Putting words to music

This post is an open activity to anyone. One of my classes has been discussing expression and the communication and teaching of this in music. It is a challenge to listen to short piano examples and say what words it conjures up in your mind. On a more abstract level the task is to name the ineffable. As teachers we somehow need to convey this abstraction to another person, our students, so that they can achieve this for themselves on their instruments. What makes it even more difficult is that in music we speak through sound, yet describe it with something else… well, you know Plato’s allegory of the cave? Yes, that’s the perpetual state of communication in music. -Not really, but we never *touch* the essence.

Teaching expression is a topic that is rarely taught in an experiential way, partly because it is easier that way. I mean, as a teacher, I have answers if there is something definitive, but with music and expression we are drawing upon associations. For me to create something that embodies a certain emotion is different, conceptually, than the way my 14 year old student would do it, and will be different still than how the student who is a 50 year old father conceives of the same musical sentiment.

As a class we wanted to explore this idea of experience and understanding and so we created a few examples for you to listen to. The task is to choose an example (you are welcome to choose all three if you like!) and listen to it. Comment on this post with whatever words the example conjures up for you. If a certain place in the example is where you thought of the word, add the time when it happens. For example you might write that you thought of ‘red’ at 8 seconds and ‘tricycle’ at 23 seconds. We are looking for words.

The hope is that as many different people from all walks of life can contribute, because that will expand our collective experience. Having this window into your understanding can in turn allow us to deepen our understanding and will be food for our discussion on how we might teach and explain to our students.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Please do post a comment! Thank you!


Featured image CC BY-NC-SA by Phil Hilficker


  1. KevinHodgson (@dogtrax)

    ‪Music track one: (11 sec Mark): chaos resolving into small box held tight in hand.‬
    ‪Music track two: (18 sec Mark): Standing by window, on spring day, watching rain puddle in a bucket ‬
    ‪Music track three: (3 sec Mark): Remembering my son learning to juggle. The smile on his face. ‬

  2. Cog.Dog

    Example 1: This feels like my brain this morning trying to find the right words for an important phone call, the feeling like I found that confident space, but then had second doubts.

    Example 2: I imagined sitting on the bank of a small sized river, it was where the water made a sweeping curve around a spot of land; I was sitting on some soft leaves, leaning against a tree, totally calm

    Example 3: Definitely one of suspense- for some reason it reminded me of Halloween night when my wife and I took turns answering the door, not knowing who or what was there. I thought I heard a dog panting at the end!!

  3. Kathy Lasecki

    Number one..entering and joining a party..thanksgiving on my mind now!
    Number two..a swan gliding on a lake
    Number three..a real roadrunner zip zip caught dinner!

  4. Winny

    1st Track Beginning with worries then seems got some solution but still wondering at the end depressively.

    2nd Track Wondering should do it or not with lots of questions in mind.

    3rd. A rat sneaking up in the street looking for food, running here and there.

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