What We've Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

What performers can do to make their musical messages clearer.

Posted Nov 27, 2017

I doubt that music performance psychology was on anyone’s mind in 1967 when in the film Cool Hand Luke we first heard the iconic movie line that titles this blog post. Nonetheless, a failure to communicate is perhaps the most common culprit behind music performances that seem uninspired and lifeless to both performers and audience members. It seems a shame—not to mention a huge waste of time—for musicians to spend hours, days, and months preparing for a performance, only to take the stage and have their music fail to move the audience in the way desired. On the flip side, when a musical performance is effective at moving the emotions of those in the auditorium seats, it can seem so effortless and natural. This is, of course, just an illusion; we know that skills that are executed most effortlessly are often the ones that have been rehearsed the very most to reach a point of being second-nature. With a better understanding of the psychology of musical communication, musicians can adapt their practicing and performance preparations in order to ensure that their musical messages are reliably received by their audiences.

Michigan Municipal League/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Michigan Municipal League/Flickr Creative Commons

The musical world is full of lore, legends, and flat-out lies, many of which serve to convolute the quest for greater musical understanding taken up by performers and music lovers. One of the worst of these is the idea that music is a universal language. Music is most certainly not a universal language. This may sound like anathema to some music devotees, but it will also be a welcomed acknowledgment by anyone who at one time or another found themselves taking in a musical performance that they just did not “get” despite being surrounded by other listeners who clearly were getting something very powerful out of the experience. So exactly why is music not a universal language? It’s hard to deny that music is universal: music, in one form or another, exists among basically all people and within all human cultures around the world. Calling music a language, however, is problematic. In fact, in some very important ways, the two phenomena are fundamentally different (Williamson, 2009). A language is largely defined by it being able to reliably represent the same thing to different people (who know the language). In contrast, it is a recognized asset of music to be able to provide different emotional experiences to members of the same listening audience. There are, of course, some similarities between language and music, including the fact that both are (usually) oral/aural phenomena, both are best learned by assimilating (to ones’ mind) complex auditory sequences, and both can be communicative from person to person.

Although musical sounds can be quite good at communicating broad emotions within cultures, music is not good at communicating specific things. This need not be seen as a weakness, however. Sometimes the feelings that musicians want to express are mixed and conflicting and don't have a precise word label like “joy,” “fear,” or “melancholy.” Some feelings defy description with words. Thus they may be better expressed through the flexibility and ambiguity of musical sound. This ineffability of music has been detailed, deconstructed and discussed by artists and philosophers for ages; it is well captured in the oft-cited quote by celebrated French writer Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

When musicians have something very specific to communicate, they often avail themselves of the communicative power that language does have. The presence of lyrics can account for much of the popularity of songs (compared to purely instrumental music), and this is also why in the classical music world, audiences are so appreciative of program notes. But there are also times when musicians don't want a specific emotion or idea communicated too directly; Rather they desire to express something more nebulous that they hope will simply engender an emotional response in listeners—and perhaps one that depends more on the listeners themselves, rather than on the specific intentions of a composer or performer.

The similarities and differences between language and music are not merely fodder for academic discussion and debate. In some very practical ways, performers and audience members are empowered when they gain a better understanding of the communicative qualities of spoken language and music. Both speech and music consist of complex auditory sequences that occur over time. Research shows that the same acoustic properties that make the delivery of a great orator so moving are also pivotal in the effectiveness of musical communication. Just as eloquent speakers vary their words’ loudness, tempo and articulation (e.g., smooth and connected vs. short and detached), so great musicians rely on these same properties to be emotionally expressive. Often a failure to communicate results when musicians mistakenly believe that their emotional intentions will become perceptible sound properties simply by making their intentions strong enough. They can resolve this communication problem by giving some more purposeful attention to the sound properties they produce in their music. Based on my own research, I believe performers go through a period of development in which they must think explicitly about sound properties (of loudness, tempo, and articulation) when practicing in order for their performances to be emotionally communicative; with enough practice, this process can become second nature such that more advanced performers can do it without much deliberate thought at all (Woody, 2003, 2006). Although there are many different approaches that performers take to be more expressive, focusing on the sound properties of performance may be the one closest to “foolproof”: by virtue of their human experiences as language speakers, not only are performers usually quite adept at correlating expressive acoustic devices with the feelings they tend to elicit, but also audience members are usually quite adept at perceiving and interpreting them (for more explicit attention to acoustic cues to emotion in a musical context, see Juslin  & Persson, 2002; Juslin et al., 2004).

As easy as it is for most people to understand the expressive sound qualities of speech, it is even easier to recognize emotion from people’s visual cues. It is naturally human to understand others’ emotions via their facial countenance and bodily carriage and gesture. In the case of some emotions, these visual cues are universally expressed and understood (Ekman, 2004), so much so that they are communicatively effective among infants and their mothers (Felman & Tyler, 2006); These things are an important part of the musical communication that often occur between babies and their adult caregivers (Maloch, 1999/2000). So people are very accustomed to relying on what they see in order to better under what they hear, and this reliance begins early.

In a live performance setting, audience members’ judgments of “the music” can be greatly affected by what is seen onstage. Before producing a single musical sound, performers can win over the people in the audience and predispose them toward a positive appraisal by signaling confidence with their body carriage, smiling, and eye contact. Once engaged in their music making, performers use facial expression and bodily gesture to indicate their expressive intentions. These visual cues can aid audience members in hearing expressive devices in the music (Davidson, 1993); They can even fool people into hearing instances of expressivity that aren’t actually present physically in the sound properties!

Visual cues are hugely important in a live performance, and not just in pop stars' a highly choreographed numbers and glam rockers' outlandish stage behavior.  Musicians of all genres should study the visual communication ability of their own performing; the video recording equipment for this kind of self-study now comes standard in the smartphones that most of us carry at all times. If they watch themselves as an objective audience member would, it’s possible that many musicians will discover their facial expression and bodily gesture are not as communicative as they’d like. After all, as “naturally human” as it is to express oneself through face and body, over time anxiety-inducing aspects of live performance can make effective physical communication anything but natural. Performing musicians in this situation should devote some practice time to improving the visual aspects of their performance, even if it requires them to spend less time working on the sound properties of their music. Improvement may start with increasing awareness of muscular tension and postural habits and can soon involve the deliberate insertion of certain body gestures into performance.

Studies of expert music performers have shown that their expressive visual cues tend to coincide with the times in their performance when their sound properties are most expressive (Davidson, 2005). In other words, when they intend to be most communicative sound-wise—i.e., with expressive features of loudness, tempo, and articulation—they essentially signal it with their face or body, as if to say “Now listen carefully to this.”

It is probably a good thing that they do this, because some musicians may practice their performance to such a subtle level of polish and nuance that their expressivity is becoming virtually undetectable to typical audience ears. This may be one of those situations in which musicians are wise to not trust their own judgment. In fact, their musical self-perception can be undermined by two factors: (1) their aural perception has been honed to a level of sensitivity and acuity far beyond what most people in their audience are capable of, and (2) their knowledge of their expressive intentions can bias their perception such that they think the expressivity has been inserted into the sound properties of their performance when in reality it hasn’t (Woody, 2003) (for more on this troublesome phenomenon consider checking out my previous post "Do You Hear What I Hear").

I routinely advise developing music performers to not aspire to subtlety, nuance and “polish” but rather to focus on clear communication through easily perceived—even “exaggerated”—expressive sound properties. Although some musical traditionalists may object to expressive performance being anything but an intuitive act fueled by in-the-moment emotionalism, research has shown that the real phenomena present in expressive musical communication are decidedly cognitive. Deliberateness and consciousness facilitate effective communication through music. Instead of trusting that their emotional intentions will naturally and automatically be perceived by listeners, performing musicians often are better off having a clear plan for translating the intended feelings and emotions into the sound properties of which music is made.


Davidson, J. W. (1993). Visual perception of performance manner in the movements of solo musicians. Psychology of Music, 21, 103-113.

Davidson, J. W. (2005). Bodily communication in musical performance. In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. J. Hargreaves (Eds.), Musical communication (pp. 215-237).

Ekman P. (2004) Emotional and Conversational Nonverbal Signals. In: Larrazabal J.M., Miranda L.A.P. (eds) Language, Knowledge, and Representation. Philosophical Studies Series, vol 99. New York: Springer.

Feldman, R. S., & Tyler, J. M. (2006). Factoring in age: Nonverbal communication across the life span. In V. Manusov & M. L. Patterson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of nonverbal communication (pp. 181–199). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Juslin, P. N., Friberg, A., Schoonderwaldt, E., & Karlsson, J. (2004). Feedback learning of musical expressivity. In A. Williamon (Ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques for enhancing performance (pp. 247-270). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N., & Persson, R. S. (2002). Emotional communication. In In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning (pp. 219-236). New York: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N., & Timmers, R. (2010). Expression and communication of emotion in music performance. In P. N. Justin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 453-489). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Malloch, S. (1999/2000). Mothers and infants and communicative musicality. Musicæ Scientiæ (Special issue on rhythm, musical narrative, and origins of human communication), 29-57.

Williamson, V. (2009). In search of the language of music. The Psychologist, 22(12), 1022-1025.

Woody, R. H. (2003). Explaining expressive performance: Component cognitive skills in an aural modeling task. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(1), 51-63.

Woody, R. H. (2006). Musician’s cognitive processing of imagery-based instructions for expressive performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(2), 125-137.