Top 10 Tips for Tackling Music Performance Analysis

Top 10 Tips for Tackling Music Performance Analysis

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music performance analysis

Here at DSMusic, we’re pretty heavily focused on the music language side of things, and the really knowing.

However, we’re also big fans of music performance analysis — understanding what other performers are doing musically to make us feel a certain way.

We really get lost listening to music and decoding the mysteries behind mood, so to help you get in the zone too, here’s some strategies for you to apply yourself.


1: Begin with how it makes you feel.

At the heart of music performance analysis is being able to describe the character or mood of the piece you’re listening to. What expressive outcome does the piece seem to have? How do you feel when you listen to it? If you had to find some words to describe the character, mood or feeling it creates — what would they be? There’s stacks of word lists for just this sort of thing in Decoding Sound, but best of all, there’s no right or wrong answer because feeling in music is subjective.

2: Searching for the right words.

Speaking of word lists, its a good idea to start gathering a bunch as a go-to. Angry words, sad words, exciting words and everything in between. Its best if these words are comfortable for you to use because even if what you feel can’t be wrong, you still have to be able to describe and justify it in your answers. Have a go now — see how many words you can come up with to describe the character of this song.

3: Rinse, wash, repeat.

Although in exam or testing situations you’ve got a limited number of listens (and time in between to scribble frantically!), while you’re finding your analysis feet, take as long as you need. My trick is to listen at least once without really focusing too much on anything, as this helps me find what mood or feeling resonates. Then, on each listen after that, I’ll pick one element or aspect to focus on. If you can though, best to make your multiple listen tracks the sort of music that won’t annoy you too much the tenth time it’s reverberating through your headphones!

4: Take it one step at a time.

Here at DSMusic, we’re big on sequential skill-building, so like I said in the last tip, work on one thing at a time. Typically, (not always!) elements like articulation, texture and tone colour are a great place to start. These focus on the way the performers begin and end their notes, the overall balance, blend and layering of instruments involved and the style or character for the sounds being created. What sort of words would you use to describe the articulation featured in this piece?

5: Open your ears to the possibilities.

Listening to music for analysis is different to blocking out the world with your favourite jams. It can be tempting to pop on your go-to tunes all the time, and while these might not be a bad place to start your journey, we encourage you to play around with your playlists. Sure, you mightn’t particularly enjoy every piece you listen to, but remember, your opinion about whether it’s good or not isn’t actually the point. Broaden your musical horizons!

Need a brain break? Brodie does!

6: Use analysis as a performer.

The reason we engage with music performance analysis in the first place is to hear how performers manipulate the expressive elements of music (like articulation and tempo and all the rest) to get us feeling a certain way — so we can do the same! Why not swap the headphones for your instrument/voice every once and a while and see if you can apply some of these same strategies and create your intended character?

7: Write, write, write!

Once we get used to listening for specific things, the next step is being able to articulate that on paper, which can be tough. I advise you try and find a process that works for you — dot points, sentences and paragraphs, tables, whatever. Routinely note down what you hear in the way that works for you because like anything, you get better at it the more you practice!

8: Socialise & analyse.

One way to help build your world lists but also double-check you can argue well for what you’re hearing and chatting about feeling-wise is to bounce off someone else. Pair up (or organise an analysis squad!) with a fellow listen & interpreter and compare notes. Often two people can hear very different things in the same piece of music so its a great way to expand your own understanding.

9: Carve out some character-charting time.

You mightn’t think you need to practice music performance analysis in the same way you do your scales, songs or that stuff for rehearsal, but actually, you do. Set up a schedule, or some structure for listening and interpreting regularly and make sure this gets time during the week in the same way instrument/voice practice (hopefully!) does.

10: Familiarise yourself with elements & devices.

This is the last tip because it’s very important – while there’s a great deal of subjectivity with music performance analysis, there’s also some key focus areas. If you’re studying VCE Music, VCAA has a list of compositional devices (like contrast and repetition) and elements/techniques for exploring these (that’s where tone colour and the rest fit) and DSMusic has some freebies to help. Just like your word lists, you need to build a level of familiarity and comfort with these so your ears get really good at noticing them in your listening excerpts!

How can DSMusic resources help you with performance analysis?

Your first stop should always be Decoding Sound — it’s the definitive textbook for teaching, learning and really knowing music performance analysis.

There’s also a wealth of FREE listening examples and sample observations that focus on particular compositional devices for VCE Music, which you can access at the bottom of this page.

Other ways to practice:

Get listening & word-list-building!

After all that, the key takeaways really are to listen to as much as you can, all the time, across different genres, styles, instruments and more. Jot down words, thoughts and feelings as you go so when the time comes, music performance analysis is as easy as do-re-mi.

Happy analysing! – Deb


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