What Is “Character” In Music?

July 6, 2011

Dear Mr. Chappell:

I have heard music teachers say, “Try to play this phrase with a different character.” How can a musician control the character of the phrase? What would be the variables one can use to control/paint/portray the character? Can the character change in each phrase, or change in the phrase itself? How does the interpretation change if the character changes? Do you breathe differently in each different character of phrases?


Dear Simeon:

Sometimes I describe music as the sound of feelings.

So we have two things: sound and feeling. Sound is the outer, objective aspect and feeling is the inner, subjective aspect.

“Character” means the quality of a feeling. For example, a feeling of happiness can have different qualities. It could be a profound, relaxed, serene quality of happiness; or an energetic, exuberant, bright quality of happiness. There are many, many shades of happiness, each having its own specific character and its own adjectives. See how many you can think of.

Character in music is expressed in sound by means of timbre (sound quality), dynamics (loudness), balance (relative simultaneous loudnesses), articulation (amount of connection between successive notes), tempo (speed), beat division (number of counts per measure), and the amount of rubato (rhythmic flexibility).

Let’s follow an example to see how character is put into action. The piece of music is the Prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach.

Let’s give it a profound, relaxed, serene character.

Serene timbre would be one that is rounded and light.

Serene dynamics would have no sudden contrasts, no big contrasts, and no strongly accented notes, and the level would be generally quiet.

Serene balance would bring out more of the bass notes and less of the treble notes.

Serene articulation would be legato.

Serene tempo would be a slower tempo.

Serene beat division would have fewer beats per measure. In this example, there are sixteen notes in each measure, therefore you could feel sixteen, or eight, or four, or two beats, or one beat per measure. Let’s select two beats per measure because that is less agitated than the higher numbers.

Serene rhythm would feel flexible but not with a distracting amount of rubato.

Now play this Prelude with a light timbre, with generally quiet dynamics that change only gradually, with balance that favors the lower notes, with legato, with a slower tempo, feeling two beats per measure, and with an even but flexible rhythm. You are playing it with a serene character.

Now let’s give the same piece a different character, which is a quality of happiness that is energetic, exuberant, and bright.

Bright timbre would be one that is sharper and richer.

Bright dynamics could have obvious contrasts and the level would be generally loud.

Bright balance would bring out more of the treble notes and less of the bass notes.

Bright articulation would be less legato.

Bright tempo would be a faster tempo.

Bright beat division would have more beats per measure. Let’s select eight beats per measure because that is more active.

Bright rhythm would be very even and tight.

Now play this Prelude with a rich timbre, with generally loud dynamics but including some obvious contrasts, with balance that favors the higher notes, with an articulation that is less legato, with a faster tempo, feeling eight beats per measure, and with tight rhythm. You are playing it with a bright character.

Musicians talk about character, but actors also talk about character. To explore a more advanced level of focusing and defining the quality of feeling in a piece of music, think of it the way an actor would.

Here are some examples of questions an actor might ask about character: Who is feeling the happiness? How old is that person–is it a child, elderly person, or someone in between? What country and time period in history does this person live in? What kind of circumstance is causing the happiness–winning the lottery, getting a good grade in school, eating chocolate, something else? Is the happiness happening right now, or is a sad person remembering a happiness from the past? Is the happy person telling the world about this happiness, or telling an intimate friend, or experiencing it alone? See if you can imagine the quality of happiness that matches each different situation. Invent your own additional situations.

To address the other parts of your question, let me say that character changes when the variables change. Therefore, character can be sustained for any length of a musical statement: for part of a phrase, for an entire phrase, or even for an entire piece.

Also, the character that a musician chooses to assign to a piece of music is their interpretation of that piece. Therefore, changing the character is the same as changing the interpretation.

Finally, your breathing can change according to the character of a piece of music. And that could be just one physical manifestation of character. You might also change the way you position your body or change the expression on your face. From the point of view of piano technique, you will change the movements of your arms and hands, approaching the keys with differing amounts of speed, of heaviness in the arms, of height of the wrists, of flexibility in the wrists, and of curve in the fingers. Each way of doing things results in a different kind of sound. Each different kind of sound expresses a different kind of character.

To play a phrase with a different character means first to have a different quality of feeling and, as a result, to make a different kind of sound.

–Jeffrey Chappell