Sound, Movement and Expression in Music

by Tim Lane

When a musician asks for help in developing their musicianship, they are most often directed to listen to renowned performers and performances. I remember hearing an interview with William Bennett who commented that (I paraphrase), “Our listening abilities determine the boundaries of our musical skills”. There is no doubt that one’s musical abilities can be improved by listening to wonderful performances.

I would add that knowing what to listen for, and knowing how we listen to music also helps us to improve our musicianship.  

It is quite common to use motion-related and spatially-oriented terminology when speaking about what we hear when we listen to music. We often describe music as “having a direction” that “leads towards” a particular goal or a group of goals. Our descriptions of intervals and musical lines can be likened to a description of a topographical map that is read at varying speeds: they can jump, leap, hurry, move smoothly, move abruptly, stretch, build in momentum, rise and fall, hold back, move up or down, speed up or slow down, turn, and change direction. 

When teaching “gesture” in music, statements and questions such as “follow the line,” “where is this phrase going,” “do something,” “what is the shape of this phrase,” “where is the high point of the phrase,” and “how are these phrases and/or phrase-parts connected” and their like are quite common.  In fact, it is very hard to speak of expression in music without using, to some extent, motion-related and spatially-oriented terminology.  

We use motion-related and spatially-oriented terminology when describing changes in music because that is what those changes sound like. Our ears cannot tell the difference between a stationary sound source that changes its production levels and a moving sound source whose production levels remain constant. Approaching sounds and ‘stationary sound-sources whose production levels are increasing’ both become clearer, louder and more specific. Receding sounds and ‘stationary sound-sources whose production levels are decreasing’ both become less clear, softer and less specific. 

Stationary sound-sources and ‘sound-sources whose production levels remain constant’ do not change at all. Because stationary sound-source changes mimic changes in sound that occur when a constant sound source moves through space, it is inevitable that we correlate changes in music with changes in spatial relationships.

Our responses to sound changes in music can also be spatially correlated. Generally speaking, our attention and tension levels increase when we hear approaching sounds, and they decrease when we hear sounds that are receding away from us. Stationary sounds, after they are initially noted, do not demand much of our attention.

Visualizing sound as movement in space

Because of the correlations between sound-changes and spatial relationships, hearing experiences can be represented graphically or through body movement. Creating energetic line drawings or topographical music maps in order to visually “describe” what we are experiencing as we listen to music is one way that we can enhance our listening skills.

Approaching, Receding and Holding 

1. Within a circumscribed time and space, listen for all of the sound changes that occur and consider if they represent approaching, receding, or holding motions.

2. Try to depict the three motion states through body movement.

3. Use your air during an exhalation like a “paint brush” to depict or “paint” the three motions. 

4. Draw energetic lines or, if you will, “contoured, topographical maps” that combine the three motion states and then depict what you have drawn using body movements and/or exhalation gestures. (Here are six examples of energetic line-drawings that you can use.)

5. Using one of your energetic line drawings vary its shape as shown in the examples below and then depict the lines using body movements and exhalation gestures.

6. Create smaller to larger forms by connecting the energetic lines that you have drawn to one another and then depict the lines using body movements and exhalation gestures.  (You can also vary the lengths of space where they connect.)  

7. Use sound (instrumentally or vocally produced) to depict the energetic shapes that you have drawn. 

8. As you listen to a piece of music sketch out a topographical map that represents what you are “hearing” and/or place them in your scores by using lines or arrows above the staves.   

9.  Join an approaching motion with a receding motion to create an arch shape and depict what you have drawn using body movements, exhalation gestures, and sounds. 

Arch shapes can be found throughout music literature and learning how to portray them is one of the most important expressive skills that a musician can develop. Appropriately portraying the time-point when approaching and receding motions connect with one another, at the peak of an arch, is the mark of a great musician.

Approaching, receding and holding: a global perspective 

We often use metaphors and allusions in order to prompt our imaginations when we study or teach music and the same can be done in regards to the three motion states. Following the examples below, use your imagination to enliven, extend and strengthen your understanding of their significance.  

Approaching – increasing energy

  • any falling motion such as a leaf or fruit dropping from a tree
  • an approaching ball
  • light to heavy rainfall
  • an inhalation
  • time in the future
  • a state of anticipation or beginning
  • the occurrence of an unpredicted event
  • an increase in the pressure of someone’s touch

Receding – decreasing energy

  • falling asleep
  • a kite drifting away in the sky 
  • settling dust
  • a deflating balloon
  • an exhalation
  • time in the past
  • an ending
  • the occurrence of a predicted or repeated event
  • a person’s touch softens or their hand moves away from you

Holding – maintaining energy, still and balanced

  • a preacher pauses at the height of a sermon  
  • a musician breathes in and then waits
  • a desert landscape
  • a stone lies on the ground 
  • the act of meditation 
  • time in the present
  • staying somewhere
  • a person moving towards or away from you pauses (or changes     directions)
  • a spectator stands in awe of someone juggling thirteen balls at one time  
  • during a conversation, a person pauses before answering a response that they did not expect
  • under threat an animal takes caution and stands poised before taking    action
  • the apex of a swinging pendulum or the apex of thrown object at the instant that it ends its outward trajectory 

Approaching and Receding Pairs – gaining and losing energy, arches

  • the sound created by an object’s movement to and from us (soft-loud-       soft)
  • the tide moving to and from a shore line
  • physical and emotional movement/change leading to and from an embrace
  • a breath cycle
  • a person on a swing climbing towards and away from us


The development of our listening skills and musicianship is well served by exploring the relationships between sound and movement, and the ideas that this approach elicits extend well beyond those included in this article. Additional topics such as how we use our air, phrase recognition, shaping and joining, the use of color and vibrato in tone production, pacing in music, learning what to add to a written score, understanding why patterns matter, and learning what questions matter the most in the pursuit of expressive performances can all be addressed through an exploration of the relationship between sound and movement.

These topics will be all included as a series in forthcoming editions of The Babel Flute

For more information see, “Interpretation and Expression: A Workbook for Musicians

Tim Lane

Paper Route Press

Tim Lane is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he taught from 1989 – 2020.  Prior to that he was a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University, the Interlochen Arts Camp, and the Cleveland Institute of Music Preparatory Department.  He has been a member of the Orquestra Sinfonica de Veracruz, Mexico, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, and the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra.  He currently serves as the principal flute player with the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and operates “Paper Route Press” which specializes in unique and innovative flute-related publications.  Mr. Lane attended high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy and earned his Bachelor of Music from Cleveland Institute of Music.  He later earned his Masters and Doctoral Degrees from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a college-age student he studied the flute with Maurice Sharp, Harold Bennett, Alexander Murray, and Claude Monteux.