Approaches to Score Study and Interpretation

Approaches to Score Study and Interpretation

Of the many responsibilities for the conductor, none is greater than that of score study and interpretation. The score must be internalized so that one can follow the adage: “The conductor should have the score in their head, not their head in the score.”

One important goal of score study is to develop an intellectual, emotional and visceral sense of the music. A vivid and detailed inner aural picture is required to use as a model by which to measure the progress of the ensemble. Every aspect of the rehearsal process is guided and informed by the conductor’s knowledge, understanding, and feeling for the score.

In the process, the life of the educator becomes easier and the tools for teaching more focused. Students respond quickly to the clarity that comes from a teacher with a clear and deep comprehension of the music.

Essentially, the purpose of score analysis is to understand the composer’s intentions. This may be achieved through a careful study of the components that comprise the work, and consideration of how they contribute to the inner life and outward shape of the composition. At the same time, analysis for a conductor is less about being able to identify the ingredients, and more about how to understand the architecture, proportion, and meaning of the work, so that they may lead the musicians to a performance that brings these shapes and sensations into a vivid reality.

The process below can function as a guide to assist in developing a successful personal approach to this, the most important component of the conductor’s art.

Principal Themes and Their Function

It may be helpful to write a catalog of the principal themes that occur in the work. This provides a method to track the structure and identify what material is new, what is repeated, and what is transformed.

Once the themes have been identified, then it is possible to compare and contrast the thematic material with transitional or developmental segments. Identifying their function in this manner may clarify their relative importance.


Regular and irregular forms will result in different senses of proportion, balance, and momentum, which have a direct bearing upon tempo, organization, and pacing of the performance.


A work may be structured upon a short motif, such as the opening motto of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” organized around leitmotifs such as in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” or move from one fully developed melody to the next, as in “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky. Sensitivity to these formal elements may provide insight to melodic and thematic material as it returns, is transformed, or developed.


Be aware of changing harmonic tensions, and how this relates to elements such as tone quality, tempo, and rubato. Look beyond tension and relaxation for nuanced moments that may contain poise, motion, affirmation, or poignancy.


Perhaps the most primal element in music is rhythm. It may flow with serenity, pleasantly entertain, or grip the audience with primitive barbarity. An adroit handling of these elements is often the fundamental key to effectively engaging the listener along the musical journey.

Melodic Rhythm

Examine whether the melody is in regular lengths or periods. Determine if the rhythmic patterns contained in the melody show energy or relaxation, and whether its overall nature possesses an unpredictable or assertive character.


Note how dynamics contribute to the shape and structure of the work while typically emphasizing the dramatic high points. Keep in mind that if a dynamic is maintained for a significant length of time, then subtle gradations are usually required in order to maintain vitality.

Orchestration and Tessitura

Consider the registers that are employed for each instrument (tessitura), as well as the combination of instruments used (orchestration). Observe the resulting textures and sonorities that may be rich or transparent, lithe or robust.

Stylistic Convention

Examine if the work is representative of its time or an innovative crosscurrent. Elements that would have been novel or shocking in their day may be missed in the current context. For example, the humor and harmonic twists in the works of Haydn may have been more evident in a time before the harmonic emancipation that led to serial composition. The spectrum of the dynamic range was also different in an era that preceded the jet engine and amplified instruments.

Historical, Personal, and Political Context

Understanding the composer and their world provides a context by which a work may be more fully understood. It is worth noting how one work may compare to another by the same composer. For example, “The Planets,” “Hammersmith,” and “Suite No. 1 in E-flat” are works by Gustav Holst that display a considerable range of style by comparison to each other. Elements such as war or Eastern philosophy may be influences that are represented within the composition, and that may reflect the culture and attitude of both the composer and the audience of the period.

A work may be viewed as a ceremonial, heroic or sarcastic commentary upon its time. Beethoven dedicated works to Napoleon, while Shostakovich both responded to and commented upon political pressures in Russia during his lifetime.

Dramatic Peaks and Overall View

Decide if there is one clear moment of climax, or a series of high points. This will help to determine how to pace elements such as tempo and dynamics.

An overall sense of the architecture will allow informed control of the individual events as they unfold over time.

Aesthetic Considerations

Does the work mirror a “dynamic form,” like a waterfall or sunset, that connects with the natural world and human emotion? While the experience of a musical performance will be felt differently by each listener, the aesthetic range and the artistic intent of the work, from the functional to the abstract, are all matters that the conductor should carefully consider.

What sensations does the work evoke? Composers such as Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are notable for the diverse responses that their works elicit.

The sum of these ingredients should lead the conductor to a feeling and vision for the piece and how to perform it in a deeply understood and evocative manner.

The “Big Picture”

Once the principal analytical work has been processed, the goal is to lead toward a sense of the artistic center and emotional core of the piece. The conductor’s role is to function as a conduit between the composer, the performers, and the audience. Communication of the essence of the work is the necessary condition to achieve a level of artistry and aesthetic experience.

Be the “informed guide” that leads the performers and the audience alike through the peaks, plains, and valleys, knowing when to move forward and when to relent in order to take in a musical vista.

The conductor must, of course, have a firm grasp of all the technical requirements of the music and maintain their artistic integrity to ensure that they are fully achieved. However, the higher purpose that all of this serves is more transcendent, as a composition of merit will achieve more than the mere sum of its parts. Therefore it is important to keep this central focus in mind throughout all aspects of score study.

Remember that score study is just the first step in a larger journey toward communicating with your students, improving your conducting, and making musical decisions.

This article includes excerpts from“The Eloquent Conductor” by Glenn D. Price (pub. GIA 2016).

Dr. Glenn D. Price is an internationally recognized educator and conductor. He has conducted student, community and professional symphony orchestras and wind ensembles in over 30 countries. He has also appeared as featured conductor for organizations such as CBDNA, WASBE, ABA, The Midwest Clinic, MENC, and BASBWE. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, his formal training included studies at the Toho Gakuen School of Music, the Tanglewood Music Center, Europe, and Russia. His career has included positions as Professor of Music (emeritus) at the University of Calgary and Director of Wind Studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). He currently serves as the Director of Performing and Visual Arts at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Glenn has also been appointed as artistic director of the International Youth Wind Orchestra, founding conductor of the Orquesta Latinoamericano de Vientos, and was elected as President of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE).

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