I rather dislike the word “musicality.”

I love listening to and learning about music. I love expressing music through dancing. But I’m frustrated that so many dancers are obsessed with “being more musical” while having only the vaguest idea of what that means, and very little direction on how to achieve that goal.

Musicality is a fuzzy term. We all know it.

If you’re lucky, you may have an intuitive sense of what “musicality” means to you. You might have your own definition that you can argue about with other dancers (which you are free to do down in the comments section, as in my previous post on this topic).

But frankly, that’s not good enough.

If you want to dance better to music, or understand music, you deserve more than an intuitive understanding. You need more than the vague, conflicting ideas that many dance teachers present.

You need details!

Like this excellent video demonstrating the difference between swing and rock drumming.

On the other hand—though you may find the video enlightening—it’s just a brief overview, a tiny slice of the music pie. Your dancing will not suddenly “be more musical” after watching it.

People spend their whole lives learning about music. Same goes for dancing. These are enormous fields of study, and the word “musicality” doesn’t give you any clue where to start. Imagine if you asked your teacher how to improve your lindy hop, and they said, “Watch more lindy hop,” or “Learn more about lindy hop.”

So basically I just grope around in the dark? GEE, THANKS.

And yet, that’s akin to the advice most dance students get about “musicality.” Listen to lots of music, and learn more about music.

The word “musicality” drive me crazy. By the end of this post, you will understand why. Plus, you will get ideas on how to improve your “musicality” with more laser-like precision instead of trying to bludgeon it into your dancing.

As a Musician

As a former musician, the word “musicality” drives me crazy. It’s not a music term; I never heard it used in my eight years of studying music. I once asked my sister, who majored in classical guitar, whether she ever heard the word used in her music program in college.

Rarely, she said.

What did it mean?

“It’s sort of a vague word for talent.”

In music we use terms like staccato, largo, mezzoforte, and chromatic. These are very specific things you do when you play music.

sheet music by LiteWriting aka Loreen72 flickr

If my conductor had said, “Play with more musicality!” we all would have been confused. What, you want us to just “play better?”

Instead, we studied and practiced incredibly specific ways of playing music. Together, these add up to an emotional experience for the listener (who is most likely NOT thinking about the details we worked so hard on).

Of course we also studied music theory, the structure of music. Understanding theory (intellectually and/or intuitively) is incredibly important when trying to convey musical ideas. But I didn’t study theory at first, or at least not much. 10-year-old Rebecca worked hard on reading music and playing notes correctly. Like the beginner dancer learns to step on beat and execute moves competently.

My point? When playing music, the word “musicality” is terribly unhelpful. Musicians work on much more specific ideas and theories. If you want to understand music, get more specific.

A dancer trying to “be more musical” is like a painter trying to “be more artistic.” Good luck with that.

As a Writer

As a writer, the word musicality drives me crazy. I love nuances of word meanings. However, the word “musicality” completely lacks nuance. I can say, “Her dancing is so musical!” and you can say, “Her dancing was not musical at all,” and we can both be right.

That’s not nuance; that’s outright conflict.

If two people can make exactly opposite statements about musicality without any concrete facts to back up their opinions, how useful is that concept?

It’s okay to use words in opposite ways, but only when you can discern meaning by context. “I could literally eat a horse,” obviously has a different meaning than, “I literally ate horse meat when I was in Europe.”

literally by Pat Guiney flickr

On the other hand, whether or not someone has “musicality” is purely subjective. It’s not even partly objective. It does not have one commonly accepted meaning. You cannot test or quantify musicality; it has no unit measure.

Most commonly, I hear people use “musicality” to mean either (a) understanding music intuitively, intellectually, or experientially; (b) expressing music-related ideas in dancing; (c) a descriptor for dancing you like, or (d) some combination of these ideas.

In practice, musicality can mean anything you want it to mean. The only boundary around the word is that your definition must relate to music (which most dancing does).

Imagine if we defined lindy hop as “anything you want it to be so long as it relates to dancing.” YES. Now you understand my problem.

As a Teacher

As a dance teacher, the word musicality drives me crazy. Everyone wants more musicality, but each individual has a different idea of what that means. Or in some cases, no idea whatsoever.

I want to help you guys. But when you ask me about musicality, I don’t know what you’re talking about right away. I need more information, more specifics. Sometimes, if you talk long enough, I can figure out what you want.

For example, here is a collection of musically-related ideas you might have questions about:

  • Identifying different types of music
  • Song structures
  • Music terminology
  • Discerning which instruments are playing
  • Counting 8s, phrases, and choruses
  • Counting and dancing rhythms
  • Anticipating breaks, bridges, rhythms, repetition, etc.
  • Expressing different types of sounds with your body
  • How basic lindy hop movement relates to swing music
  • Creating new rhythms
  • Listening to music while simultaneously dancing
  • Combining musical improvisation with good communication and partnering
  • Adapting common dance patterns to fit the music
  • Creating your own variations to music
  • Using repetition, call and response, and dynamics as they relate to music

If you don’t know these concepts exist, it’s incredibly hard to work on them. It’s possible you could stumble into a “musicality” class and realize you always wanted to understand song structure. But I might take that same class and be irritated that I didn’t learn any specific exercises to work on my musical creativity.

If a class is simply labeled “musicality,” you never know what you’re going to get.

To get what you want, you need to KNOW what you want.

Do you want to understand music better? If so, do you want to understand it intellectually (by studying it), intuitively (by listening to it), experientially (by playing it), or all three?

Do you want to dance to music better? If so, what does that mean to you? Do you want to be unique and creative? Do you want to be a crowd-pleaser? Do you just want a couple of basic music and movement ideas to copy?

web by jurvetson flickr

Dancing is a huge web of ideas. You can study one strand separately, the place where strands intersect, or entire sections of the web.

I recently filmed a video called “Pump Up Your Musical Creativity” to give you a very specific exercise for generating and polishing musical ideas in your dancing. You can download it now through September 14 when you subscribe to Lindy Makers.

The “Pump Up Your Musical Creativity” video illuminates one particular way music interacts with creativity. It’s a single intersection in the vast web of lindy hop, one specific way you can put ideas immediately into practice.

When you study one strand or intersection, it inevitably leads to others. But you have to start somewhere.

Stop worrying about being “musical;” it’s too vague. Instead, get specific about what you want to know. Study concrete concepts; practice explicit exercises.

Start somewhere, anywhere! Try lots of ideas; ask lots of questions. And don’t be satisfied with fuzzy answers.

What specific things do you want to learn about in the vast intersection of music and dancing?

Photo credits: LiteWriting aka Loreen72 (sheet music), Pat Guiney (literally), Steve Jurvetson (web)