Home About Me Performances and directing work Compositions Writings Classes Contact Me
Fay Guiffo

Acting and Music, Body and Soul (part 1)

June 24, 2020

     As a musician and artist, I have always been interested in other forms of expression. I had the opportunity of taking some acting courses several months ago and to deepen my knowledge with the drama teacher Ali De Souza, at RCS. It was an opportunity to explore some unexpected connections between music and drama in an intuitive. I decided to dig into this exploration, in order to bring those connections to my conscious.
     As I read different papers on the subject, I noticed that some people oppose Acting and Music in their essence. Indeed, according to C. Mcgraw (1955), there is an ‘essential difference between acting and musicians’: an actor is ‘his own instrument’ whereas a musician plays with an external instrument. From this assertion, we could easily conclude that Actors and Musicians have very few in common. I would like to discuss this statement, by exploring two important subjects inherent to Music and Acting: Emotions and Movements. We will look at the link between musicians and actors in terms of their artistic purpose: the dramatic narrative driving behind both performances; the need for genuine emotional connection for both sorts of performers;
the need for those emotions to be expressed physically and the need therefore for both actors and musicians to master physical release and deal effectively with physical stress. Moreover, we will explore what could be the impact of this correlation, from a learning and performing perspective.
     By critically evaluating a wide range of literature and research resources, I will explain the connections between these two performing arts and will argue for the development of collaboration between musicians and actors. During the different stages of this learning journey, I will critically evaluate the development of my knowledge, skills practices and thinking by challenging my perception of music and drama practice. I will also critically analyse the cultural issues at the forefront of my art practice, by identifying a gap in the way musicians and actors are prepared to work and create together. First, we will explore emotions and movements, two concepts inherent to music and drama. Then, we will see what actors and musicians can gain from collaborative performances and learning.


1) Emotions: a goal for Actors and Musicians.

     Emotions, from Latin ex ‘out’ (see ex-) + movere ‘to move’ (Harper, 2001-2020), represent a limitless field of research for any artist. I dare say that the best performances I have seen on stage (opera, dance performance, soloist playing with
orchestra…) are those with a strong emotional content. At the same time, they are the ones I remember the most. During my years of music practice, some of my teachers transmitted me the need of expressing feelings through music. They used images, adjectives, noises, mimes, in order to describe specific emotions transcribed into notes and phrases. The aim was to convey expressions in order to bring the musical piece to life. Thus, a melody could turn into an ‘emotion translated into musical sounds’ (Pizzetti, 1931). However, this inner movement didn’t come from the violin itself: it took its roots from my inner world. Therefore, contrary to Mcgraw’s assertion, my experience taught me that musicians are their own instrument before anything else: they are responsible for the emotional content they want to bring on stage. Furthermore, my researches seem to find
similarities between music practice and the preparation of actors.
     Indeed, the main goal of an actor seems to build a sense of truth and believing in the play (Mcgraw, 1955). In order to attain this aim, actors and teachers such as Stanislawski and Lecoq have developed their own methods. Students in acting spends several hours on one scene to attain this state of believing. They develop some techniques and skills (physical exercises, voice training…) in order to create a believable character. As I engaged in the Shakespeare drama course at RCS, I could explore different techniques to have access to this sense of emotional truth and belief: by exaggerating or minimizing intentions, propelling the character from the inner world to the outer world… I noticed that some of the exercises were similar to what I knew from my music training. Others seemed more specific to drama, but as I tried them in a musical context, I discovered that they worked in music practice. One exercise was particularly relevant. As I focused on specific part of my body (feet, hips, chest, head…), I imagined my voice coming from these parts. My voice changed based on the different locations: from very grounded when I focused on my feet, to lighter and airy when I connected with the top of my head. I tried this exercise with my violin, the sound of the instrument replacing my voice. It helped me to develop my sound quality and colour palette. By building this connection between my body and my music, I developed my musical discourse, and improved my presence on stage… Ultimately, I could have access to these notions of ‘Truth’ and ‘Believing’ in a concrete way: my body awareness was in tune with the sound of the violin itself. Through this common goal of looking for emotional truth, it seems that Actors and Musicians have more in common that Charles Mcgraw thinks. But even if emotions are at the core of both practices, we could interrogate the different languages of both, Drama and Music. If Actors and Musicians look for the same emotional impact on their audience, could we say that their language is that different?

2) Language and emotions

     As said before, there is a link between musicians and actors in terms of their artistic purpose. They engage in their art in order to deliver a truthful experience and share emotions with their audience. But even if this goal constitutes a common denominator, it seems that the way musicians and actors communicate emotions is different.
     Obviously, plays seem understandable by people who knows the language used. Communicating with words allows to connect with the audience by using a common language. It doesn’t appear that obvious with music, especially classical music. However, I learnt from my Shakespeare drama class with Ali De Souza, that this statement about plays is not necessarily true. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays are known for their complexity and the psychological mechanisms that occur in the character’s relationship: as a result, the emotional content is at the core of the understanding. The actor needs to fully comprehend the inner complexity of the characters so that the audience can follow the plot. Or else, the play would make no sense. It is exactly the same for classical music. Indeed, classical music communicate emotions and psychological changes by using specific intervals, shaping phrases in a certain way, suggesting colours in the harmony and dynamics, etc... By emphasizing these elements, musicians can communicate the emotional content of the music to the audience. The intensity of a passage followed by a calm melody can represent a psychological transition the same way a character would pass from passion to acceptation. Thus, the
emotional and psychological dimension of music can be related to drama’s. However, classical music can also be difficult to understand as it is not a spoken language and people in the audience don’t necessarily have musical knowledge. Therefore, the nature of music language seems to have its own limit. But this boundary is sometimes bypassed.
     The presence of a dramatic life in Operas seems obvious and really close to Drama: most of the time the script contains a plot and singers communicate with each other and with the audience by speaking or singing… In the program music (mainly composed for instruments), the music is associated to an extra-musical content. Thus, Sheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov (1888), has been composed upon the Middle Eastern folk tales from One Thousand and One nights. This musical masterpiece is structured in four different pictures, four episodes which lead the audience to different atmospheres and events. In The sea and Sindbad’s ship, celli incarnate the gentle movements of the waves; in the third movement (The young Prince and the young Princess), the main theme ornamented with embroidery evokes the innocence of two young lovers… The narrative thread is unfolded by a solo violin, as an embodiment of Sheherazade’s voice itself (Dotsey, 2017). Thus, by being associated with a descriptive landscape, musical language becomes easy accessed. But music doesn’t need to be directly link to the ‘spoken world’ to tell a story. Indeed, by considering the emotional content of the music, we might say that this limit in music language might be superficial. According to I. Pizzetti (1931), great musical pieces as great plays obey the same laws of expressing a
conflict and its resolution, ‘even though it be without words’. By extension, dramatic life is inherent to a great piece of art. For example, the antecedent/consequent process of a Sonata by Mozart corresponds to the question/response in a text for a play. In both cases, what matter the most for the interpreter, is the relation between those two events: how the response reacts to the answer, and how does it influence the rest of the music/story. Thanks to my experience of drama with Ali De Souza, I am more aware of the importance of bringing meaning, not only in acting, but also in music. As I practice my violin or compose, I reflect on the story itself, the section, the phrases, and try to attain the core of the piece. I improve my ability to communicate with the audience with more generosity.

     Thus, despite the difference in terms of language, both music and drama performances are driven by the dramatic narrative. Playing music demonstrates the ability to bring meaning in a language that could sound obscure: the role of the musician is to reveal the emotional content hidden behind series of notes and rhythms. Thereby, emotions are the way toward connection between the audience and the musician/the actor. Musicians and actors appear to be linked by this mission of delivering a dramatic life on stage. But if musicians and actors share the same goals, does it mean that they follow the same path to attain it? As ‘emotions’ refers to externalized movements (see Latin origins, just above) I would like to interrogate the notion of ‘movement’, in order to get some elements of answer.




Burger, B. Luck, G. Saarikallio, S. Thompson, M.R. and Toiviainen, P. (2013).
‘Relationships Between Perceived Emotions in Music and Music-induced Movement’,
Music Perception: an interdisciplinary Journal, [Online]. 30 (5), pp. 517-533.
Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mp.2013.30.5.517. [Accessed

Dotsey, C. (2017). 1001 Nights: a guide to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade,
[Online]. https://www.houstonsymphony.org/rimsky-korsakov-scheherazade/.
[Accessed 27/12/2018].

Fischer, B. (1970). Playing the Violin with Confidence… Tension and Relaxation.
American Music Teacher, [Online]. 19 (5), pp.24-25. Available from:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/43537553. [Accessed 23/12/2018].

Harper, D. (2001-2020). Emotion. Etymology Dictionary. [Online]. Available from:
https://www.etymonline.com/word/emotion [Accessed 10/06/2020].

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music. London: Atlantic Books, p.57.

Mcgraw, C. (1955). Acting is believing. New York: Rinehart & Company, pp. 3, 18, 27.

Pizzetti, I. (1931). Music and Drama. The Musical Quarterly, [Online]. 17 (4), p.426.
Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/738806. [Accessed 23/12/2018].

Simon, A. (2018). Acting Styles: Lee Strasberg's Method. On location education,
[Online]. Available at : http://www.onlocationeducation.com/blog/2018/1/3/actingstyles-strasberg. [Accessed 20/06/2020].

Storey, H., Joubert, M.M. (2004). Chapter 4: The emotional dance of creative
collaboration, in: Miell, D., Littleton, K. (Eds.), Collaborative Creativity:
Contemporary Perspectives. London : Free Association Books. p. 44.

Vasiliades, T. (2004). The Alexander Technique: an Acting Approach, [Online].
https://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/acting3/. [Accessed 22/12/2018].

Walton, J. (2014). Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration. The
Guardian, [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cultureprofessionals-network/2014/dec/16/devised-theatre-ten-tips-collaboration.
[Accessed 20/06/2020]