In the beginning was gesture: piano touch and an introduction to a phenomenology of the performing body

Dogantan-Dack, Mine (2011) In the beginning was gesture: piano touch and an introduction to a phenomenology of the performing body. In: New perspectives on music and gesture. Gritten, Anthony and King, Elaine, eds. Ashgate, Aldershot. ISBN 9780754664628. [Book Section]


Within recent performance studies the expressive gestures performers employ in shaping melodic patterns received much attention from researchers. According to a commonly proposed argument, the experience of motion we have when listening to melodic patterns arises from the recognition of similarities between such patterns and various bodily gestures. Our understanding of gestural meaning depends partly on the structural properties of the melodic patterns as defined by pitch, meter, rhythm and harmony. More importantly, however, attribution of gestural significance derives to a large extent from the expressive shaping of the melodic figure by the performer through variations in tempo, dynamics, vibrato, etc. In the words of one researcher, ‘to be realized as gestural a pattern must be embodied in an act of performance which conveys a unitary impulse of some kind, or at least be capable of being so embodied’ (Cumming 2000: 136). One aim of empirical performance research based on measuring the so-called expressive variations has been to explore the microstructure of gestural shapes that performers give to melodic patterns. In these studies, measurements involving spectral and wave-form analysis start with the onset of the sound initiating the musical unit being scrutinized. Obviously, in the absence of sounding phenomena there is nothing to measure.

In this chapter, the author presents research regarding initiatory physical movements carried out by the performer before a gestural unit actually starts sounding. These movements take place at the beginning of, and in between, musical gestural units. As such, they are often performed in silence. While they have been entirely neglected in recent performance studies, for the performer, such preparatory gestures are both physically and psychologically an integral part of the sounding pattern. They prepare the moment of impact between the body and the instrument, and have a profound effect on the expressive/affective shape of the sounding part of the complete gesture. They greatly contribute to the elusive performance phenomenon of touch, and are to a certain degree specific to the instrument.

As a professional pianist herself, the author draws all her examples from the piano repertoire. After presenting a short historical survey of relevant literature, she discusses the research methodology appropriate for studying initiatory performance gestures, which she describes through a phenomenological approach. She argues that particular kinds of initiatory gestures are related to particular rhythmic structures. She explores their possible origins in the light of recent neuropsychological and neurophysiological discoveries, and asks whether they have commonalities with gestures we observe in non-musical contexts. She concludes that unless empirical performance research takes these ‘silent’ gestures into account, resulting accounts of performance expression would necessarily remain incomplete.


Cumming, N. (2000) The Sonic Self. Musical Subjectivity and Signification. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Item Type: Book Section
Additional Information: Updated version of the same item published in the earlier 2006 edition.
Research Areas: A. > School of Media and Performing Arts > Performing Arts
Item ID: 3189
Depositing User: Dr Mine Dack Dogantan Dack
Date Deposited: 24 Nov 2009 11:02
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2016 14:16

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