Means Of Musical Expression

I have said that music is first a conception of the mind and afterwards an expression in sound, first ideal, and afterwards formal. Expression means literally pressing out, that is, giving objective form to subjective ideas. In technical sense, expression means a lively or vivid representation of meaning, sentiment, or feeling; significant and impressive indication, whether by language, appearance, or gesture; that manner or style which gives life and suggestive force to ideas and sentiments. In music, according to Stainer and Barret, it means the power or act of rendering music so as to make it the vehicle of deep and pure emotion; the spirit of music as opposed to the mere mechanical production of sound. In rendering works of a higher class, a true expression involves the merging of the artist’s personality in an enthusiastic effort to carry out to the highest extent the fullest meaning of the composer. In whatever sense used, expression means fundamentally the act of giving outward form to mental conceptions.

Music as a language employs certain symbols, such as lines, spaces, clefs, notes, rests, bars, accent marks, etc., by the use of which the soul’s ideas and emotions are translated into sensuous forms. Our present inquiry is, What are the means by which this expression of the soul’s conceptions is effected and by which the soul gains experience of the sounds and symbols employed in music? To serve as a medium of communication between the inner and the outer worlds the Creator has given us a nervous system, suited to the offices it is intended to perform.

The Nervous System. The nervous system is the mystic borderland between the realms of the spiritual soul and the physical universe. What strange messages pass back and forth over this dim borderland region! Jacob, in his beautiful vision, saw angels ascending and descending and from the top of the ladder he heard communications from the Lord. What the ladder was in the patriarch’s dream, the nervous system is in our psychic life, namely, the medium of communication between the spiritual and the material. Through the nervous system the various phenomena of the outer world find an inlet to the soul, and the ideas, emotions and volitions of the soul have an outlet into the physical world.

The nervous system is a wonderful mechanism, whether viewed in regard to the construction and adaptation of its several parts, the delicacy of its reactions, or the perfection and variety of its offices.

The Cerebro Spinal Axis. The nervous system consists of two main parts, the cerebra spinal axis and the sympathetic or ganglionic system. The cerebrospinal axis is divided into the brain, the spinal cord, and the nerves. Foremost in importance is the brain, a large mass of nervous matter which fills the cavity of the skull, with an average weight of about 49 ounces, the maximum being 64 and the minimum 20, ounces. It is divided vertically into two lobes or hemispheres by means of a medial septum of white fibrous matter, which in the center and lower parts serves to bind the two hemispheres firmly together. The surface of the hemispheres is composed of gray cellular matter, arranged in irregular groups, giving rise to the so-called convolutions of the brain, which vary greatly in depth and complexity in different states of life.

Four divisions of the brain are distinguished: the cerebrum, by far the largest part, occupying the upper and front portion, being also the highest in function ; beneath and behind this, is the cerebellum, or little brain; while below and overshadowed by the upper lobes are seen in order the pons varolii and the medulla oblongata.

The downward continuation of the medulla oblongata from its point of emergence through the foramen magnum in the lower part of the occipital bone, is called the spinal cord which is contained within a kind of tube in the spinal column and extends the whole length of the column. From the spinal cord radiate numerous smaller trunks of nerve fibres called simply nerves.

The nerves are given off from the spinal cord in pairs, one on each side, numbering in all 31 pairs, grouped into, counting from above, “cervical” (8), “thoracic” (12), “lumbar” (5), “sacral” (5), “coccygeal” (1). Each nerve arises from the side of the cord by two roots, anterior and posterior, the anterior being composed of motor nerve-fibres, and the posterior of sensory nerve fibres. The spinal nerves are not single fibres, but bundles of very many smaller fibres bound together by connective tissue and surrounded by a membranous sheath called neurolemma. The nerve fibres are exceedingly small and delicate, the medullated varying from 1/1500 1/3000 to inch in diameter, and the nonmedullated variety from 1/6000 to 1/6000 inch in diameter, the finest fibres in the nerves of special sense, in some instances being only 1/100000 inch in diameter.

The nerves are classified into motor and sensory,the former carrying the commands of the will or the inner impulses of the soul outward to the muscles, giving rise to the various movements of the body and bodily organs, the latter conveying the stimulations of the nervous end organs inward to the inferior centres and finally to the brain, giving rise to sensations. The peripheral ends of the nerves are distributed all over the surface of the body, but not everywhere in equal numbers, being most numerous in those parts of the skin which are most sensitive, such as the forehead, cheeks, nose, lips, finger tips, etc. It is farther observed that the surface distribution occurs in groups or spots, e. g., temperature spots, pressure spots, pain spots etc.

The Sympathetic System is composed of several distinctly marked groups of nervous ganglia connected by nerve-fibres, resembling somewhat a string of beads. The following groups may be particularized: first, a double string of ganglia, one on each side of the spinal column; secondly, three groups in the cavity of the thorax and abdomen, viz., one at the base of the heart, another in the upper part of the abdominal cavity, and a third in front of the last lumbar vertebra; thirdly, some smaller groups widely distributed over the body, especially in connection with the veins and arteries.

From this arrangement it would appear that the sympathetic system serves to connect the various organs of the body with each other and all of them with the cerebro spinal system, thus bringing every part of the entire complex organism into complete harmony it serves as a bond between the sensations, emotions, and ideas of the brain and those organs in the chest and abdomen whose condition is so closely related to the various psychic states, e. g., the organs of circulation and respiration. The student’s special attention is called to this mechanism, since it affords a convenient physiological basis for the explanation of many a psychic phenomenon and of many other things of great value to the musician.

Nervous End Organs. Examining the peripheral ends of the nerves more closely, we find that the nerves do not terminate abruptly, but end in a peculiar kind of mechanism, varying in different parts of the body, in size, structure and delicacy according to the offices they have to perform. These structures are known as end organs. Among these, especially prominent and important are the end organs of the five special senses, viz., sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The end organ of the optic nerve is the eye.

The Eye. The human eye is a wonderfully complex organ and made with the most admirable skill, illustrating the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator. It is globular in shape and fits snugly into a cavity in the anterior portion of the skull, where it is protected from injury by several accessory parts. Its outer walls are composed of three concentric layers, called respectively the sclerotica, choroid coat, and retina. The sclerotic coat is on the outside, a firm opaque substance, white in color, the “white of the eye” being the anterior part of it. In front a transparent, horny, highly convex part, called the cornea, is inserted into the sclerotica, just as a watch crystal is set into its rim. Next to the sclerotic coat is a pigment layer, called the choroid coat. Inside of this is spread out the retina, which is but an expansion of the optic nerve after its entrance into the eye ball through an opening in the rear portion of the sclerotica. The space inclosed by the walls of the eyeball is occupied by the aqueous and vitreous humors, the crystalline lens, and the iris. The iris is a kind of varicolored curtain dropped down in front of the lens, having a circular aperture in the centre, called the pupil. The lens, together with the humors, the ciliary processes, the suspensory ligaments, and certain very delicate muscles constitute the focusing and refracting apparatus. Instead of shifting the position of the lens as in focusing a camera obscura, the accommodation of the eye to varying distances is accomplished by changing the convexity of the lens by means of certain muscles.

The retina is the most important part of the eye, for it is in this that the seeing process takes place. Its microscopic structure reveals ten different layers. The fibres of the optic nerve having pierced the sclerotic shell, spread out radially in a thin film over the inside surface of the choroid coat, ending in the layer of rods and cones, which, it is believed, are the specific organs for taking up the influence of the light waves. For further details the student is referred to some good textbook on physiology, e. g., Martin’s “Human Body.”

Eye Culture. Though the mechanism of the eye is perfect in itself, the art of seeing must be learned the child by trial and by slow degrees must acquire the right use of its eyes. Also, the adult eye may be indefinitely cultivated in delicacy and accuracy of vision,as well as in other respects. The importance of eye culture can not be overestimated. When we remember that by means of the eye we gain by far the greatest quantity and also the best quality of our knowledge of the outside world, that through the “windows of the soul,” as the eyes have been called, a person’s true character shines forth, that the eye is a powerful instrument of the will and an essential medium of expression, we can judge how important it is to every person in general and to every artist in particular to cultivate the art of seeing aright.

Our eyes were given us to be used in seeing things and seeing them correctly. It is a reproach if “we have eyes to see, and see not,” or “seeing, but do not perceive.” We should learn to see the things that are useful and good and beautiful in the great world about us, for in them the thoughts of the Divine are incarnated. Some one has said, “that all things are made of thought.” The poem is thought expressed in words; the grand cathedral is stored up thought expressed in stone; the famous picture is thought expressed in shades and colors; the great statue is thought expressed in marble or bronze; the charming musical production is stored up thought expressed in notes and sounds; the works of nature are the stored up thoughts of the Creator expressed in mountain and valley, in the dewdrop and the glowing sunset, in the rose bud and the lilycup, in the babbling brook and the tumultuous waves of the sea, in the quiet sunshine of day and the brilliant stars of the midnight sky, in the mineral crystal and the sculptured snowflake, in the forest and in the ponderous globes of space all beautiful and interesting things made up of divine thoughts, everywhere appealing to our admiration and inviting our study, in observing which we think after Him the thoughts of their glorious Creator.

The Ear. The organ of hearing is composed of the outer ear, the middle ear, and the internal ear. The outer ear is made up, first, of the conch, a kind of funnel shaped, movable, cartilaginous body located on the side of the head, whose office seems to be to collect the sound waves and start them inward towards the brain; secondly, the external meatus, a tube like prolongation of the conch a contrivance similar to the ear trumpet; and thirdly, the drum head, a conical membrane, stretched across the auditory canal, called the membrana tympani, or head of the drum.

The middle ear extends from the tympanic membrane to the vestibule of the internal ear. The cavity of the drum or tympanum, as it is sometimes called, contains a chain of three small bones called respectively, on account of their shape, the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup. The office of these small bones seems to be to transmit sound vibrations and perhaps act as dampers, similar to the dampers of the piano forte. From the lower side of the tympanic cavity proceeds a small tube, called the Eustachian tube, which opens into the pharynx, i. é., the upper and rear part of the mouth. This serves the purpose of regulating the varying atmospheric pressure upon the tympanic membrane. The general office of the middle ear is to transmit the sound waves on their way to the brain and to modify these vibrations so as to prepare them to act as stimuli on the sensitive nerve filaments in the internal ear.

The internal ear or labyrinth occupies a cavity in the petrous portion of the temporal bone, said to be the only completely ossified part of the skeleton at the time of birth. It consists of three divisions, the vestibule, the semicircular canals, and the cochlea. The vestibule is. a kind of antechamber through which access is gained to the other two compartments. The semicircular canals, three in number, are situated back of the vestibule. They are about one inch long and of an inch in diameter, and contain a fluid which performs an important office in the transmission of the sound waves. The function of the canals is not fully understood. Some have thought that they are the organs for perceiving noises. This theory rests on a fallacious view of the nature and cause of noises, and so must be rejected. Evidently we hear noises and tones with the same organ and so we do not need a special organ for perceiving noises. Generically noises and tones are not different, the one by degrees shading into the other. Another theory is that the canals together with the vestibule are an apparatus for maintaining the equilibrium of the body and for estimating position in space.

The cochlea, so, called from its shape resembling that of the snail shell, contains the true organ of hearing, the other parts being only accessory. It winds 2% times around a central axis (modiolus), like a spiral staircase. The basilar membrane, which in a way corresponds to the carpet spread out on a spiral staircase, consists of a wonderful arrangement of cells, called the organ of Corti. The rods and fibres of Corti, 6,000 or 8,000 in number, are arranged in rows on the basilar membrane, like the keys of a piano forte. These rods increase in length from the base to the apex of the cochlea. The fibres are perhaps the supporting bases of the hair cells, 20,000 or more in number. “The hair cells,” says Prof. James, “would thus seem to be the terminal organs for picking up the vibrations which the airwaves communicate through all the intervening apparatus, solid and liquid, to the basilar membrane.”

Here we see an apparatus fashioned on the plan of the harp, a harp, not of a thousand, but of ten thousand, strings. This is the wonderful instrument by means of which we are able to hear and to discriminate the great variety of sounds that come in from the outer world. How it works is not so well understood. Our knowledge of the subject in the present stage of scientific investigation, indeed, is very unsatisfactory. Says Hensen: “It is possible that the working of this apparatus may be altogether different from any of our present conjectures.” Understanding the mechanism of the ear and calling to our aid the principle of sympathetic vibration and the laws of harmonics so ably unfolded by Helmholtz, we can explain with tolerable satisfaction the process of perceiving and analyzing the various sounds that reach the nerve filaments in the inner ear.

Range of the Human Ear. It is estimated that we can hear about 11,000 different tones. The range of the average human ear is about nine octaves of pitch, that is, from about A2 of the subcontra octave (27% vibrations, German scale) to above c’ of the seventimes marked octave (16,896 vibrations). Preyer makes the lower limit of audibility 16 vibrations per second; Helmholtz, 34 vibrations for the lowest musical tone. Tuning forks making 28 vibrations per second may be heard as a low droning sound. For most ears, 28 to 32 vibrations make a buzzing,groaning sound. The upper limit of audibility varies greatly, being from 20,000 to 22,000 vibrations per second for the majority of ears. Some ears can perceive sounds made by 30,000 to 40,000, and very sensitive ears, as many as 50,000 vibrations per second.

Ears differ greatly also in the ability to distinguish very slight variations in pitch. Trained ears can distinguish, differences of 3 or X of a single vibration, namely, in the range most easily covered by the human voice (c1 to c3). Where the piano gives only 24 notes, the ear can distinguish 3,000. In the upper limits of the scale (e. g., above e5) well trained ears can distinguish notes differing by 100 or even by 1,000 vibrations per second.

It is to be noted that the capacity of the ear, is vastly greater than that of the human voice. The pitch of the voice in singing is usually between 87 and 778 vibrations per second (i. e., from the deep F of the bass singer to the upper G of the treble singer). Christine Nilsson’s voice is said to have reached 1,365 vibrations, which corresponds to f3, on the basis of 256 double vibrations for middle C.

Beyond about 36,000, or possibly 50,000 vibrations per second the ear cannot tell us anything of what happens in the vibrating body; nor can any other sense give us the desired information. There is simply a blank in our sense experience until we come to about 18,000,000 vibrations of ether per second, when we get a sensation of heat, a temperature far below dull red. From the limit of lowest perceptible heat up to red heat, i. e., luminosity, there is an enormous leap of 471,982,000,000 vibrations. As we pass upward from the red end of the spectrum the vibrations rapidly increase until we come to the extreme limit of the violet which is represented by 733,000,000,000 vibrations per second. Beyond this limit the vibrations are so rapid that neither the ear nor any other sense can take them up, and again there is a blank.

The Art of Hearing. As in the case of the eye, so with the ear, the proper use of it must be learned. The new-born child must learn the art of hearing. This art has both its physiological and its psychological side. On the one hand, must be learned the accommodation of the physiological organism to the physical wave impulses that stream into the inner ear; on the other hand, must be learned the translation and interpretation of the external impulses into sensations, conceptions, ideas, emotions, and volitions of conscious experience. The child has everything to learn that pertains to the vast world of sounds. The adult ear also has much to learn, for it is true of all of us that “having ears, we hear not.” There are innumerable sounds all about us which our dull ears fail to perceive. There is enrapturing music in the air, there is the “music of the spheres” which sing as they move majestically in the depths of space, yet our gross ears hear it not.

“There’s music in the sighing of the reed; There’s music in the gushing of a rill; There’s music in all things, if men had ears: The earth is but an echo of the spheres.”

BYRON, Don Juan.

“Music is in all growing things; And underneath the silky wings Of smallest insect there is stirred A pulse of air that must be heard; Earth’s silence lives, and throbs, and sings.”

LATHROP, “Music of Growth”.

“The rustle of the leaves in summer’s hush When wandering breezes touch them, and the sigh That filters through the forest, or the gush That swells and sinks amid the branches high, Tis all the music of the wind, etc.”


Truly, there is music everywhere, but, oh, these dull and heavy ears! Our ears were given us to hear, and therefore we should cultivate them to do what they were designed to do.

We Must Learn to Listen. No other class of people have so much need of cultivating their ears as music students and the best way to do this is to attend to sounds of all kinds and diligently learn to listen. The true way of beginning a musical education is, not by drumming on the piano or mechanically repeating the notes of the scale, but by learning to listen aright. Robert Schumann begins his list of sixty-eight rules for young musicians by saying that we should take particular notice of the tones about . us. He continues: “The cultivation of the ear is of the greatest importance. Endeavor early to distinguish each tone and key. Find out the exact tone sounded by the bell, the glass, and the cuckoo.” That is a very good rule; if we follow it day after day, we shall see how many are the tones about us which we scarcely ever notice. It is important to listen attentively to the scale tones, in order to become familiar with each separate tone. In this way we are able to form a clear conception not only of the various tones themselves but also of their relation one to another. We must think the separate tones clearly and sharply so as to realize just how each one sounds in the scale, and what it signifies. All this is a severe mental exercise, but it yields the best of results. Ear training is thus a process of mind training, and such on psychological principles it ought to be.

Schumann says, “We should learn to refine the inner ear;” but refining the inner ear means training the mind to interpret aright the sound impulses that come to the brain through the outer ear. It means further to cultivate the mind’s power to form clear and accurate conceptions of the tones which the outer ear reports, to judge correctly concerning them, and to develop the power of thought. Thus eartraining is of the very first importance in a musical education. The music student needs to learn first and last to think music; without this, he can never be a musician. This is a great principle which psychology seeks to inculcate. Simply to confine the pupil to notes and neglecting to do anything that will incite him to listen clearly and sharply and to form for himself ‘ a mental image of that which he hears is to proceed contrary to the principles of mind and so to do the pupil great harm.

The prevailing methods of studying and teaching music are radically wrong. Instead of training the inner ear and refining it we make it more dull; instead of cultivating the, habit of listening, we do just the opposite. Instead of forming correct habits which will aid the pupil in his progress and make his work easy and pleasant, he forms bad habits which will be a hindrance to him at every step on the way and make his muscles and nerves his enemies, instead of obedient helpers.

Mr. Tapper has very truthfully said: “One of the quickest ways to become unable to hear sounds correctly is to play the piano without thinking fully of what we are doing. Therefore it must be a rule never to play a tone without listening accurately to it … No rule can exceed in importance this one, never to make any music unthinkingly.” We should “listen as if listening were our life.” And indeed it is a large and very important part of our cultivated life, our higher music life.

And what a wonderful tone-world this is in which we live! What a world of music is round about us! What variety, what wealth of tones! The rustling of the leaves, the sighing of the breezes in the pine needles, the chirping of insects, the twittering of birds, the bleating of lambs, the lowing of cattle, the neighing of horses, the crowing and cackling of barnyard fowls, the croaking of frogs, the hooting of the owl, the barking of the watch dog, the drumming of the pheasant, the cooing of doves, the lonely piping of the cuckoo, the murmuring of the shady brooklet in its forest solitude, the dashing cataract, the roaring of the sea, the whining and whistling of the winds in the cordage and rigging of the vessel, the roll and crash of thunder, the wild fury of the tempest, the rumbling of wheels in the street, the tramp, tramp of horses’ feet, the quaint cries of the fruit and vegetable venders, the clang of bells, the shrill scream of the steam whistle, the sound of saw and hammer, the puffing of engines, the hum of machinery, the report of guns, the buzzing of bees, and when the myriad sounds of busy life and of industry have died away and you stand alone under the canopy of heaven in the silence of midnight, then listen, and you shall hear a wonderful wealth of sounds issuing forth out of the regions of silence listen, and you shall hear things which the eye has not seen nor the outward ear heard, voices of the unheard and unseen, whispers of eternity, throbbings of the great world soul listen to all this infinite variety of tones, and you have the materials for your arias, your sonatas, your symphonies, your oratorios.

What is it to Listen? To listen is to give undivided attention to what is heard, to bend, and hold the thought upon the sounds that come in through the outer ear, to concentrate our mental energy upon our sound sensations. Listening is thus a mode of thought concentration. If we would learn to listen correctly we must form the habit of thinking intently, of fixing the mind upon the sounds that come into the ear. The music student cannot make substantial progress in his work without earnest and persistent study. Mere finger exercises cannot be a substitute for study. Practice, indeed, makes perfect, but it must be intelligent practice, and in nothing more so than in music. What relation is there between the musical concepts in the mind and the tones produced by the piano? “The piano is a photographic camera, making for us a picture of what we have written, a camera so subtle indeed, that it pictures not things we can see and touch, but invisible things which exist only within us” (Tapper).

But we must not presume to make the piano think for us, as some unfortunately too often do. Instead of looking carefully through the pages of their new music, reading and understanding it with the mind, they run to the piano and with such playing skill as they have they use their hands instead of their mind. This is wrong, and does much harm to the student. Before the hands and fingers can do their best work there must be intelligence behind them to guide and make effective every movement. The more knowledge we have, the greater the skill and power of our hands.

So, then, the music student must study diligently, not only his immediate subject, but as many other subjects of general knowledge as possible. Thus will his mind come in contact with great thoughts, and his whole being will be filled up with power. Thus will he widen and deepen his culture, he will become acquainted with the best and greatest things in the world, and the tone of his life will be correspondingly elevated.

When we study great music we come in contact with great thoughts, just as when we read a great poem, look at a famous picture, behold a magnificent building, etc., for all the great works of art are stored up thought. As the placid mountain lake reflects only what is above it, so the works of the great musicians reflect only those great and lofty thoughts which stand high above the plain of common things and afford perpetual delight and inspiration to sympathetic souls. Thus, when we have gained some understanding and appreciation of music by diligent study, we not only think about what we play and hear, but we begin to inquire what thought the composition contains and what meanings, what lessons of life and duty it conveys to us. Thus we begin to listen with the inner ear to the beautiful thought forms that filled the composer’s mind. From the mechanical performance, from mere technique, we have risen into the higher regions of expression and interpretation. All this, and more too, is what comes from learning to listen and from cultivating both the inner and the outer ear.

Of the other senses and sense-organs, namely, taste, smell, and touch, little needs here be said. Touch excepted, they are of secondary importance to the musician.

Looking at the nervous system as a whole, we see here a mechanism admirably adapted for receiving and transmitting impulses from without to the soul within, and for giving expression to the conceptions, emotions, and volitions of the soul by means of the various muscular movements. The health and training of the nervous system are of the highest importance to the musician, and should therefore receive his constant and serious attention. No one has greater need than the musician of sound and well trained nerves that are ever ready to do the bidding of his will, to respond promptly and accurately to every solicitation from the outer world as well as from his inner world of thoughts and feelings nerves that are truly the servants of his will, and in friendly alliance with himself.