3 Books to Improve Your Musicality (plus one website!) 

 December 30, 2020

By  Kale Good

What are the three best books to improve your musicality? It can be challenging to find instructional books on phrasing and musicality, but they are out there! This post will share with you three books that convey straightforward ways to improve your phrasing, make musical structure clear in your playing, and develop other elements of musicality to make your playing more compelling and engaging.

This list is geared towards intermediate to advanced musicians. To get the most out of these books, you'll need a rudimentary understanding of music theory and be able to read music.

Sound in Motion

by David McGill

McGill is principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He's a Grammy-winner and a grand-student of Marcel Tabuteau. Most musicians haven't heard of Tabuteau, but McGill makes a compelling argument that every musician should know his name.

A Short Digression

Tabuteau was a teacher at the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music and a member of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Almost half of his students went on to have remarkable careers (which is remarkable even at Curtis). Tabuteau was responsible, at least in part, for the famous "Philadelphia Sound" of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a massive influence on other teachers at Curtis Institute. Part of what made Tabuteau such a successful teacher was his ability to teach students how to phrase their music most compellingly.

Sound in Motion beings with a summary of Tabuteau and his life and work and is followed by a thought-provoking exposition titled "What is Music"?

McGill's core ideas are a continuation of Tabuteau's. He shows readers how to group notes so that the music's forward momentum comes through clearly. He introduces the simple but incredibly effective Tabuteau Number System. He shows how it can help teachers communicate ideas to the students and students convey ideas to the audience.

Once the basics are explained, McGill shows how to apply these concepts to larger forms. Understanding and applying these concepts will make you a better musician and a more articulate music aficionado.

The book also contains McGill's advice on common controversial subjects in music. My favorite part of this section was his guidance on playing in the Baroque style, which simplified performance practice in a few comical pages.

Sound in Motion's appendices are an added value. They include a substantial list of suggested recordings and performers. Additionally, it includes several resources to help deepen one's understanding of the concepts; books, video recordings, and instructional audio recordings are all included.

Throughout the book, McGill's writing is accessible, friendly, and conversational. The ease of reading, combined with the profundity of the ideas presented, make this a must-read.

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Note Grouping

by James Morgan Thurmond

McGill and Thurmond were both educated at the Curtis Institute. However, Thurmond attended about a generation before McGill. While Thurmond doesn't explicitly mention Tabuteau, he did study with him, and his book is indebted to him. Thurmond provides a different lens on the Tabuteau System; his book and McGill's complement one another.

This book is a reprinting of Thurmond's Masters Thesis. As such, the writing style is drier and more intellectual than McGills. It contains intellectual and historical arguments for his ideas that you may find interesting but unnecessary. While the Ivy Tower may demand such things, the performing musician knows that the proof is in the pudding.

Note Grouping begins by presenting the argument that chant used in Jewish synagogues and the ancient Greek spoken language present an excellent starting point to understanding the emergence of upbeat and downbeat concepts.

He then presents a systematic way to break more extensive musical phrases into the smallest chunks, discover each chunk's best interpretation, and rebuild the phrase accordingly.

Like McGill, Thurmond has a list of suggested listening material. Thurmond's list is shorter. However, he provides an analysis of excerpts. He shows how these great artists use the concepts of Note Grouping (it should be noted that many of these recordings are, unfortunately, only available if you can find them as used LPs). These analyses will help you develop your critical listening and phrase analysis skills, thereby increasing the musicality of your phrasing.

For More On Tabuteau and His Teachings

Once you've read through Sound in Motion and Note Grouping and understand the basic concepts, you can gain further insight into his system atMarcelTabuteau.com. The website contains a number of his teachings from his students, some including recordings.

The Art of Musicianship 

Philip Farkas

This short book can be read in a sitting or two, but digesting and integrating the musical ideas presented will take quite a bit longer! Farkas was an instructor at Indiana University and the prestigious Aspen Music Festival. He also performed as a solo hornist with many different orchestras, most notably Chicago Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Farkas' treatise covers phrasing, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, articulation, expression marks, and more. Each chapter averages 5 (large) pages long and contains several musical examples. The writing is conversational, like McGill's; however, this book was published in 1976. While the language is slightly dated, the content is timeless.

A few quotes should effectively highlight the insight you can gain from this book. Here are a few selections I underlined in my copy:

"In my observation, the conductors who get the musical results they desire quickly and efficiently are those who employ ... short, definite words... These instructions, while not very poetic, give the player a definite physical act to perform on the instrument." (useful for teachers as well as conductors!)

"Consider each dynamic as a sidewalk, not as a tight-rope.... each dynamic level has some rise and fall within itself"

"Frequently, a movement of a classical symphony begins with a theme that would be plausible at various tempos if it were detached from the movement and played by itself. However, the tempo of the whole movement will be firmly dictated by what Szell calls 'a critical bar or a group of critical barse' somewhere in the middle of the movement."

One of the most practical chapters is on rhythm, where Farkas presents commonly-misplayed rhythms and solutions for improving them. Some of these rhythms are quite common, and, as a classical guitarist who may rarely play with other players, you may not even know that you're misplaying them. This particular chapter will help you know which particular rhythms to look out for so that, when you do play in an ensemble, your rhythms match up with that of the group.


These are books that I keep coming back to, year after year, to improve my playing and my teaching. Finding useful written guidance on phrasing and musicality is difficult, and these books are far-and-away the best I've found.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

Kale Good

Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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