Musicality: not such a big question after all?

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It’s very common in the dance education world to denigrate the word ‘musicality’, because it’s a woolly term. Or people look at you in a knowing way and say ‘What is musicality, anyway? That’s the big question!’

But I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘what is musicality?’ is not a big question. It’s a word which does have several available meanings out there in the world of scholarship, philosophy, music psychology and education research. You can also get a good idea of what people mean by it just by reading what they say (unless they say ‘Now that’s a big question!’, of course).  For example, ‘human musicality’ is a word used by neuroscientists and psychologists to describe the innate capacity of the human brain to deal with music. ‘Communicative musicality’ is a field that covers all kinds of musical aspects of communication, such as ‘motherese’, the musical language that mothers and babies develop between themselves before words and concepts.

Notions such as Musikalität and das Musikalische can traced back to the late 18th century in German philosophy according to Lydia Goehr in Elective Affinities, and they’re related to the concept of Innerlichkeit or ‘inwardness’.  Music psychologist Susan Hallam has written several articles on popular conceptions of what ‘musicality’ means, and is one of many music educationalists to point out that for many, ‘musicality’ is synonymous, however misguidedly, with musical ability.

On a more basic level, ‘musicality’ is sometimes used to describe aspects of something that have the qualities associated with music such as rhythm, timing, dynamics, accent, or tone quality. There are several studies which have looked at conventions of musical expression, and for some people, ‘musicality’ means just being able to play expressively. ‘Musical’ is also used to refer to people who are temperamentally suited to becoming musicians (otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to do so), or for whom music is a big part of their lives.  ‘Musicality’ in some cases, like 19th century novels, is readable as an aspect of a middle class girl’s education, part of ‘finishing school’, whether she is much good at it or not.

The difficulty is not what ‘musicality’ means, but of spending the time and effort to do the necessary reading, thinking and reflection to negotiate its several meanings. There may be no consensus on what it means, but that doesn’t mean it has no meaning as a word, it implies on the contrary that there are too many meanings to give it a single definition, and that we need to understand all of them and our own position in order to make sense of it.  To hide behind the lack of consensus as an excuse to get rid of the word is cheating. Ironically, those who claim that it’s a ‘big question’ are probably themselves secretly or unwittingly hanging on to a single notion of das Musikalische as ‘Innerlichkeit’, which is why they, hip postmodernists that they are, are so keen to deny that it means anything at all.

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