In Part 1: Gathering the Senses, I started this series by writing that we need a more powerful idea of musicality that is at once more specific and more liberating. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, I encourage you to do so before continuing. You may also be interested in completing the homework for Part 1 before reading further.
This series outlines five elements that together provide an effective framework for exploring musicality. These elements are listed in the order we will be discussing them, not in order of importance. As I wrote in Part 1, our senses are “felt, perceived, and interpreted in light of each other.” So although we will be discussing the five elements one by one, they are interdependent with each other in a way that will become clear as we move through the series. Our exploration of the creative element, for example, will not be complete until we’ve explored the other four elements.
Let’s find out what these elements are and then explore them one by one. Musicality consists of the following five elements:
- The Creative Element
- The Emotional Element
- The Somatic Element
- The Relational Element
- The Improvisational Element
We will discuss the creative element first. As I mentioned in Part 1, this series is part of a larger project I am working on. To keep the series manageable, I will cover just a few concepts here. Hopefully this article gives you a good introduction to the creative element and leaves you curious to learn more. As always, I welcome your feedback so I can continue to develop and refine these ideas.
Let’s get started!
The CREATIVE Element of Musicality
A dancer moves in time and space, and this time and space is shaped by the dance’s form. The form of our specific dance – its structure, organization, and relationships – narrows the physical choices available, not in a way that is stifling but in a way that focuses our body, mind, and energy like a magnifying glass. This form is not a necessary evil but rather a necessary good. In fact, it is the very medium we use for communication and expression. And because we as dancers choose to operate within a specific form, dancing is a creative endeavor, for as Robert Grudin writes in The Grace of Good Things, “[T]he subject of creative thinking is form.”
The form of a particular dance was not designed by committee; it developed over time interdependent with the limits and possibilities of the human body, the human partnership, and a particular music form. Just as the way two human bodies can move together is a limiting factor – let’s call it a focusing factor – in any partnered dance, so too is the music a focusing factor. The form of the music is structured enough to allow for communication yet flexible enough to allow for creativity and expression. The music and the dance are designed to provide this combination of stability and flexibility. When a dancer learns a specific dance, they learn how to maintain the form and how to shape that form in the moment according to the context of the song, the partnership, the floor of other dancers, and their own interpretation.
How do the music form and the dance form relate to each other exactly? In Part 1, I quoted Mark Changizi from his book Harnessed, where he wrote that “visible movements are tightly choreographed with the sounds they make – because the sight and sound arise from the same event. When you hear movement, you expect to see that same movement.” From our experience in, and as part of, the natural world, we know that certain things don’t just go together in a superficial way; they arise together naturally. This truth shapes the conscious and subconscious development of our cultural creations as well, resulting in artistic forms in which the senses literally “make sense” together in a particular way. In the case of partnered dance forms, music is a central part of this shaping. The dance form developed for Argentine tango music might have looked otherwise in a different cultural context, for example, but it would not have looked like Lindy hop or salsa. The dance and the music go together because they developed interdependent with each other.
Now let’s shift from a global perspective to a local perspective. Just as the interdependence of a dance form and its music developed over the course of a particular dance form’s development, so too does this interdependence develop over the course of a musical dancer’s learning experience. It is a creative tension between maintaining the structure and shaping it to fit the context. We learn the basic pulse of our dance: how and where to step on the beat, sometimes (depending on the dance) within a cycle of six or eight. We also learn we can do multiple steps in the same amount of time or let multiple beats go by. We learn that instead of “marking” the main pulse with the basic step we can mark it with something else, or mark entirely different beats in the music. We can mark in a different time in a different space with a different part of our body. We can mark differently than our partner and still be with the music and with each other.
These revelations are enabled by the possibilities that exist within the structure of the music. They are not random. They arise from the way our bodies naturally and culturally correlate speed, shape, and space with sound (for examples, learn about the bouncing ball experiment and Kiki and Bouba). And because music is complex, with attention and experience we have unlimited options for exploring its structure in our dancing. It is an inexhaustible topic of conversation. That’s because the elements of music don’t have strict definitions but rather correlations that are strong yet flexible, which means a variety of variables in a piece of music interact in multiple ways, providing many layers and relationships for us to explore in our dancing if we can hear and respond them.
Understanding how we hear and respond to music requires us to discuss one more concept, and I like to call it the concept of frames. Ever hear of the Necker Cube? Even if you don’t recognize the name, you most likely have seen the cube and know that you can see it in two ways: with the bottom left corner as the front face of the cube or with the top right corner as the front face. Most people are able to “toggle” their perception back and forth to see first one version of the cube and then the other. We do this by focusing their attention on a specific point or space on the cube until the rest of the object organizes itself around that point or space. By changing our perception, we can see two different cubes even though we are looking at the same object.
We can perceive music in the same way. Our understanding of the creative element of musicality greatly expands when we think of music as a highly complex Necker cube. In the same way that our senses gather to create a center of experience (see Part 1), our attention organizes our perception to create a frame. When our attention is focused on a specific instrument in a song, for example, all other instruments and musical effects organize themselves within the frame to support that instrument. A musical dancer frequently changes frames throughout the dance. Each one results in a different perceptual organization of the music, but the entire musical context (or at least as much as the dancer perceives) is still contained within that frame and available for creative use. In fact, it is the frame itself that allows for seamless transitions between frames when dancing. So the frame is perceptual, but it has important practical effects.
Many dancers do not experience music as a Necker cube. When they focus on a single instrument, the instrument is all they hear. It is as if they are looking through a telescope instead of at a frame. Both a telescope and a frame highlight something we want to experience (in this example, the instrument), but only the frame does so in a way that maintains the rich relationships that instrument has with all of the other instruments. Looking through a telescope can be helpful as an exercise when learning and practicing, but as a habit it is detrimental when trying to dance musically.
Why is it detrimental? Here are five practical effects the telescope effect has on dancing:
- We close ourselves off from hearing and expressing other parts of the music. This affects our ability to improvise, which will be discussed when we explore the improvisational element in Part 6 of this series.
- Our understanding and expression of the part we are focusing on will be shallow because it won’t have a relationship to the rest of the song.
- It will be difficult or impossible to transition from one musical focus to another within a single song. Because a frame contains the full musical context, it allows for a new focus to be found quickly. A telescope is out of relationship with the rest of the music and does not allow for a fluid transfer of focus.
- We will find ourselves lost with sections of the music (and even entire songs) where the primary part we are listening for is not present.
- We will miss not only many of the musical details of our partners, but entire lead and follow connections. We will discuss this further when we explore the relational element in Part 5 of this series.
Sometimes when I talk about the creative element of musicality, a dancer will object because they associate creativity with challenge or with originality, and not every dancer wants to be challenged or create something new. But as we have seen, creativity is not primarily about challenge, although it has the capacity of offer us an unlimited supply of it. The creative element in musicality is about form and frames, two things that we use every day in a countless number of endeavors. Form on a global level and frames on a local level are what enable us to communicate with each other and to express ourselves in our dancing. They focus and expand our perception to allow for musical understanding and response.
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If you would like to more fully explore your own ideas about musicality and the concepts we’ve just explored in Part 1 of this series before continuing, check out The Five Elements of Musicality: Homework.
Here is the next post in this series: The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 3: The Emotional Element.