Music is often called the universal language. However, in the midst of a performance, musicians need more than notes and phrases in order to get the message across.
A live performance can change in a heartbeat, and in order to keep the song intact, the musicians have to communicate without stopping or interrupting the music.
Over time, bands and ensembles have developed several ways to do this, some of which may seem strange to non-musicians. Here are six methods we use to keep everyone on the same page, sometimes successfully – sometimes not.
1. Sign Language. Musicians and singers often use hand signs to show each other what part of the song is up next. These signs can vary greatly from band to band. Common ones include the closed fist (end the song) and the pat of the head (back to the top). Like a secret club, an ensemble might have a set of signs that no one knows but them. If a musician in the band misinterprets the sign, it’s possible other less pleasant signs will be used. (See number 5).
- Read My Lips. To avoid speaking out loud on stage, some musicians mouth the commands for the next section. This helps keep the audience from hearing what the band is about to do, but it’s not so great for the unfortunate musician that doesn’t read lips. When faced with this dilemma, the lip-speaker usually begins what looks like a game of charades in the middle of the set. (See number 1.)
- Musician-ese. There are several special terms that musicians use to direct each other. When a band leader says ‘vamp’, ‘tag it’, or ‘bridge’, everyone on stage is supposed to respond appropriately. These terms vary widely from band to band, so it’s in a musician’s best interest to ask for the terms in advance. Consider it a musical vocabulary test without the multiple choice questions.
- The Numbers. If you hear musicians calling out numbers to each other, we’re not solving a math problem. Sometimes musicians use numbers to signal chords and tone qualities. (This method is often paired with methods 1 or 2.) Of course, this assumes that all the band members know what the numbers mean, and that the drummer knows that the numbers are only meant for the harmonic instruments. (“Four! No, not four hits!”)
- The Look. The method in which facial expressions, like a raised eyebrow or a tilt of the head, communicates the desired musical effect. While this method can work for ensembles that have played together for a long time, be assured that sometimes the band is also trying to figure out what a raised eyebrow means. If the look is one of displeasure, it’s probably because the musician failed to respond to one of the methods above.
- The Twist and Shout. When the former five languages are ineffective, sometimes the leader will simply turn around and yell exactly what he or she wants to happen. While effective, most band members are slightly annoyed when the Twist and Shout is employed. To avoid using this method, we’ll likely have a meeting after the set, create new signs (see number one) and start all over.
No matter which language we musicians use to communicate, hopefully the end result is a performance where we are working and playing as one. After all, the ultimate goal is to let the music do the talking.