Posted in Project 3: Exploring Chromaticism

Research point 2.4, Part 1b: Technical and circumstantial factors in the interpretation and actualization of musical score in performance

Continuing on from Part 1a, in which I have examined the changing function of musical notation through history and the dualities it has created between the composer and performer, the score and performance, the objective and subjective performance, as well as the shifting ideology in music; in this post I will write about the technical factors that influence the interpretation and actualization of musical score. This includes the analysis, instinct, expression, memorization and physicality, as well as some other circumstantial considerations that can affect the process.

To begin, resulting from the dualities that have surfaced with the shifting function of musical notation, the role of analysis and intuition in regards to performance has spurred contrasting outlooks in the present times. On one side of the debate, the doctrinaire thought requires the performers to not only remain subservient to notation, but also make their interpretations subservient to the findings of rigorous analysis, whereby “every analytical finding has an implication for performance” (Berry, 1989: 44). Moreover, there are authors, such as Narmour (1988: 319 and 340), who further argue for ‘theoretical and analytical competence’, insisting that ‘many negative consequences’ can arise if “formal relations are not properly analyzed by the performer.” Unlike their crude suggestions that an interpretation can be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ depending on the analysis carried out by the performer, there is a more practical standpoint that questions the methodological rigidity that is often attached to analysis, as well as its assumption that there is an absolute transparency between conception and action, in which “every aspect of his or her [performer’s] understanding of music finds an outlet in the performance itself.” (Clarke, 2002: 64)

The assertion of the pragmatic current of thought has been articulated by those like Dunsby (1989: 7), who denotes that while there is an overlap between understanding the musical structure of a piece and communicating it through music, they are not the same kind of activity. As Rink (2002: 36) further postulates, performer’s analysis is a distinct type of analysis which is concerned with the contextual functions of different elements in the score, both locally and as a whole, and means of projecting them. As he denotes, it is the dynamic musical shape and its temporality rather than the static formal structure that is manifested in the performance – what is usually downplayed in the act of pure intellectual analysis. In this sense, I will paraphrase my current piano teacher, who made a very interesting analogy of musical structure being like architecture, the certain features of which can come alive and made clear through the performer’s projection that occurs in time, serving like a tour guide on the musical journey of the audience. With this said, Rink (2002: 37-39) argues that while Shenkerian analysis can depict tonal structure in its hierarchical complexity, with its analytical demonstrations of motivic material being ‘fascinating on paper’ and certainly useful to the performer, recreating each analytic instance in sound is highly dubious, problematic and even ludicrous. As such, the theoretical analysis “represents an approximation of some ideal”, while as Cone (1968: 34) indicates, the interpretation is “a choice: which of the relationships implicit in this piece are to be emphasis, to be made explicit?”

Along with establishing how the performer’s analysis differs from the theoretical analysis, Rink (2002: 36) coined the term ‘informed intuition’, acknowledging the importance of intuition in the interpretative process, which is not only ignored by the formalism and the idealism of the doctrinaire thought, but also taken to be ‘out of the blue’. Instead, informed intuition situates the intuition within the considerable body of knowledge and experience that the performer in the Western classical concert tradition possesses. In this way, the more rigorous analytical elements are seen to be “incorporated within a larger synthesis influenced by considerations of style… genre, performance tradition, technique, instrument … as well as performer’s individual artistic prerogatives” (39), being assimilated into the ongoing evolution of a performance, and being parallel to the practical demands and conception of the musical material.

It is interesting that the tension between the doctrinaire and the pragmatic views on analysis and intuition also affect the conception of expression, as well as the ethos of the performers themselves and their levels of expression in performance. With the weight of the doctrinaire ideology that has dominated music since the 20th century, as Clarke (2002: 63) identifies citing Seashore, expression is often defined as a “feeling in music [that] consists in esthetic deviation from the regular – from pure tone, true pitch, even dynamics, metronomic time, rigid rhythms etc.”, with score being ‘the music itself’ and expressive performance regarded as ‘some kind of modification thereof’. In the case of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who was convinced that “music exists in an ideal state never to be fully realized” (Dunsby, 2002: 227), this conception culminated in an almost ‘pathological devotion’ to create a transcendental, pure level of performance using the technology of recording and editing, which can never be achieved in a live performance setting. Contrasting this abstracted view, Clarke (2002: 65) provides not only a more realistic definition of expression that is seen as an “inevitable and insuppressible consequence of understanding musical structure” in “a conscious and deliberate attempt by performers to make their interpretations audible”, but also transforms it into a dynamic concept shaped by a wide range of factors such as human body and bodily movement, possibilities of the instrument, the acoustics of the performing environment, audience, mood and intention of the performer, stylistic and cultural norms, etc. – which I will distinguish as the factors of physicality and circumstance.

In terms of physicality, the body, the instrument and the space are the actual sites of actualization of the notated score, where its structure is articulated and expressed through interpretation. As for the corporeality, the nineteenth century treatises referred to the constant interplay between musical structure, expression and the body, with Baillot, for example, suggesting how the physical movement both arises and creates the effects associated with different tempos. (Davidson, 2002: 145) With more scientific research in this area today, Davidson observed how the majority of movements represent much more than the purely ergonomic baseline of sound production, and instead serve as carriers of expression, including swaying movements and other bodily gestures that are unnecessary for the basic task of producing the sounds of the written music on an instrument. (Clarke, 2002: 67) Interestingly, Davidson (2002: 145-146) also mentions how the rhetoric surrounding musical expression itself draws heavily on the body. Concerning space, as Clarke (2002: 191) points out, it constitutes not only an important component in the composition of spatially distributed works, such as in antiphonal music, but it can inform the musical structure to convey the aura of a musical work. In this regard, many pieces were written for specific types of performance space and often convey characteristics of such space, sometimes even its materials, surroundings and perhaps ideology, being written “to exploit the kind of acoustic for which it was intended”. For example the church music written for a large and resonant performance space differs from the chamber music intended for the domestic environment. In this sense, the musical notation might be able to codify certain spatial information.

From my personal experience, my piano teacher, whom I have previously mentioned, would often talk to me about spatial considerations in choosing a piece to perform at a certain event, due to how textures might become sharper or more blurred in different venues, which can alter some characteristics of the composition and the way it is performed. From my earlier memories when I was performing intensively on the violin, I remember always having to adapt to the venue, often being quite surprised by which structures and musical elements came to be emphasized or lost simply because of different reverberant acoustics. Finally, music and notation are also shaped by the instruments and their particular properties and limitations, while in performance, the actualization of the written music is highly affected by the abilities of the performer and his or her physical interactions with the instrument. It is noteworthy that one of the main reasons computer systems fail to simulate human performance is the lack of any sense of physical commitment and effort in relation to their realization of the notated score. (Clarke, 2002: 191)

Moving on to the memorization of the score, it is important to note that even towards the end of the nineteenth century, memorized performances were considered to be of bad taste, as well as an act of sensationalism (Williamon, 2002: 113-4). It was Clara Schumann, who, along with establishing the idea of the performer as the subservient interpreter of a musical work, also set a precedent for musicians to play in public without a score as a serious practice that has today become a measure of professional competence for musicians. There are four principle kinds of memory, which are combined through complex interaction. Aural memory refers to the mind’s ear and internal clock; visual memory to the mind’s eye and mental snapshots of the written score; kinesthetic memory represents the muscular or tactile memory that allows the automatic execution of the notes; and last, but not least, conceptual memory refers to the conceptualization of the musical structure.

It is important to note that rather than creating a literal and static note-to-note model of the score, the process of memorization translates architectural attributes in a much looser way in the procedure of diachronic unfolding. As Rink (2002: 45-46) explains, the performer creates a sense of form-as-process, with the tonal areas felt as points of gravitation that music flows towards or away from, carrying different weight with an interplay between stable, unstable, static, active, expanding and contracting phases in the melody and the musical texture. Likewise, tempo and rhythmic shapes aren’t memorized as entities, but ongoing successions of governing pulses subject to moment-to-moment adjustments, while the dynamic fluctuations become contours in time. (46-48) Similarly, Williamon (2002: 122-123) describes the mental representation of the score as a kind of internal map used to recall specific landmarks or cues of different hierarchy that guides the retrieval of the memorized material. Along these lines, I would propose that during the performance, the performers continuously create and recreate different aural, visual, kinesthetic and conceptual graphs and diagrams based on the original notation and its cues, which unfolds in “the dialectic interplay between diachronic process and synchronic whole.” (Rink, 2002: 48) This ‘rescoring’ is not just mental, since the performer would often physically rescore music by writing on his or her copy in order to shed light on certain properties of the original notation in the evolution of their interpretation. It is also significant to consider the role of the editor who often transcribes the manuscripts and somewhat intervenes in what the ‘original notation’ is.

Lastly, the process of actualization of the notated music in performance is highly influenced by a host of circumstantial aspects. For example, the ensemble performance, which involves musical and social interaction between a group of performers, differs significantly from the solo performance. It is interesting how performers have to consciously or subconsciously enhance or suppress some of the individual expressive ideas in order to blend with the overall sound (Goodman, 2002: 156-157), a negotiation that a solo performance would not entail. There are also multiple physical differences between instruments, especially in terms of the amount of time it takes for a note to be sounded, since the rise time on stringed instruments is longer than wind instruments, for instance. (155-156) As such, the absolute synchronicity suggested by the written music is hindered by the minute discrepancies in timing that are “beyond the limits of human skill and perception.” Other than that, performance is also a two-way communication and the performer picks up different cues from the audience when actualizing their interpretations. In the exposure to the audience, due to high degrees of arousal, many performers can experience stage fright with different mental, physiological and behavioral symptoms which can impair the actualization of music, especially the dexterity, technique, spontaneity and expression. There are also other circumstantial factors, which are, however, outside of the scope of this blog post.

To conclude the two lengthy posts about the complex relationship between musical notation and performance practice in relation to interpretation and actualization of music, I will just briefly mention how much more appreciation I have for both of these fields. I was really surprised how notation can codify not only the explicit, basic information about musical structure, but contain implicit details such as physicality of instruments and the historical, spatial and ideological dimensions of a musical work. In the same way, I realized how much more intricate the performance practice is, from the process of memorization to the mind/body relationship and similar. Discovering the distinction between the idealistic and pragmatic views on the way musical notation is to be treated in performance also helped me re-evaluate my own practice and performance credo: coming from a more doctrinaire training, I finally understand the words of my current piano teacher and her insistence on expression and spontaneity, who opened me up for a more pragmatic ethos. At any rate, in the next post I will analyze five performances of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3, drawing in from everything I have learned and written about here. 


Berry, W. (1989) Musical Structure and Performance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dunsby, J. (1989) ‘Guest Editorial: performance and analysis of music’. In: Music Analysis, 8. pp.

Cone, E. T. (1968) Musical Form and Musical Performance. New York: Norton.

Narmour (1988) ‘On the relationship.

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