Live Music Exchange Blog

What you see is what you get: Notes on Performance – Professor Simon Frith


In today’s post, the Live Music Exchange’s own Professor Simon Frith examines aspects of musical performance and, in the process, reconsiders performance studies as an academic pursuit.

Against performance studies

Sometime around the turn of the millennium it became commonplace to argue that musicologists had neglected musical performance. Classical musicologists had, it seemed, for too long focused their analytic attention on ‘the work’; popular musicologists were now focusing too much analytic attention on the recording. In response to such criticism, performance studies emerged as “an area of serious musical enquiry.” (See Cook 2014.)

What ‘performance studies’ meant, though, was different in different subject areas. In Britain, at least, performance study in classical musicology developed, ironically, as an aspect of the analysis of classical recordings. CHARM, the AHRC Centre for the Historical Analysis of Recorded Music (2004-9) thus morphed into CMPCP, the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (2009-14).   The question here was what could one learn about a work from a finely detailed comparison of its different performances, a comparison made possible by recording technology.

In popular musicology, by contrast, it was performance as spectacle that became the object of study, most interestingly in the work of Philip Auslander, who applied theatre studies concepts to musical acts, treating musicians like actors. Again, though, just as the CMPCP researchers refer what live musicians do to a score, so Auslander suggested that rock performance is organized around recordings, the recording here being the equivalent of a play script (see, for example, Auslander 2001).

In both these cases live music is treated as an interpretation of something else—a score, a record. The pleasure of live music is taken to be an interpretative pleasure. As audience members we compare what we hear to its ‘original’, as it were, to the music or recording that the performers are realizing.

Do most members of most audiences actually attend to live music with this sort of critical attention to something that isn’t there?   Surely the pleasures of live music are more immediate, more visceral. And certainly our visceral responses are an effect of what we see as well as what we hear. I’m not sure, that is, that we can make sense of live performance by using the term ‘extra-musical’ to describe components of what we actually mean by ‘musical experience’. One point to make here is that historically the move to distinguish between the sight and sound of music was ideological. The 19th century development of the argument that classical music was a serious and morally uplifting art form (as against just being another form of entertainment) involved the development of what one might call anti-spectacular performance—what mattered to audiences was what was happening in their heads, they might as well have been experiencing music with their eyes shut.

There were similar moves in the history of popular music. Richard Middleton quotes Hubert Parry, claiming in 1899 that “in true folk-songs there is no show, no got-up-glitter and no vulgarity” (Middleton 1990 p.131), and one could imagine an indie rock fan today championing their music against, say, the Eurovision Song Contest (or even the latest U2 extravaganza) in similar terms. But this is just the ideological effect of trying to differentiate rock as ‘true’ expression from pop as entertainment. If we are going to argue that the essentially meretricious appeal of Simon Cowell’s protogees is that what is heard is inextricable from what is seen (all that got-up glitter), then the ‘authentic’ performance of music is not surprisingly understood solely in terms of what we hear, sounds, ‘the primary text’.

From a sociological perspective, however, the visual aspects of an event, both how the musicians behave on stage and how their listeners behave as an audience, are not just as important as ‘the music itself’ to its meaning but are, further, crucial to how in some music worlds a belief in the primacy of the music itself is constructed in the first place. And there’s a further complication here.  Theatrical metaphors have been used widely in sociology since the work of Erving Goffman, but if we treat all human social behaviour as performance it becomes difficult to explain what is different about a musical performance. What is the ‘performance’ here being performed?

Making Music

At a live music event we see people making music. We don’t see people performing making music (unless they are lip synching or miming). In film biographies of musicians the actors do sometimes have to perform making music; it is usually their least convincing bit of acting.

To see someone making music is to see causal effects: the musician makes a bodily movement; the result is a sound. But in assuming cause and effect here we are actually describing two processes: technique and intention, one directly visible, one inferential.

Technique describes musicians’ manipulation of their instrument (which may be their voice): what the musicians do to their instruments causes the sounds we hear. Technique is learnt but not necessarily thought. It is a matter of discipline and habit; it is what skilled musicians take for granted when they make music.  For such musicians there is no perceived gap between deciding to play a note and playing it; they don’t seem to need the intermediary stage of working out how to play it. For the audience, though, the question of how he or she did that is more common than why they did it, hence the popular appeal of the virtuoso.

Intention refers to something else, to the decision making involved in determining which sounds to make when. Can we see a performer making musical decisions or do we just infer these decisions from the sounds they make? This may depend on the music being made. For example, musicians from the Berlin free improvisation scene (interviewed by Tom Arthurs) suggest that their “posture, body language and facial expression provide essential information as to their honesty and intent.” Their argument is that musical decisions are necessarily visible, involve physical as well as mental processes. As another of the Berlin improvisers puts it: “there is no question [here] of role-playing—of ‘performance’, in the sense that both cultural theorists and interpreters of pieces and genres use the word.” And I would add that for the improvised music audience what is pleasurable is watching/hearing the decision being made, not wondering why it was. The why question is answered by the music.

Musical choices, like other social and cultural choices, are the result of the play of freedom (musicians are free to make any sound they’re capable of making) and constraint (but the sounds they make should be appropriate to the musical situation). Musicians face various sorts of constraint on the sound choices they make: material, social, cultural and political.

By material constraint I mean the constraints of the musical material with which they are working. This can refer to an actual score (as in the case of classical music) or to an implied score (as in the case of some jazz), to a recording (as in the case of some rock) or to lyrics (in the case of classical and popular song).   It is such musical material that is the analytic focus for many performance studies.

In the abstract it seems possible to posit a linear scale: from musicians who are completely constrained by the musical material (playing the notes exactly as written) to musicians who are free to play whatever they want (individual free improvisers). But for all musicians making music means making choices, managing a continuous sense of freedom and constraint. In the classical music world, in John Butt’s words,

This involves not just the issues that are not specified in the score (such as absolute tempo and rubato) but also creative deviations. Although this might seem to be a return to the time before the score became dominant, when music could spontaneously embellished or even composed, it is clear that improvisation has never really disappeared. Rather, it was usually merely devalued and ignored by historians of ‘serious’ musical works. (Butt forthcoming)

In his recent book on Schubert’s Winterreise, the singer Ian Bostridge writes of the score creating “an objective space in which the dangers of self-indulgence can be held at bay.” This can only be achieved, though, “through utter immersion in the work and a merging between the composer’s work and the performer’s personality.” (Bostridge 2015 p.488)   This echoes comments by the Berlin improvisers in Tom Arthurs’ study. Their freedom to play what they like on stage is in practice shaped by decisions made before they got there, decisions about their instruments, their co-players, their musical idiosyncrasies, the organisation of the venue, their sense of the occasion, their understanding of what ‘free’ improvisation is, which means, among other things, that they too seek an objective space in which the dangers of self-indulgence can be held at bay.

As these examples make clear, all musicians, whether orchestral players, free improvisers or performers from the musical worlds in between, are subject to the constraints of music as a cultural as well as a social practice. Music making doesn’t just involve other musicians, the audience, sound engineers and so forth; it also involves musical ideologies.   Musicians are not just making their own musical decisions or, rather, their own musical decisions are made in particular social and cultural contexts. Performing musicians are responding to and having an effect on other people’s musical (or sound) decisions; they are responding to and having an effect on other people’s listening decisions. This is the communicative process that interests social psychologists; it involves shared assumptions as to how music should work (see, for example, Burland and Pitts 2012).

Live music making is also often a hierarchical practice, in which musicians’ decisions, the when and how to make a sound, are subcontracted, so to speak, to an agreed authority, a conductor or a band leader. I’ve heard conductors talk of their orchestra as if it was in itself a musical instrument, making whatever sounds the conductor chooses to make, using his or her conducting ‘technique’. Orchestral musicians don’t usually talk about conductors this way.

From a musician’s perspective, audiences are listening to music; they are not performing listening to music. Dancing, similarly, is not a performance of listening (or of interpretation) but an externalisation of listening, a bodily expression of how that music sounds to the dancers within their heads and bodies. This goes for other expressions of hearing music, whether noisy or silent. That said, the freedom to listen (or dance) in one’s own way is also constrained by the listening context—both the material context of the venue and fellow audience members, and the ideological context of what this listening process is taken to involve.

The performing arts should be called the making arts. We need to distinguish between ‘work’ as noun and ‘work’ as verb. Live music draws attention not to a (finished) work of music but to the (in process) work of making and listening to music. And this is not just a matter of observational interest, like being in a craftsman’s atelier. Live music is pleasurable because the decision-making involved is not just functional. It involves character—the decisions someone makes tell us something about the decision maker; and it involves aesthetic judgement, a decision about what sounds good which refers not just to its contribution to the end product, as it were, but to the aural pleasure of that sound itself and to the pleasure-in-itself of choosing this sound, rather than another. For an artwork to be an artwork it must draw attention to the way its effects are achieved. An artist has purpose; their artwork reveals the process of being purposeful.   This is what we hear and see too in live musical performance.

Performance Studies Revisited

I can now answer the question I asked earlier: what is the ‘performance’ a musician is performing? What is being performed is not music, the effect of what musicians do, but music making or, to put this another way, musical motivation.

It would make sociological sense to suggest at this point that the live performance of musical motivation works differently in different music worlds, but here I want to argue something different.   All music makers, it seems to me, signify their decision-making by reference to the same repertoire of motives; where they differ is in the relative weight they give to the different components of this repertoire. I would classify these as follows:


Entertainers are in ‘show’ business, which involves highlighting two different aspects of their musical decisions: on the one hand, entertainers are always considering the effect of the notes they play on their audience (their purpose is to be pleasing); on the other hand they are always considering the effects of the notes they play on their own audience-ratified personas, their sense of their performing selves as characters (James Brown is a good example of this sort of music maker). Musical entertainers do, then, put on shows that can be analysed effectively in the terms of theatre studies, musician as actor, though I would add that the kind of music-making being performed here overlaps with another kind of self-conscious musical performance that is not theatrical in this way.


Here, musical decisions are taken to articulate the true character of the musicians involved; their performances of music making are thus accounted for in terms of sincerity. The issue here is not so much whether someone’s music is ‘honest’ and ‘truthful’ (I don’t know what this would mean) but that we can understand their musical choices as direct self-expression. The problem here is that while for their listeners musicians’ honesty means that they are not putting on an act, for a sociologist their honesty is actually the effect of performing ‘honesty’. Keith Jarrett is a good example of this problem. As is quickly revealed by a Google search, Keith Jarrett’s individual genius is defined in terms of his obdurate pursuit of his own musical ends, from note to note, regardless of his audience. But it is equally possible to watch his live shows as entertaining performances of genius, genius indicated not by the notes played, but by Jarrett’s enactment of the intense, self-absorbed thought processes involved.


Jarrett’s genius is a particular quality of his individual improvisations.   Most musicians, though, are playing with other musicians, and their decision making is thus obliged to be part of a collective music making purpose. This is most obvious when note-making moves seem to be choreographed (as in much orchestral or big band playing; or in the dance routine of back-up singers—whose approach to the notes they sing looks very different to that of the stars whom they’re backing). In smaller groups (classical chamber ensembles or jazz combos) what’s involved here overlaps with my next category:


Here the musical decision making process is shown to be an effect of the notes being played by other musicians (or, of course, by oneself, which means that there isn’t really a clear distinction between self-discipline and self-expression). Live folk groups provide good examples of performed listening, especially when the lead instrument is being swapped around, so that each musician indicates different kinds of musical decision-making at different points in a song’s development.


This is the most important aspect of a musician’s intentional repertoire, a way of understanding musical decisions in which all the above motivations (except possibly entertainment) come together. Here performers indicate that their decisions depend on the way the music at that moment ‘feels’. This necessarily involves listening to and being ‘disciplined’ by the musical material itself, but is also central to what’s meant here by self-expression, the integration of musical and music-making emotion (Ian Bostridge’s merger between the composer’s work and the performer’s personality). What this makes clear is that not only do music makers in all music worlds refer in one way or another to all kinds of music-making intention, but that even within a single music world there can be quite different ways performing music-making. In classic rock, for example, as Adam Behr pointed out to me, musicians can indicate being overwhelmed by the sounds they make either by wildness, a kind of physical abandonment to the music (the Who, say) or by stillness, a kind of mental absorption in the music (Eric Clapton, for example, who even in Cream seemed to be making musical decisions in a quite different way than Ginger Baker).


What I’ve been arguing here is that we can analytically separate what musicians do to make music (their technique, the particular movements of hands, breath, etc.) from what they do to indicate the decisions they make to play this note in this way rather than another. As an overgeneralization one could say that a performance of making music necessarily involves (for technical reasons) different parts of the body than the making of the sounds. Thus singers indicate the intentions behind what their voice is doing in the movements of the non-sounding parts of their body, their hands in particular. For non-wind instrumentalists, by contrast, what matters most to this sort of expressivity, are their facial movements. This is humorously celebrated on You Tube in guides to playing rock guitar focused entirely on facial gestures and, as another clip shows, it is illuminating to watch a rock guitarist play without making any facial gestures at all.

This clip shows not just the difficulty of such inexpressive playing for the performer (who can’t stop his upper lip twitching) but also how unengaging the music is without the appropriate music-making gestures. This is further indication that we cannot bracket off the visual aspects of a musical performance as ‘extramusical’, as somehow not part of the ‘music itself’.   Live music is not and can’t be a purely aural experience. Even when a performer is not visible (a cathedral organist, for example) the visual context (the cathedral, the God-like invisibility of the organist) still determines how we hear the music making.

[The arguments here emerged from discussions in the Reid School Popular Music Seminar. Thanks to Deirdre Harnedy and all other participants for making me think again about performance studies and to Tom Arthurs and Tom Western for quotes. Particular thanks to Adam Behr for comments on an earlier draft, without which my argument would be even more muddled.]


Philip Auslander (2001): ‘Looking at Records’, TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies, 45 (1i).

Ian Bostridge (2015): Schubert’s Winter Journey (Faber & Faber).

Karen Burland & Stephanie Pitts (2012): ‘Rules and expectations of jazz gigs’, Social Semiotics 22(5) 523-543.

John Butt (forthcoming): ‘What is a “Musical Work”?’, Andreas Rahmatian ed. Concepts of Music and Copyright (Edward Elgar).

Nicholas Cook (2014): Beyond the Score. Music as Performance (Oxford University Press).

Richard Middleton (1990): Studying Popular Music (Open University Press).

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