Don’t bother with expression, let the music play!

If today’s discovery in music education is a way around teaching technique, tomorrow’s approach will have to go beyond teaching expression, because the real problem has still not been solved. What problem am I speaking about? Allow me to get started.


We teach music in individual classes to give our students the opportunity of learning an instrument. Behind every instrument, there is a corresponding idea of technique, which was developed mainly as a tool to provide exercises and knowledge of the physical use of the instrument. But it’s generally considered that this concept never fully embodies musical expression, which is judged separate from all technical achievement. There have been countless discussions regarding which part in this matter to emphasize. A relatively recent movement is taking a firm step away from the idea of plain exercise on the instrument. Its objective is rather to provoke an instrumental development by first introducing the idea behind a musical piece, or simply a phrase, before killing it with misleading exercises. The word technique has also gained a negative connotation when used to describe the activity of a musician. Many who judge a musical performance tend to use phrases like technical but not expressive, which actually just means boring.

When we study technique, we isolate phrases from their natural musical habitat and only consider the physical conditions of playing an instrument. This approach can cause a certain development, but in the long run, it turns out problematic. The movement of the body needs to be attached to a musical idea to make any sense. Due to how this technical concept was applied in music education, it now represents the lack of a genuine musical idea. Now, this only shows that our technical concept in music actually is very poor. Let’s have a closer look at this subject. A broad study within the humanities has connected the idea of technique to its function within a certain social environment. It says that we internalize a technique when it’s truly essential for us. According to Pierre Bourdieu, we develop techniques due to our exposure to a certain social environment. We use them as a means of mutual understanding. This occurs long before we reflect on their physical character. We don’t need to study technique. All the contrary, we embody them and use them to interact within language, music and other social activities. In this way, a technique is connected to the logic of a certain social interaction. Now, the curious part is that also the concept of expression is connected to the very same logic. This was studied by Ludwig Wittgenstein through his philosophy of language games. There is a higher correspondency between technique and expression that is rooted in the praxis of different social activities and the logic attached to them. If I use the word logic, musicians will generally think about the mathematical relation between different notes in rhythm and pitch. The social logic of music also includes the way we perceive, judge and also interact in music. How we judge expression in social interaction depends on how we understand the rules of that activity. Wittgenstein showed that when we learn our mother tongue, we make up the rules as we go along. It means we create meaning to expression as we interact in a social environment. And the means of doing that is by using body techniques. That refers to speaking, but also to using the body through gesticulation etc., and most importantly, being emotionally attached to the social environment. The techniques we use are partly familiar to us from other language games and partly invented or re-invented, instantaneously, as a part of the game. The key to learning language is that people in our surrounding participate in the same language game.

Now, the real question for us to reflect on, is how we want to participate in music games? That means the interaction between musicians and audience, between two musicians, between a teacher and a student, amongst others. Western society has regulated musical activity like other human necessities. That means a very high participation from a few professionals and a very low participation from a mainly not inaugurated public. This regulation went hand in hand with transforming music into an article of use. We refined and re-defined music, along with the aesthetic concepts connected to it, to cause a maximum effect with a minimum of public participation. That was why we tried to achieve the maximum output from the concept of technique. But we were stopped by our very human nature. So we seek to explore the concept of expression instead. Where do we think that will end up? We have to realize that also this concept is only part of a broader logic.

Music education fails when we detach the studies of an instrument from a true situation of playing music. We need to participate in a social game while playing, in order to develop. Divisions like technique/expression are merely linguistic disorientations that won’t bring us any further. The factors that do compromise musical development lie in the surroundings of the music. And the only genuine way to provoke an interesting musical expression is by building up a positive and achievable social logic around music. Furthermore, we may only define good technique as the capacity of making an impact on our surrounding. We cannot allow ourselves to imitate whether technique nor expression.

If today’s discovery is a way around teaching technique, tomorrow’s approach will have to go beyond teaching expression, because the real problem has still not been solved. Where the shoe pinches is in our inherited idea of how to apply music. We have to let the music play.


If you’re interested in a more thorough investigation regarding the subject, or just to know more about me, feel free to visit my homepage and maybe download my work „Musik als soziales Spiel“ (yes, it’s in German).

Björn Bergek


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