Review | Experience and Meaning in Music Performance by Martin Clayton, Byron Dueck, and Laura Leante (eds.)

Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Edited by Martin Clayton, Byron Dueck, and Laura Leante. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. [x, 232 p. ISBN 9780199811311. $29.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index, companion web site (

Reviewed by AJ Kluth

When investigating the phenomenon of music, scholars in the musicological tradition have approached music as a disembodied phenomenon; a text laid bare for analysis. The affecting, world-creating nature of music as relevant to performers and listeners cannot, though, be located in any score. By earnestly considering music as an embodied, socially situated performative activity, researchers in recent decades have begun to appreciate music in new ways while investigating its manifold significances. Questions regarding the significance of performance practice and nonverbal communication to musical performance and meaning, as well as development of methods by which to study said significance, fill the pages of the new edited volume, Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. It should be no surprise that the editors all share a disciplinary background in ethnomusicology, a discipline which explicitly values and investigates (among other things) the social situatedness and import of music. Ethnography, ethnomusicology’s calling-card methodology, plays a vital role in each of the nine chapters which comprise the volume. But, the research projects of each of the contributors ask questions which cannot be addressed by ethnography alone. It is only natural, then, that a turn toward interdisciplinarity is characteristic of the chapters which make up the work and the interest of the greater project alike.

While the methodologies chosen to investigate questions of performance, experience, and meaning as they pertain to musical performance are varied, the overall research goal of the contributors to Experience and Meaning in Music Performance is unified. When they began their project in earnest (circa 2005), editors Martin Clayton, Byron Dueck, and Laura Leante set out to develop “an original research paradigm, one that would incorporate specific proposals for the study of embodiment, gesture and nonverbal communication, entrainment and verbal reports of musical experience” (2). Since this goal is more attitudinal than prescriptive with regard to research practice, it is only natural that the subject matters of each chapter are related by their interdisciplinarity of method as much as the questions being researched.

It is worth noting that in addition to the book itself, a companion website has been created by the publisher to augment the research presented. The fact that audio samples, video files, and color versions of illustrations are offered highlights the privileging of the experiential in this project. And, it seems entirely within the spirit of this research to allow the reader to experience these musical performances in addition to reading about them. Small pictorial symbols appear in the text to indicate to the reader that a supplemental media element is available at the website for their consideration. I offer here a brief summary of the research questions and methods used to investigate said questions of each chapter.

The first chapter of Experience and Meaning in Music Performance is contributed by the editors and introduces us to and contextualizes the keywords of the book: performance, experience, and meaning. The book’s primary focus on performance privileges the act of music making with the goal of considering the significance of unique performative aspects implicit therein. Their consideration of experience emphasizes embodiment and corporeality in music performance while also recognizing the cultural and social mediation concomitant with music performance. With regard to meaning, it is noted that musicians and listeners ascribe meaning and significance to music, but that music can also lend meaning to events and spaces. The editors are careful to assert the significance of thoughtful interdisciplinarity in pursuing music performance research and that there is no “right way” to produce this research: “Rather, what excites us as scholars is precisely the limitless possibilities offered by the interconnections between and imbrications among the different themes we have addressed” (16). While I share this excitement, I also recognize the weight of responsibility it places upon the researcher. When deploying methodologies from both the humanities and the sciences, disciplines which spring from epistemologies long held as incommensurate in addition to their differing methodologies, researchers take it upon themselves to situate findings responsibly while recognizing the types of truth or knowledge available via the epistemologies of the methodologies they choose. The scholarly burden of mixed methodologies and the epistemologies which birth them is not light and the ability of empirical data to relate to humanistic data should not be assumed.

This mixing of epistemologies and methodologies takes center stage in chapter two wherein the interesting phenomenon of musical entrainment is juxtaposed against an ethnographic research model in Martin Clayton’s “Entrainment, Ethnography and Musical Interaction.” Aiming to generate new insights by said juxtaposition, the author fleshes out an interdisciplinary methodology which hopes to offer a richer modeling of musical interaction and coordination than could either discipline alone. By marrying dynamical systems theory (the larger theoretical context of entrainment) to ethnography the author hopes to offer insight into the complex relationships between what people do (measured empirically) and what they intend to do (gleaned ethnographically). Clayton’s attempt to create an account of musical interaction and coordination which looks not only to scientific explanations but also to understanding via the social sciences is certainly richer than an account from one perspective alone.

Ensemble musical performance is characterized as a micro-social model of human interaction in Nikki Moran’s paper (chapter three), “Social Co-Regulation and Communication in North India Duo Performances.” Moran’s research problem addresses the fact that while musical performances are commonly regarded as inherently social phenomena, little is known about the pragmatic, functional processes by which that interaction actually takes place. To investigate said functional processes, she offers a research paradigm which augments ethnography with empirical research on the spontaneous, nonverbal behavior of North Indian musicians in duo performance. Video recordings of performers were made to analyze nonverbal gestures and comportments presented by performers and then related to performers’ descriptions of both their social and musical relationships. Her findings reinforce the notion of the rich, socially embedded nature of co-performance and the musical ensemble as micro-social model.

Implications of the theory of entrainment are central to chapter four, Mark Doffman’s “Groove: Temporality, Awareness and the Feeling of Entrainment in Jazz Performance.” Hoping to increase what can be known about the elusive concept of groove (defined here as both the rhythmic patterning of a performance and the intersubjective phenomenal experience of co-performance), Doffman compares data collected ethnographically about a jazz trio performance with empirically measured data. By mapping empirical data about shared rhythmic timing (manifest as phase angles of rhythmic confluence) upon commentaries from the band, the author hopes to clarify the nature of groove and perhaps quantify factors involved in the feeling of groove. The attitude with which Doffman approaches his data ultimately rescues groove from quantitive reduction and suggest the primacy of agency and play in greater or lesser degrees of entrainment, and therefore, groove. His interdisciplinary approach to questions presented by this phenomenon in a live, non-clinically restricted environment offers not only insight, but also a useful framework for further investigation.

Glaura Lucas’ “Performing the Rosary: Meanings of Time in Afro-Brazilian ‘Congado’ Music” investigates the ability of musical time to produce spiritual and social meanings in chapter five. Lucas brings together data from both ethnography and laboratory analysis of audio and visual recordings of an Afro-Brazilian musico-ritual tradition which understands music as an activity by which to create an interface for spiritual interaction with another space-time reality. The author’s research investigates how the study of music, as used for spiritual and social purpose in Congado rituals, can offer insights regarding the people’s values, perceptions, and experiences of reality. Lucas also identifies rhythmic entrainment as an important phenomenon in Congado ritual which imputes social and spiritual meaning from rhythmic convergence. While I do not doubt the veracity of Lucas’ claim to the significance of rhythmic entrainment in Congado ritual, her presentation of laboratory investigation and ensuing data is relatively shallow. A footnote refers the reader to chapter two’s summaries of the relevance of entrainment to ethnography and musical interaction but this well-written chapter would still benefit from further explication of the data gleaned from the audio and visual recordings ostensibly made.

A fascinating group of ideas and disciplines forward Andy McGuiness’ theory of experience during musical performance in chapter six, “Self-Consciousness in Music Performance.” McGuiness accounts for the blissfully non-reflexive state reported by some music performers as the result of avoiding cognitive activity in order to avoid shame-inducing self-consciousness. This avoidance allows performers to ignore the risk of shame which might occur should a performance not go well or not be received well. By relying on muscle memory for musical performance rather than cognitive activity, the musician is free to perform in a state of pre-reflective doing unimpeded by the risk of shame. The author grounds his self-reflective description of shame in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and phenomenological theorists invested in the reflective notions of self. This theory is juxtaposed against findings regarding music learning and performance techniques taken from interviews with members of rock bands who were questioned about said practices. McGuiness’ theory is a speculative but fascinating look at potential motivations behind particular learning and performance techniques which may allow for what he calls unhindered creative or, felicitous music performance. His parallel use of ethnography and philosophical conceptualizations of performances offers a richer, more nuanced and potentially useful perspective of the act of artistic performance.

Chapter seven, “Rhythm and Role Recruitment in Manitoban Aboriginal Music,” utilizes ethnography, considerations of role and role recruitment via metapragmatic theory, and explorations of ‘publics’ and ‘counterpublics,’ to explore the phenomenon of meter in music performance. Meter, in this sense, is more than simply a temporal subdivision of musical time, but can be understood as a socially constitutive act which “hails hearers to culturally particularised (sic) roles” (136). Author (and volume editor) Byron Dueck argues that: “In their varying responses to, and replications of, metrical summons, listeners enact different kinds of belonging and establish differentiated social groups, including publics” (ibid). Using ethnography in tandem with transcription and empirically measurable musical elements, he makes an uncommon and effective argument for the polysemous significance of meter. More than just a musical element to be taken for granted, Dueck paints meter in performance as a feature “implicated in the creative work of building social imaginaries” (158).

Editor Laura Leante contributes chapter eight, “Imagery, Movement and Listener’s Construction of Meaning in North Indian Classical Music.” Focusing on the oft forgotten role of listeners and reception in musical performance, she investigates the changing significance of the music, as well as gestures associated with its performance, as reflective of the changing attitudes of the audience. Conducting interviews with music performers and listeners, Leante compares listeners’ reported perceptions of particular ragas after listening both with and without knowledge of the raga’s name and, implicitly, said name’s cultural significance. Findings from these extensive interviews show a changing attitude in the audience toward musical significance which is contrary to the traditional, or official significance afforded the music.

The ninth and final chapter, “Embodiment in Music Performance,” contributed by editors Martin Clayton and Laura Leante, reflects on the methods and implications of previous chapters and their relevance to the overarching concept of embodied cognition. Theories of embodied cognition, it turns out, are implicated by this work’s overall focus on performance, experience, and their relationship to meaning. Explicitly attempting to overturn the mind-body dualism which underpins much of the last several hundred years of scientific, psychological, and even humanities-oriented inquiry, embodied cognition theory recovers corporeality as an implicit and necessary condition for cognition. This final chapter brings the work presented in earlier chapters (regarding gesture, embodied social dynamics, rhythmic entrainment, etc.) into focus as parts of a larger attitudinal and methodological thrust toward recognizing music research as a vehicle for embodied cognition theory research. It includes a useful summary of various instantiations of embodied cognition theory and briefly addresses ways in which research on music performance can both benefit from, and contribute to, embodied cognition research. Music performance seems uniquely situated to inform this type of research:

We perceive others’ intentions and feelings through their bodily movement, and thus embodied interactions underpin our sense of self, our social relations and our capacity for intersubjectivity and joint action. Again, in every case one can readily find links to musical applications and to ways in which music research could in turn potentially enrich embodied cognition theory in general. (194)

The authors continue with a useful outline of the different senses in which music performance is embodied and its significance to embodied cognition theory. Following the theoretical list are descriptions of two practical instances from fieldwork in which the authors recognize the correlations between gesture, embodiment, and musical cognition. By offering these research examples, they display how a continued interdisciplinary approach may lead to richer understanding for researchers of all disciplinary methodologies employed.

The overall goal of the editors of the Experience and Meaning in Music Performance project has been to “present a novel and productive view of how cultural practice inflects the experience and meaning of musical performance, challenging the dominance of the discursive without writing it out of the picture” (2). These chapters successfully embrace interdisciplinarity, aim to remove the perceived gulf between discourse and performance, and show that they are not mutually exclusive activities but rather activities which inflect and inform one another. For this type of interdisciplinary work to progress, further work exploring and mediating the relationship of the epistemologies and methodologies of the sciences and humanities must be done. But this much is certain: musical meaning cannot be found in a score, but only in the culturally-situated, subjectively-experienced mode of performance. To effectively seek an ever greater understanding of music’s significance to human interaction and self-understanding, research models like those presented here must become the norm. The benefits of well thought-out methodological plurality are manifest in these pages and support the authors’ estimation:

This work is . . . informed by a view that music can be studied productively from a remarkable variety of disciplinary and methodological vantage points and that we are all obliged to explore the relationships between those approaches and to try to make sure that this multiplicity is a strength (through interdisciplinary conversation) rather than a weakness (through fragmentation). To put it another way, interdisciplinary may be a desirable option in many fields but it is inescapable in music studies. (15)

The strength of the work presented in Experience and Meaning in Music Performance bodes well for the future of interdisciplinary approaches to research. Responsibly mixed methodologies are herein shown to bear results that can enrich understanding not only of music performance and its correlate interests, but of the disciplines from which music performance research borrows methodologies. This attitude of multiplicity in research is indeed shown to be a strength rather than a weakness for all researchers and disciplines involved.


AJ Kluth comes to UCLA’s ethnomusicology program (systematic musicology specialization) after having received graduate degrees in humanities and social thought (NYU) and jazz saxophone performance (DePaul University). His research interests include contemporary philosophical interpretive strategies of musical meaning, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, ethnomusicology, and jazz studies. He currently manages the Space is the Place subsection of the Sounding Board.


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