The Body in Musical Performance

  • Tutor: Dr Catherine Laws
  • Level: C/4 (1st year students), I/5 (2nd year students), H/6 (3rd year students)
  • Modules codes: MUS00018H, MUS00018I, MUS00061C

Aims and content

This project will explore the significance of physicality in the composition, performance and reception of music.

We will examine the ways in which instrumental and vocal performers use their bodies, in relation to both sound production and expressive intent. This will include exploration of ‘traditions’ of gesture associated with particular instruments, styles and periods, and the ways in which dress codes and other aspects of presentation are employed in the expression (and suppression) of physicality. We will consider approaches to instrumental and vocal training in relation to awareness of ergonomics and physicality.

The project will also explore the ways in which compositional practices require and reflect an understanding of the performing body; idiomatic and non-idiomatic approaches to composition (both historically and today), the relationship between notation and bodily action, and the ways in which certain contemporary composers are exploring the physicality of sound production and the representation of the body on stage.

We will examine the significance of the body in the reception of musical performance, and the ways in which musicology and performance theory help us to understand aspects of physicality, gesture and representation.

The key questions to be addressed in the project are as follows:

  • how is the body mediated through musical performance?
  • what is the relationship between musical intention and physical gesture?
  • how does the visual influence our reception and understanding of the aural in this context?
  • how do we take account of (theorise) this relationship?
  • how does a understanding of these questions inform compositional and performance practices?

The project will comprise practical workshops (focusing on students’ own performance and compositional practices), lectures, seminars (including analysis of video footage), and tutorials.


  1. A seminar of 15 minutes, presented in class and subsequently written up for submission (20%);
  2. an essay (5000 words) on an agreed topic OR (by negotiation) a performance or composition. If the latter option is agreed, it should be accompanied by documentation analysing the ways in which the practical process is a relevant form of research; how it has addressed questions raised in the project.

Reading and listening

The research fields ‘music and the body’ and ‘music and gesture’ are fast growing but relatively new. Significant and useful sources are available, but some of the more interesting work is to be found in relatively obscure research papers, or in short sections of books covering wider topics. Further guidance will be provided within the project, and I will make sure that students have access to harder to find papers.

Three books are particularly useful for this project:

  • Godøy, Rolf Inge, and Marc Leman (eds.) Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement, Meaning. New York and London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Gritten, Anthony, and Elaine King, eds. Music and Gesture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Gritten, Anthony and Elaine King (eds) New Perspectives on Music and Gesture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011.

Other useful texts:

  • Aksnes, Hallgjerd. ‘Music and its Resonating Body.’ Dansk Årbog for Musikforskning XXIX (2001), 81-101.
  • Birdsall, Carolyn and Anthony Enns, eds. Sonic Meditations: Body, Sound Technology. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008.
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Cox, Arnie, ‘Embodying Music: Principles of the Mimetic Hypothesis,’ Music Theory Online XVII/2 (July 2011).
  • Davidson, Jane. ‘Bodily Communication in Musical Performance’, in Dorothy Miell, David J. Hargreaves & Raymond Macdonald, eds., Musical Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 215-37.
  • Fisher, George and Judy Lochhead. ‘Analyzing from the Body’, Theory and Practice: Journal of the Music Theory Society of New York State XXVII (2002), 37-67.
  • Leman, Marc. Embodied Music: Cognition and Mediation Technology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007.
  • Leppert, Richard. The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London and New York: Routledge, 1996 [1945].
  • Ouzonian, Gascia. ‘Embodied Sound: Aural Architectures and the Body’, Contemporary Music Review XXV/1-2 (2006), 69-79.

Learning outcomes

All students, on completion of the module, should have

  • participated in workshops exploring the body in musical performance;
  • developed an awareness of the role of the body in the composition, performance and/or reception of music;
  • demonstrated familiarity with relevant musicological and performance theory;
  • developed the ability to apply theory to selected examples of practice;
  • gained the skills to reflect critically on the role of the body in their own musical practice.

1st years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-7, 8 & 10.

2nd years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-7, 8 & 10.

3rd years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-7, 8 & 10.