From Bach to the Blade: Understanding and Interpreting Music

By Maureen Bennie, B. Mus.

Figure skating is a unique sport that combines technical elements and the interpretation of music. Demonstrating an understanding and connection to the music is the fifth part of the program component marks, the interpretive mark. The fourth mark, choreography, is intertwined with the interpretation mark; they work together and are related to each other. In a tight, technical race it will be these two marks that can get you on the podium or keep you off. 

    Interpreting music involves demonstrating an understanding of musical elements, conveying the narrative or story of the piece, showing us where we are in the world (ex. Argentina for the tango, Spain for flamenco music), and bringing out the character/mood of the music. The character is created through the tempo or speed or the music, articulation (are the notes short and detached or are they connected and smooth), and accents (strong sounds on certain beats).

The biggest challenge of interpreting music is that a great deal has to be said in a short period of time – 2:30 for the short program and up to 4:30 for the long program, depending on your level. If you had to tell a complicated story to your best friend in that time frame, it would be impossible to do. In skating, we have to tell a complex story through our body movements using many parts like the head, arms, hands, legs and of course, the feet. Facial expressions will help show the mood.

Some people connect and feel music easily; this is called musicality. Musicality is something you are born with; however, if you aren’t naturally musical, creating a connection to the music can be learned. You have to become an actor and know where to highlight the elements of a piece of music that come together to make that piece of music unique. Some of the most musical skaters are Canadian Toller Cranston (first person to use whole body expression), British ice-dancers Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, Russian pairs Gordeeva and Grinkov and American Michelle Kwan. Canadians Emanuel Sandhu and Jeffery Buttle were also excellent interpretive artists. One of the most complex interpretations of a piece of music I’ve ever seen is Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s free dance at the 2010 Winter Olympics. They skated to Mahler’s 5th Symphony, 4th movement (Adagietto). Go to You Tube and have a look at some of these skaters in action to see what they do to tell the musical story.

There are six elements of music that skaters need to be aware of. They are:

Rhythm – how many beats in a bar or the pulse of the music (2, 3, or 4 beats per bar are the most common ones for skaters). The time signature and type of music it is (ex. waltz) will tell you where the strong and weak beats are. The bars come together to make phrases or musical sentences. It is the phrases that choreographers have to create the movement to. When a skater trains, they can practice these phrases. Knowing the phrasing will help you to know where to place the technical elements and when and how transitions have to happen.

Pitch – the notes. The notes can be high or low, shown by body levels (low spirals, drags or for high notes, standing spin or back spiral). Instruments, as well as the human voice, produce a certain range of pitches. Examples of high instruments would be flute, oboe, clarinet or violin. Mid-range instruments are French horn, saxophone, and viola. Low range instruments are cello, double bass, trombone, and bassoon. 

Pitches are arranged to create a melody. Skaters need to choose music with a strong melodic line. How do you know if it’s strong? Sing a sentence to it, any sentence, and if it flows and makes sense, you have a strong melodic line. Judges will understand a strong melody but may have more difficulty with music where the melodic line isn’t obvious.

Timbre – the characteristic of the sound. We often use terms from the visual arts to describe it (ex. colour).  Every instrument has its own tone colour. The oboe sounds haunting, a flute sounds bright. Combinations of different instruments will create different colours. A string quartet sounds very different from a full orchestra. Solo piano has a different sound character from a piano accompanying another instrument such as a violin.

Texture – the consistency of the musical sounds. This can be described as thick or thin. Thin texture may be a solo instrument such as a violin. Thicker would be a several instruments playing together such as a piano quintet. The thickest would be a full 100 piece orchestra. 

Dynamics – the changes in loudness or softness of a piece. A piece can have sections that gradually get louder (crescendo) or gradually diminish (decrescendo). Skaters will want to highlight these changes because they help to create the drama and emotion in the music.

Form – the structure of a musical piece. The primary elements of form are repetition, contrast, and variation.  Some different types of form would be sonata, rondo, theme and variations or fugue. Skaters need to understand this because form will tell them where melodic themes will repeat, if melodies are going to return with new embellishments added to them, tempo changes/speed of the music, and interesting highlights that can be brought out through body movement.

Understanding these musical elements may be overwhelming at first, but with listening practice skaters can develop an understanding of these important elements over time. The choreographer has to be as aware as the skater about these musical elements, otherwise, the technical elements will be embedded in the wrong places and wonderful musical highlights will be lost. The only way to demonstrate a connection to the music is through the body and facial expressions, the only tools a skater has. 

Skaters have great access to a variety of music through iTunes, You Tube, and the public library which has an excellent selection of CD’s. Make it a goal to listen to a couple of new things every week. Enjoy discovering the wonderful world of music!