Robert Estrin - piano expert

Interpretation in Classical Scores

Learn how to interpret classical music

In this video, Robert talks about how much "room" the musician has in interpreting classical music, which is usually already very detailed in dynamics and other musical indications.

Released on March 15, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin here with a viewer question. And this is such a great question. I'm really happy to share it with you and welcome your comments.

David asks, "Since classical music scores are so detailed with dynamics, where's the room for interpretation? Outside of changing the tempo, how can a classically trained pianist perform the same piece over and over again and not make it sound exactly the same?"

Well, this is a terrific question, not just for pianists, but for all musicians. After all, classical music is all written out. And here, many people say, "Boy, I want to try to make this just the way the composer intended." Well, there's a lot to this question.

First of all, just imagine Beethoven, for example, sitting down to play one of his famous sonatas, his Moonlight Sonata or one of his other monumental works. Do you think Beethoven would've played the pieces the same every single time? I can tell you from personal experiences, there are pieces that I've learned decades ago that I've played hundreds, some pieces, indeed, thousands of times before. And yet, if I were to sit down right now and perform one of those works, it would be a unique performance, unlike any I have ever done before. Well, how is this possible?

Well, here's the thing. You might wonder since the notes and the rhythm and the expression are all written in, what else is there? Well, a tremendous amount. Let me give you an analogy so you can get your head around this.

There are some works of art that are complete expressions, for example, a painting like the Mona Lisa, or a sculpture like The David. They exist and they are finished works of art that you can appreciate. Now, of course, the presentation, the lighting, there's a certain amount one can do with it. But it is a completed work of art.

Now, to contrast that, consider the works of Shakespeare. Now, you can certainly read a Shakespeare play and get a lot out of it. But it really isn't until a production is done, with all the direction and acting, the staging, the costuming that it comes to life. And indeed, one production of a Shakespeare play can be dramatically different from another.

Well, a musical performance is much the same. After all, while you might think that you have everything written in there, how to approach the balance of one chord on the piano, for example, can be dramatically different. You might have some dynamics, but how to play each note within a phrase, it's impossible to quantify with notation.

If you've ever listened to a musical performance of one that is entered with MIDI, Musical Instrument Digital Interface, that standard, you can get an exact scores replicated and so you can hear it.

And so it sounds like a machine. You see, the score is really a skeleton of the work. As a performer, it's our job to flesh out the work and bring it to life. There are no two people who are going to do this the same, and even the same performer will approach a work in different ways.

Now, why is this? Well, there are many, many reasons. First of all, there's obvious things. As an instrumentalist, if you're a reed player, one day you'll have a reed that's harder or easier, it will lend itself to a different type of performance. On the piano, the piano will have a different sound. Even the acoustics of the hall and the audience and how much ambient noise they're making is going to determine how you approach a work to be able to engage an audience to listen to it.

More than that, there's a different frame of mind that you have every time you approach a piece of music. It's like revisiting an old friend. Or if you've ever watched a sunset, no two sunsets are the same. You might go to the exact same spot, and it's a new experience just being with different people, just like your audience is always different.

So, these are great questions and it comes into the whole idea of what a musical performance is with a classical score.
There's much more there in variety than you could ever believe. And to prove this, go on to YouTube or other musical sources, and take a famous piece of music, like the Moonlight Sonata, or any great work that you're familiar with and listen to two, three, four, or even five different performances, and you will not believe the variety of interpretations and expression that's possible with a great composition.

Thanks so much for the great question, David and all of you. I'm Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Richard on July 21, 2022 @7:05 pm PST
I am not the greatest instrumentalist nor vocalist, but i have always played/sung any piece in my repertoire many different ways. I have always considered that, Art. To do otherwise would not be, Art. Thanks, Robert!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2019 @8:34 pm PST
I've always taken the view that the indications in a classical score, such as tempo, dynamics, etc., were but suggestions or guidelines, and that they were not to be meant to be slavishly followed or slavishly attempted to be followed.
Robert - host, on February 14, 2019 @12:35 pm PST
I'm with you. It's more important to make a convincing performance than to necessarily be literal. You have to follow your inclinations with conviction. That's what makes a compelling performance.
Michael Prozonic * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2019 @1:48 pm PST
The famous conductor Benjamin Zander has quite a few videos in which he works directly with different musicians to develop and interpret classical works on their instrument and they are very informative. My favorite example of interpretation though is when he conducts Beethoven’s 5th with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas at the tempo he believes is what the composer intended. It is quite different and very exciting.;t=583s
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 13, 2019 @4:20 pm PST
Great video Michael, thank you for sharing it! I completely see your point and agree )
Bluegrassberndte * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2019 @8:59 am PST
Hi Robert, thank you very much for your tips. They are very helpful for me, because since last week I'm trying to play "Air on the G string" from Johann Sebastian Bach on my Banjo. Now it would be easier to make an interpretation. With best regards.
Robert - host, on February 14, 2019 @3:00 pm PST
Just curious if you are playing it on one string on the banjo!
Bluegrassberndte * VSM MEMBER * on February 14, 2019 @11:16 pm PST
Hi Robert, this is the 2nd part in the Orchestersuite no. 3, BWV 1068. With best regards. There is a good video from the great guitarplayer Kevin Loh on youtube.
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