradually become softer) to describe dynamics.

Articulation is the way we play or begin a note. For singers, pronunciation of words is the primary vehicle for articulation. Instrumentalists have different ways to articulate based on their instrument. Articulation can be the manner in which a pianist touches a key. Wind and brass players (instruments like clarinet, tuba, or flute) use the tongue and air, and string players (instruments like violin or cello) use either bows or their fingers. Additionally, there are directions in music to tell us the style in which to articulate. For instance, staccato (separated), legato (smooth), or accented (emphasize the note).

Trumpet: A Member of the Brass Instrument Family

These elements come together to form musical phrases. Phrasing is the way a line of music is shaped, including what notes are emphasized, and whether the line is smooth or angular. Phrasing in music is similar to sentence structure in speech.

How do we teach music students to use these tools to perform expressively?


One way to help students remember to play expressively is to add visual aids to their music. Different colored highlighters can emphasize various cues. Use a range of colors to make dynamics pop out on the page. Louder dynamics get brighter colors (forte = yellow); softer dynamics are darker (piano = blue). Descriptive words, accents, and other directions may also be highlighted.


Listening to expressive playing, whether in professional concerts, videos, recordings, or their music teacher, is an excellent way to help students understand what it means to play expressively! It can be helpful to play a musical phrase for the student twice, once with zero expression, and once with lots of expression. Have them tell you what they liked and disliked about each performance. This provides opportunities to hear expressive and non-expressive playing side-by-side, identifying what makes them different.

Having a student record him or herself and listen back is another helpful tool. Ask the student to listen to his recording, observing ways he can improve expressively, and not focusing on that one wrong note he may have played! Concentrating on improvement instead of errors will motivate the student and boost his confidence. There is no such thing as a perfect performance, but a couple mistakes won't ruin it if they are expressive!

Student and Teacher in a Piano Lesson


Music is a key component of film. Music helps set the scene, tell the story, and communicate characters' emotions. Having a scene or story in mind when playing or singing is helpful for all musicians! Have students create a story or setting they feel the music portrays. Write it somewhere they will see it every time they practice or perform. This will give students a clear picture of the emotions their playing should express.

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