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    Musical Gesture

    edited August 2014 in Analysis

    I would like to open a discussion thread on musical gesture. I think the topic of musical gesture is a worthy one as we start up SMT Discuss, because of the breadth it offers in considering musical ideas in relation to performance and broader cultural considerations.

    For me, a musical gesture involves embodied musical action. This distinguishes a musical gesture from a purely abstract musical thought, but this distinction is tricky, since gestures can be imagined. On the other hand, the actual physical movements of performance--like the vocalist’s breathing or a wrist movement in executing a piano phrasing-- those performative actions, of themselves, do not fully constitute a musical gesture. To my thinking, a musical gesture is the dynamic interplay of a musical idea, the embodied action of its performance, and the network of cultural associations it might evoke. In semiotic terms, it is part of the way music is indexed to the body. The literature on musical gesture is vast. Some writers whose work I have found especially helpful in considering musical gesture are Robert Hatten, David Lidov, Steve Larson, and Larry Zbikowski.

    Now by some standards, musical gesture may not enjoy high status because it is so diverse and multifaceted. But on the other hand, consideration of musical gesture has been useful in transcending the bad old days when theory was maligned as formalist elitism. The diversity of all one might investigate under the rubric of gesture is part of its appeal.

    There. That’s my post. I hope to hear responses from colleagues that enjoy thinking about music in terms of musical gesture.

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    • 9 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • There have been many fascinating studies on gesture. Others who come to mind are Alexandra Pierce and the various authors who contributed to to the collection Perspectives on Music and Gesture, (ed. Gritten and King). Recent outstanding contributions in MTO that touch upon this subject include Anabel Maler, Eugene Montague, and Karen Bottge--no doubt there are others that I am forgetting to mention.  Gesture certainly should be  considered a central part of the discipline of music theory.

      Poundie Burstein


    • Part of the appeal to me when I first started looking to gesture as a tool for analysis was the universality it encompassed. If the musical gesture is strongly tied to a physical gesture, there is something innately human about it, giving it a wider scope of influence.

      But as Tim points out, such universality questions its usefulness. Yet in the correct circumstance, gesture can play such a key role in illuminating surface musical features. In particular, I'm thinking of a talk that Tim gave at TSMT a few years ago involving gesture and the guitar in Bob Dylan. The location of chords as played on the fretboard (gesture) have a large role in determining the harmonic framework (and narrative) of the song.
    • For me, musical gesture is about the connections between performing a musical action, thinking about/imagining performing that action and watching someone else perform that action. The same 'action plan' of motor activity is invoked by our brain in each instance - but in two of the three instances the plan isn't carried out. The motor activities required for the gesture have various empathic and metaphorical connections with similar types of activity that we've engaged with before which, in turn, imbue them with meaning. Of course, each of us have a different relationship with different musical gestures - a violinist will have an entirely different response to playing and watching someone else play the violin than a non-violinist - but there are huge areas of overlap. We all have roughly the same shaped bodies and there are many invariant properties to experience - more energetic gestures produce louder volume and brighter timbres and particular types of high energy sound angrier or destructive while others sound joyful.

      The real area of interest for me, is how we develop this into specific analyses - you mentioned Lawrence Zbikowski and Eric Clarke and Allan Moore have done some very interesting work. I've been looking at recorded popular music as 'sonic cartoons' where the recording and mixing process affects the musical meaning by working to inhibit or exaggerate certain invariant properties - to encourage a particular subject-position, a way of listening to the track. I've also started to look at how these ideas can be applied to the interpretation of melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre in the more general sense - which is why this thread is interesting to me. And I'll be interested to read your Dylan chapter in the Ashgate collection, Tim.

    • Reading Sean's comment above regarding Tim's Dylan paper reminded me of a session at the Rocky Mountain SMT earlier this year. There were two papers, one by Daniel Stevens (U of Delaware) and Rachel Short (UCSB) that are particularly pertinent to this discussion.

      Stevens' paper discussed gesture in various works for cello and how it related to idiomatic writing. There were some particularly entlightening excerpts from Bach's solo cello suites where alternatives for certain phrases were offered. And in Rachel Short's paper she explored Stravinsky's "Rite" and how the music is, of course, linked to the ballet, but also how sometimes the choreography may have shaped the music and the ways in which the actual movements of the dancers adds another layer of rhythmic activity to the score, something that is of importance and lost when performed without dancers.  (Unfortunately the link to the abstracts appears to be broken, but the schedule can be found here)

      Going back to the popular music examples brought up by Simon, it seems that from Moore's perspective, gesture and timbre (and perhaps even narrative) are inextricably linked, and by extension affect. I may just be reiterating an obvious point that has already been made though. 


    • I'm a newcomer to the subject of Musical Gesture. For what it's worth, here are my first reactions - based on what I have read in this thread and some quick browsing elsewhere.

      - I'm having difficulty understanding what this subject is really about and how it is organized.

      - There is definitely a misuse of ordinary English: "gesture" is a narrow term for actual human physical motions which are intended to convey a meaning/idea or something like that. So e.g. "wrist movement in executing a piano phrasing" would not count as a gesture. (There could be exceptions, but ordinarily a wrist movement is just a wrist movement).

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • I wanted to offer a short response to Isaac Malitz. As to what the study of Musical Gesture is really about, this is something of a moving target, since the term is used in different ways in different contexts. Widening to the broader scope of human gesture in general, a very interesting book I'm currently reading is Agency and Embodiment by Carrie Noland. The chapter on Gestural Meaning covers the foundational work of Maurice Merleau-Ponte and others. Concerning musical gesture, contributors to this list have already mentioned some fine sources. It may be that "a wrist movement is just a wrist movement" if we isolate the motion as an abstract concept. But in the context of executing a particular piano phrasing, it becomes a performed musical action that is surely within the purview of musical gesture. The vitality of the pianist's movement is certainly a component of expressive musical communication. And with repetition, the performer's body is inscribed and altered by the gestural routine. We shape the music and the music shapes us through gesture.

    • Being a cellist and using larger movements (and gestures) than other instruments for the production of sound, ie., large muscle arm movements, distribution of weight and force, etc., the use of the body to produce sound is similar to a baseball pitcher throwing a baseball - it is not the arm that is hurling the ball,  but rather the transference of body weight at the right moment and released by the arm and hand at the moment of maximum momentum force.  And each instrumentalist has their own gestures necessary for producing good sound.  The vocalist must use their entire body, the pianist must use certain gestures and movements to manipulate sound from the hammer percussive mechanism of the piano, etc.  What appear to be musical gestures from the audience's perspective may indeed be required ergonomic movements for good motion by the performer.  When I was much younger I saw cellist Raphael Wallfisch perform and he was really moving his entire body a lot.  At the time I though it to be emotional musical gestures, but only after cello studies and years of experience did I realize that he was moving "like that" in order to produce good cello tone and articulation.  To my mind "a musical gesture" is a physical movement that facilitates good musical expression.  On the other hand a musical gesture may be more metaphysical in that a performer is expressing the content of a particular musical idea through some form of gesture movement (or lack of movement).  

    • [I want to learn a little about the subject of Musical Gesture (MG) because of my primary research interest which is: How to model the experience of music. MG deals with an aspect of this, so I am interested in the scope and approaches of MG. btw, I think that music benefits from multiple models; so whatever MG offers, that is good]

      It appears to me that the actual scope of MG is follows:

      [a] MG deals with the subject of Motion in Music (MiM) , broadly defined. (Not just Gesture in Music, that demarcation is too narrow for what is actually done in MG research)

      [b] MiM is a huge subject, something of a "moving target" as Tim says. So we shouldn't expect a perfectly neat definition of MiM. However, I see two major high-level categories, see [c] and [d] below:

      [c] CATEGORY1: Actual physical motion. E.g. motions of musicians big and small; motions of a conductor; probably should include motions of listeners (who tap their feet, make faces, dance, ...)

      [d] CATEGORY2: Listener's associations involving motion. E.g. Listener hears a recording, and imagines a conductor's movements. E.g. Listener hears Beethoven Symphony #5, and has associations such as "Fate knocking at the door", or "Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing ..." (ETA Hoffmann). E.g. listener feels a melodic line "moving", or sound filling space, or ...

      I continue to be puzzled why MG researches use the word "gesture" as a centerpiece for their research. Among other things: There are top musicians who would probably say that there are no gestures at all in music (a few small exceptions re directives from a conductor, ...)




      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • See New Perspectives on Music and Gesture, eds. Anthony Gritten and Elaine King. Ashgate 2011.