How to Discover Your Musical Signature

musicianship May 01, 2016

What is your musical signature? Maybe you've never given it any thought, but I can assure you that you have one. So how do you find it, or refine, or even define it?

Handwritten signatures are special. I remember practicing mine when I was a teenager, mostly when I was doodling during class. What did I want it to look like? I experimented with slanting my letters to the right and to the left, tested versions that were very feminine or strikingly bold. I tried making it legible or just a scrawl. It seemed an important thing to test. My signature was me on paper.

Signatures are powerful. Have you ever been surprised by the signature of a famous person that seems to contradict their public persona and consequently had a shift in your opinion of them? Or maybe you've experienced, as I have, the sharp emotions evoked when you see the signature of a long-departed family member or friend.

Just as your written signature is your individuality on paper, your musical signature is your individuality expressed through music. Others hear it in the music you choose and the way you play it.

Think about your favorite musical performer. What is it about that person's playing that draws you in, that creates that deep connection? It's something that goes beyond the caliber or correctness of their performance. It's their distinctive personality that their music expresses.

But you don't have to be a world-class performer to have a musical signature. Actually, you already have one, whether you know it or not. And there are 2 compelling reasons why you should spend some time discovering yours.

First, you will be able to be more expressive in your playing. Musical expression is an extension of ourselves, and when we allow the expression to come from within, instead of being superimposed on top, our musicality is more natural and more free.

Second, you will enjoy your music more. You will make wise choices about the music you play and how you play it. It's like knowing your favorite colors or flavors of ice cream. You may like lots of different ones, but your favorite ones bring a little more sunshine to your day. Its the same with music; music that is "SO you" is easier to play, learn and remember.

Ready to discover your musical signature? Here are 3 areas to explore.

1. Your sound.  Your tone is your musical fingerprint, your most distinguishing characteristic, your voice. If you have been playing for a long time you already have a developed sound. Listen to it. Close your eyes while you play some scales and exercises. What words would you use to describe your sound? Is it the sound you want to make? Are there changes you want to try?

If you are a newer player, this is your chance to start consciously developing your sound. Listen to some recordings. Are there players whose sound you particularly admire?  How would describe their tone in words. You can ask your teacher for ideas to create the sound you want.

2. Your repertoire.  What music do you love to play? We all have music we are drawn to, as well as music that doesn't especially appeal to us. Is there a genre, a composer, a nationality or historical period that speaks to you? Make 2 lists, one of music styles, pieces and composers that you love, and another of of those that you truly don't care for.  Avoid the middle ground - be definite and assertive.  You might find it easier to ask yourself this question: "What piece of music or type of music could I play today and be happy?" And the reverse question: "What piece of music would I never willingly spend money on?"

That first list - the music that you love - is where your personal repertoire will come from, and your repertoire is part of your signature.

3. Your personality.  Music is an expression of who we are as people.  So it follows that your musical signature will be a reflection of you. The music you choose to play and how you play it will be an extension of who you are. Compare performances of the same piece by different performers. What inferences might  you make about each one personally from  the way they play the piece? A bold, dashing performance may give you the sense that the player is a risk-taker, a forceful person. A more nuanced, thoughtful rendition might give the impression of a deep, sensitive soul.

Of course, your impressions may not be correct, but you can see how personality shows in a performer's playing.  How do you sense your personality revealing itself in your music? Is there music that aligns more easily, more naturally than other music with your style?

Exploring these "signature" elements will lead you to be more expressive in your playing, help you develop your repertoire, and make playing music more enjoyable. Your musical signature will be you

Challenge: in 3 words, describe your musical signature in the comments below.

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