A Nice Gesture

March 13, 2019

Traditional music-making — i.e. playing an instrument — requires numerous muscle movements in order to produce sound. Take piano-playing for example. The entire process from score to sound involves the use of the eyes for reading, the brain for processing, and above all the arms for playing. From the torso to the shoulders, the upper to the lower arms, and from the palms of the player’s hands onto the finger tips; the music makes quite the bodily journey before the strings attached to the keys pressed produce perceivable sound. But did you know the listener moves in a same way?


[ Selected works by Chopin - Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, 1962 ]  


Musicologist Marc Leman focuses on such an embodied reception of music. His claim is that musical meaning arises out of an imaginative playing-along with what we hear and see. We can picture ourselves playing the instrument — even if we lack the actual skill to do so — and invest in it the right emotions. Musicians are then able to transfer certain feelings or meanings by providing us with (imaginative) gestures to which we can relate. 


Take the example above, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s rendition of Chopin’s Piano Sonata. Even before the first chord is struck, at 00:32, we already get a glimpse of how it will sound through his very hand movement. The practice of “phrasing” (emphasising specific cadenzas so as to make the whole sound more natural) corresponds to his physical posture and the way he moves his upper-body while playing. At another instance, at 39:22, the way the pianist tilts his head reveals the lightness of the passage. Such a visual extra-musicality adds to our overall perception and consequent appraisal of the performance.


[ Mark Guiliana drum solo @ Fasching Jazz Club, Stockholm, 2013 ]


Another example is jazz-drummer Mark Guiliana’s solo above. Because this type of music — and a solo in particular — is based on the building-up of tension, his body reflects a certain tensity too. Not only does his facial expressions resemble that of someone deeply immersed in his own thoughts, his body cramps up against the backdrop of the other players’ rhythm as well. Watching him perform makes us simulate similar gestures within us that stimulate our engagement with the solo. Not only the sound, but the sheer physicality too affects us in the way we perceive music.


Music-making and music-listening both involve bodily processes that have common characteristics. When we would be asked to express what we hear through our own movements, chances are likely that these movements resemble those of the musician. Upon seeing someone perform we thus incorporate those gestures and imagine ourselves playing. This facilitates the transmission of emotions and makes music all the more enjoyable for us. 

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