What is an interpretation?

An interpretation is a rendering of a musical score for an audience. Four key elements in interpretation is reading, playing, performing and history of interpretation.

1. Reading the score

To read a score, one must know about notation and its realization, since “a score always under-determine the full sonic of any performance” (Davies, S., & Sadie, S.  Interpretation. Grove Music Online. 2022). Further, one might suggest that a stronger insight into this field (composition, style, historical insight etc.) might qualify for a better reading and accordingly rendering. Some might even suggest that the score is only a placeholder for the music. That the music is something else, and this something else must be understood for the music to be performed (more about this here). The rendering of the score should reflect the performers personal reading of the score. There is no exclusively right way of reading the score, on the other hand, a reading that is going against the notation could be judged as wrong – but more about this in relation to the history of interpretation. 

Reading a score is often debated in relation to the performance practice at the time it was written (listen to Leech-Wilkinson talking about policing in performance), but reading the score could just as well be a question about finding or creating meaning, expression or emotions in the score – especially when the intentions of the composition is unknown. In this way the music will show a personal understanding grounded in the present. See an example of this here.

2. Playing the score

A classical musician is someone how can play a musical score. A musician might play more interesting be course of personal qualifications. Training will improve physical capabilities in relation to precision, egality, agility, …, but also experience, knowledge, emotional and analytical competences will reflect on a musician’s interpretation. No matter how skillful a musician is, there is always a limit to the skills. Musicians, in general, use imitation as a basic tool for learning, but still a musician have a very hard time copying another musician’s performance in detail. It is therefore also quite easy for most musicians to find or imagine an interpretation that he or she cannot perform.

One way the personal skills could show themselves, could be through an audible identity in a performance (as a blueprint of the human playing). This is however very difficult (try it out here). For an example of a musicians successfully imitating another see Chasing the Butterfly.

3. Performing the score

A performance is about adapting to a hall, a situation, making an appearance that is captivating for the audience. A concert might therefore improve by a better use of program notes, lightening, acoustic reflection, adapting the program to a now, visual appearance, body language and more.

There seems to be an idea about classical music as being primary sound, and because of this performance, as making an appearance in a context, is often seen as of less importance to the experience. But studies like Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance (Tsay 2013) shows that this is an illusion.

4. The history of interpretation

The history of interpretation falls into a before and after the invention of recording. Our knowledge about interpretation before 1900 is very limited. Recordings tells us, that, within the tradition of interpretation, it is not necessary to follow the dynamic, phrasings, articulations literally in a musical score, and that musicians always adds fluctuations to the notation of tempo, dynamics, articulation, etc. This is of course in conflict with the earlier statement about, disregarding an interpretation that do not hold up to the information’s in the score. Recordings also tells us how much interpretation has changed over time. What in the beginning of the 20th century was a “natural” phrasing, sounds today strange or even “unmusical” – including when composers like Debussy or Grieg plays the music by themselves. More than hundred years of recording document fashions within interpretation. 

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (1962): The girl with the flaxen hair (Debussy)

Debussy (1862-1918): The girl with the flaxen hair (Debussy)