The Rule of Rules in Music

Music is usually thought of as an emotive art form. People participate in music individually, communally, or in performance to communicate ideas, to express feelings, and even to experience an emotional release of some kind. Skilled performers are able to evoke desired feelings from even the most passive of listeners. It is right to think of music in this way, if a bit simplistic.

Despite the importance of emotion in music, the best musicians do not allow their inner emotional states to dictate the quality or emotive content of a performance. The uninitiated reader might be surprised or even dismayed to find out that the communication of happiness, sadness, anger, and any other feeling whether intense or subdued can and usually is programmed by the performer, who uses various musical devices to create desired types of musical expression—and stir up certain reactions in the listener—regardless of his or her emotional state during the performance. The need for this ability in vocal and dramatic music is obvious—otherwise how can one hope to perform a happy role like that of Papageno after receiving news of a loved one’s serious illness, or how could a joyful newlywed sing a stereotypical country song with the requisite lament? Even when performing absolute music, expressive devices must be planned to some extent or another, lest the performer fail to communicate any feeling to the listener except that of his or her own performance anxiety. In an important sense, every musician—even the instrumentalist—must to some degree become an actor.

While this practice of “programming expression” might sound complicated, it usually isn’t. In most cases, following a few simple rules will enable instrumentalists to find the appropriate expressive devices for a given piece. My students are quite accustomed to hearing directives such as these:

  • Emphasize longer notes over shorter ones, and allow series of shorter notes to lead to and from longer ones.
  • Crescendo slightly during the first half of the phrase, and diminuendo slightly in the second half.
  • Push the tempo ahead slightly in the first half of the phrase, and pull back slightly in the second half.
  • Overdo all of the above devices in the practice room, as the presence of one’s instructor, accompanist, or audience will usually have a moderating effect.
  • Plan to take breaths in the places where the music “breathes” or pauses, not simply where one feels like breathing.

Honestly, following the above five rules and observing all of the written expressive markings will go a long way toward creating the optimal expressive effect for just about any piece. Similarly, execution (especially tuning) can be boiled down to a few easily-remembered rules:

  • Major thirds must be lowered, minor thirds raised, and perfect fifths raised. (Other chord tones have rules governing their needed adjustments as well, but these three are the most vital to know.)
  • Brass players must learn the overtone series charts for their instruments, and the tuning tendencies of each partial. The fifth (must be raised), sixth (must be lowered), and seventh (must be raised very much; unusable on brass instruments except trombone) are perhaps the most important to know well.
  • The above two sets of tuning rules will in some cases either compound, thus increasing the needed adjustment, or negate one another, eliminating the need for any tuning adjustments.
  • Tuning rules should be applied both harmonically in ensembles, and melodically within one’s own playing.
  • When playing with piano the perfect intonation that is theoretically possible when playing in other types of ensembles cannot be achieved, due to the compromises inherent in piano tuning. Besides, given that the brass player can adjust pitch during performance and the pianist can’t, the responsibility for matching the piano rests with the brass player, even if this requires negating other tuning rules.
  • With regard to articulation, to achieve a given type of attack the tongue stroke will be softer in the lower register and harder in the upper register. (I recognize that the latter suggestion is contrary to “received wisdom,” but I have often found it to be the case.)
  • The most important element of good legato tonguing or slurring is the maintenance of constant airflow—and thus constant buzz—through the duration of the passage.

These rules for expression and execution are starting to sound like quite a bit to remember, and this isn’t even a comprehensive list! In practice, though, remembering this is not all that difficult, and ultimately saves a lot of effort wasted through trial-and-error methods of figuring out how to execute a passage or improve its emotive effect. Still, as helpful as these rules are they must always bow to what I am calling here “The Rule of Rules in Music” or just “The Ultimate Rule.” Here it is:

If it sounds good, it is good.

The advantage of having “usually-applicable” rules for effecting expressive devices or technical execution is that much of the guesswork is removed from musical interpretation and performance. However, sometimes the rules don’t work, and students are often stumped in these cases. Perhaps two or more of these rules conflict with each other, or maybe a particular piece contains unusual compositional devices or requires extended techniques. Perhaps doing the thing that usually works simply sounds bad in a certain piece. In these cases, the regularly-applied rules must be modified or discarded and the “Rule of Rules” applied. Experiment until you find an approach that yields a desirable sound. If you are a student, trust that your teacher will give you some guidance, but be willing to experiment between lessons and see if a departure from the usual approach leads to a better result. A good teacher will appreciate your willingness to think, experiment, and search for creative solutions to expressive or technical difficulties, even when some correction is needed.

“If it sounds good, it is good.” Whatever formulas musicians might devise to improve the technical or emotive aspects or performance, these must ultimately give way to the “Rule of Rules.” Too simplistic? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it stands as a partial but legitimate application of a nearly two-millennia-old directive, one which holds particular importance for Christian musicians like myself but might be at least appreciated by others:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

We as musicians are in the business of creating beautiful sounds, sounds which stir listeners’ emotions, engage their minds, and in the best music even point in a small way to the beauty, order, goodness, and excellence of the Creator. And yet we too often become so tangled in minutia that we obsess over rules and forget the most important things. Beautiful sounds. Edify the listener. Glorify God.

“If it sounds good, it is good.”

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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