Playfulness in music

Definitions from play (noun): exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.

To play (verb): to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation.

Writing about the importance of fun in creative work, Eric Booth says: “play is an essential aspect of artistic experience; make sure to include serious play as a central part of your work.” Playfulness is central to us as human beings, and has a number of essential roles in human existence including stress relief, entertainment, sociability and as a learning tool.

My own experience of play and playfulness is varied and spans my whole life: like most people, I played games as a young child with my parents and my brother, and continued to engage in forms of play as I grew up, although they changed in form.  My strongest memories of play as a child involved being teased gently and lovingly by my father, playing endlessly with my cats while they were young, and games with my older brother and cousins which were sometimes physical and sometimes verbal. As we grew up, we would also play games as a whole family, especially cards and Mah Jong, and long hours were spent trying to beat my mother’s consummate skill at Racing Demon! More recently at university in St Andrews, I lived in a house of five girls who would seize any opportunity to do crazy things together including swimming in the North Sea (brr!!), holding impromptu dinner and pudding parties, outdoor sports-day style races, hand painting sessions and games of cards and cranium and scrabble.

However, as we know, play does not have to be overt or obvious in situations to count as ‘play’: we are playing even when we don’t realise it or are not ‘playing’ a game of tag or scrabble. This is most common when adults share a joke or engage in witty word games with each other (this equates to the phenomenon of ‘banter’ among the younger generation).  This ‘banter’ is continually present in our adult lives- without it, we would soon get very bored of each other and life in general. Laughter is a great stress reliever- hence the popular of comedy shows and stand up, which provide us with an opportunity to escape our daily lives and laugh at something hilarious without inhibition.

Bearing this in mind, play also has definite roles within professional music practice. It can be used as a character and technique within the performance of the music itself to suggest playfulness and lightness if this is indicated by the composer or the style of the music. It can also be used as part of the communication between performing musicians: if one performer plays a phrase which is passed to another, then this can act as a question and answer incorporating playful elements. And as discussed earlier, play and banter can act as a release of tension in a potentially stressful situation such as in rehearsals and meetings with colleagues- hence why musicians are known for their jokes. A further use of play in professional music practice is that of invention in performance – during a performance, the players may spontaneously do something different or inventive that they have not done before, using a playful technique to add something to the music.

Play can also be an invaluable aid to learning and teaching, especially in music. Getting small children to experiment with musical techniques such as clapping and singing teaches them about rhythm, melody and harmony, skills they will use later if they take up instruments.  In my community placements, I will try and use play in the form of basic songs and chants to teach children a sense of rhythm and so they learn how to sing in tune. Fun characters such as puppets and toys can help the children enjoy the sessions and learn more, and by singing the songs and repeating them many times, we hope to be able eventually build up the childrens’ confidence to learn the songs and sing on their own.  By making the sessions fun and full of playful activities, hopefully the children will learn what we want them to while not even realising it and having fun at the same time!


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