Lately I’ve been thinking about the topic of Performativity. A simple definition is hard to come by, but in the context here, I assume performativity to mean “the quality or condition of performance”. With this explanation in mind, here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

The following discussion is mainly concerned with instrumental music as heard and performed in the domain of Western Art Music. If I was an opera buff, I would probably want to explore opera’s own unique brand of performativity, given its theatrical nature. Perhaps another day.

Performativity is sometimes described as Performance Studies which could easily be confused with Performance Practices, a research topic I remember well from my days in Early Music. We used the latter term to describe information we gathered from historical sources about the original manner of performing one or another aspect of our baroque or renaissance music notation. For example, we often looked at historical tutors and music critics for clues about the use of vibrato. Later, when I embarked on a career in ethnomusicology, I encountered Performance Practices in a new context; Performance Practice: Ethnomusicology Perspectives, consisted of essays edited by Gerard Behague (1984) that asked many of the same questions, but in an entirely different venue. Having declared a distinction between PS and PP, I have no doubt that there are points of contact between the two.

Some readers will be surprised by the emphasis given to the reception of music, often taking attention away from its production of music. Others will be reminded of Reception Theory as developed by the great cultural theorist, Stuart Hall. Our critical eye looks out at the audiences and asks if they get it.


Performance Studies is one of the Brave New Worlds cultivated by Critical Musicology, also known as New Musicology. In addition to studying the construction of music (i.e., music theory), its historical context (musicology) and even its cultural context (ethnomusicology), we are now beginning to examine how its performance can affect its meaning. Music notation has been re-imagined by Nicholas Cook as a “script” instead of a “text”.

Certainly New Music with its many unusual settings for audiences and performers is very aware of the dimensions of performativity without ever citing performativity as its inspiration. Jazz too wanders into the zone of performance studies when it revels in music improvisation.

The Literature

Nicholas Cook, one of the musicology’s great authors, is our “go-to” writer on the topic. His collection of essays on performativity called Music, Performance, Meaning: Selected Essays (Ashgate, 2007) is brilliant. (More of his bibliography is found at the end of this essay.) You can get a great sample of his thinking by reading his online article, “’Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance,” in Music Theory Online, 7/2 (April 2001). He seems to me to be the natural successor of Christopher Small, the music world’s agent provocateur. We ethnomusicologists take great pride in the fact that he derived most of his radical insights from music cultures outside Western Art Music, as outlined in his book Music.Society.Education (1997/1996). Small went on to write about music performance in Western Art Music, along with a challenge to scrap the noun “music” in favour of  the verb “musicking”. See his follow-up book, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998).

Performativity as a topic of research first appeared in the theatre studies world. Richard Schechner led the way with his textbook, Performance Studies: An Introduction (2002) and its companion, The Performance Studies Reader, edited by Henry Bial (2004). A parallel line of research has been conducted by Marvin Carlson (Performance: A Critical Introduction, 1996) and the folklorist Richard Bauman (Story, Performance and Event: Contextual Studies in Oral Narrative, 1986). Felicia Hughes-Freeland has also stepped into the ring with her introduction and edited set of essays in Ritual, Performance, Media (1998). A standard text carried around by countless theatre students is Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception by Susan Bennett (1997) which covers a lot of the same ground. Note that all these authors have very little to say about music performance, but their thoughts are certainly applicable to our music world of concert halls and recital venues. Richard Schechner continues to be one of the foremost exponents of performativity in his role as editor of TDR – Traditional Drama Review, from 1962 till the present.

Whereas performativity is the application of theatrical conventions and insights into areas outside of theatre (such as concerts of music), dramaturgy illuminates the principals of performativity in theatre. See Dramaturgy and Performance, by Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt (2008) and Life as Theatre: A Dramaturgical Source Book, by Dennis Brissett and Charles Edgley (1990).  As you go down this road of inquiry, you will inevitably run into Bruce Wilshire’s, Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theatre as Metaphor (1991).

Eventually you will end up at the doorstep of Erving Goffman, a great Canadian sociologist. His book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959) was in every student’s backpack in the 60s. Long before the word “performativity” was coined, he envisioned the conscious application of theatrical principals, which he called “strategic interaction”, to one’s person-to-person encounters with job interviewers and Saturday night dates.

The Source

One of the root sources of inspiration for all of the aspects of performativity is the brilliant anthropologist Victor Turner. Like Christopher Small, he was inspired by the theatre of ritual that he saw in his anthropological research. He then turned around and used his new point of view to see the anthropology of Western Art Theatre. When it comes to suggesting Victor Turner readings, I hardly know where to begin.  The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969, 1995) is probably a good place to start. Richard Schechner offers some detailed explanations of his crucial theories.


Performativity also addresses the subject of authenticity, both from the point of view of the performer and the audience. The audience expects to witness the spectacle of the performer in the throes of an emotional storm, either with head thrown back, arms raised in ecstasy, or in Glenn Gould-like introspection, with visible signs of inner turmoil embraced by deep introspection. The performer consciously or unconsciously manifests the technical demands of their music into signs of super-human effort. Audience and performer agree that the successful outcome is “authentic” when these conditions are met.

The Performer

The quintessential problem for the performer was beautifully articulated in the 1970 movie Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson’s character explains to his incredulous listener (and future lover) that despite her deeply felt emotions derived from listening to him play a Chopin prelude flawlessly, he feels nothing. He feels like a fraud.

Many performers seem largely unaware of how much their performance emulates the world of theatre. To the audience, the performer may appear to be swept up in a sea of emotion, but in fact they are conducting themselves in a very calculating manner, just like an actor. For some performers, that calculation can even include theatrical gestures signalling emotion, without actually feeling the emotion internally.

Conversely, when a performer believes that he or she is supposed to be swept up in the ecstatic harmonies of say, Chopin, while performing his music, and does not do so, he or she may sink into despair, declaring their performance to be “inauthentic”. Some may worry that those feelings of euphoria must fight their way past the fear and loathing of exposing oneself on stage, sometimes to career-destroying ridicule. Sometimes they stifle the fear, and accidentally the euphoria, by ingesting beta-blocker drugs commonly used by performers to overcome stage fright.

The Audience

It seems that Western Art Music is in crisis mode when it confronts the question of its audiences. Despite the performers’ skill and “flow” (see below), whether string quartets or entire symphony orchestras, their audiences exist in a precarious state of being. The assembly of listerners sit stock still and passive in darkened recital rooms and cavernous concert halls, like Zen monks. A minority may be experiencing rapture over the crystalline logic of the development of the second theme, while the majority are lost in random streams of consciousness not related to the music, after coming to the end of their natural attention span (20 minutes or less, according to scientists). In either case, they are alone in their thoughts, despite being surrounded by hundreds of other alone souls.

Echoes of these disturbing observations are recorded in Regula Hohl Trillini’s unsettling book, The Gaze of the Listener: English Representations of Domestic Music-Making (2008) and Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment by Matthew Riley (2004) who tracks the transformation of WAM audiences from interactive spectacle to cultural voyeurism. But it is our man Nicholas Cook who brings it all back home in his book Music, Imagination and Culture (1990) where he conducts experiments on music students to measure their attention to musical forms (pp. 43-59). The results are mixed, if not alarming.

Audiences are also becoming very worldly. In this age of instant and accessible access to all performance arts, including popular and world music, the WAM listening experience is inevitably contrasted with similar contexts, yet with entirely different outcomes. One of the most obvious examples of this dilemma is found in the world of choirs. At one time, it was enough to sing the notes in tune and on time, staring intently at the conductor, music cradled in extended hands, standing to attention. Now, with the advent of gospel choirs, audiences see those walls of faces in a new and unsettling light. The music is still as beautiful as before, but the listening experience is now strained and demanding.

In many musics around the world, the role of the audience is a non-issue because the performers and audience are one and the same (unless the event is sacred or ritual in nature). Many times the players taking turns being the audience as they listen to their fellow musicians. But usually each participant performs and listens to their part in relation to the rest of the music being performed.

The Literature regarding Authenticity

There is one classic study that addresses the subject of authenticity, written by the towering figure of Theodor Adorno, and entitled The Jargon of Authenticity (1973). After that, the field is sparse. There are countless essays in Popular Music Studies as part of their investigation of the performativity of rock and roll singers. Perhaps the place to start is Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, by Hugh Barker (2007)


Finally, there are the theories of performativity inherent in re-enactment. If you’ve ever strolled through a historical building or reconstructed colonial fort with “actors” dressed in costume to re-enact the life and times of the living museum, you have seen re-enactment at work. My favourite re-enactment experience was at Old Fort Henry where I saw the fifers and drummers in their daily rounds, one sunny afternoon. At first I was a bit confused. All right, I admit I was fooled entirely. On my first visit, I really did think the fort was some sort of military college populated by earnest young people learning to perform the rigours of traditional military training, including the performance of fife and drum. Later I learned that it was just a summer job, albeit made in heaven.

Re-enactors are deeply committed to the principals of performativity, up to the point where they are challenged by tourists to declare their “real” life. Only a few places in North America, notably the Plimoth(sic) Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, will you actually encounter re-enactors staying in character 24/7; all other re-enactors will eventually talk about the character they are portraying, in the past, third person tense. All these contradictions are discussed by Stephen Eddy Snow in his book Performing the Pilgrims: A Study of Ethnohistorical Role-playing in Plimoth Plantation (1993). This form of performativity is particularly interesting because it is a conscious act of theatricality in a setting far from the conventions of the stage with its invisible fourth wall and audience suspension of belief.

Obviously the issues inherent in re-enactment are similar to the debates in theatre where performers must “appear”to be “real” (authentic), given that they are invariably nothing like the characters they portray. To this end, it is interesting to compare the acting methods taught be the schools of Delsarte and Stanislavski. The former consciously construct theatrical expression from role models while Stanislavsi students are required to draw upon their inherent emotional interiors. This debate is very
reminiscent of solo musicians who are expected to reflect the drama inherent in the music.


Eventually the dark side of performativity and dramaturgy on the stage and in real life rears its ugly head. Histrionics. That is the one-word criticism slammed at musicians who are “theatrical”, if not down-and-out “melodramatic”, during their performances.  The literature is very sparse, despite the fact that the word is frequently thrown around by critics. You will soon discover that histrionics is also a descriptor of a personality disorder! A related, somewhat less disparaging descriptor is “showmanship”, often added to a review where the critic believes the “show” is a disguise employed by a performer to cover their technical weaknesses.

The Flow

Yet another facet of performativity is flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is a lived moment more commonly known as groove in the world of jazz and pop music. Although Mihaly has written vast tracts of theory backed up by research on the topic, suffice to say here that it is a moment of transcendence when you and your fellow performers are so synchronized in technique that you are overwhelmed by a common feeling of here-and-now transcendence. Many’s the time I’ve felt the warm glow of Mihaly’s flow as I took part in a performance of a symphonic band or orchestral concert. I think instrumentalists live for the experience, and it could very well be another side to the “authentic” performance, along with the deep satisfaction of “the job well done”, mentioned above.


Western Art Instrumental Music in the concert hall may be high art in the music world, but it is often abysmal when seen as “theatre”. I’m talking way beyond the niceties of bowing and smiling (although we know how badly even these fundamental actions can be enacted). For example, concert pianists break the most severe infraction known in theatre by facing stage left during the entire length of time they are on stage, with their shoulder glaring mutely at the public. The only book I know that attempts corrective measure in the realm of WAM performance is by David Wallace, entitled Reaching Out: Musician’s Guide to Interactive Performance (2008) although it stills assume the public wants to simply sit and listen. Essentially, WAM instrumentalists are in desperate need of the insights provided by performativity. Or perhaps, following the example of World Musics, WAM should abandon the stage outright, with all its dilemmas surrounding the “look” of its sound.

Pioneers of amateur music-making like Stephanie Pitts in her book, Valuing Music Participation (2005), and Ruth Finnegan’s classic ethnography of amateur music and dance in the Milton Keynes, England, The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town (2007) point to a fundamental if not drastic re-assessment of WAM music-making. Their research suggests that it should move back into the living rooms and kitchens from whence it came.

A Final Thought

Western Art Music Appreciation classes are full of anxious audience members (i.e., listeners) asking what’s wrong with their ability to sit through a concert without losing their concentration. Theoretically, the truly competent audience member has a Bachelor of Music, and many years of music theory and history to reveal the arcane knowledge pouring from the instrumentalists. All others are outsiders, desperate to be admitted into the arcane world of Bach and Mozart.

They are not at fault.

It is the performers of WAM, if not WAM itself.

Nicholas Cook Select Bibliography

At one end of his corpus, we have his mini-marvel, Music: A Very Short Introduction, 137 pages of breath-taking, virtuosic musing about music. At the other end is his editorial wonder, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, in company with Anthony Pople. The former costs virtually nothing while the latter burns a very deep hole in the pocket-book. Both are indispensable.

The following essays by Cook have been great sources of inspiration to me.

‘We are All (Ethno)musicologists now,” in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed.Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 48-70.

“Music as Performance,” in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (London: Routledge, 2003), 204-14

“Analysing Performance and Performing Analysis,” in Rethinking Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 239-61

“Music Minus One: Rock, Theory, and Performance,” in New Formations, 27 (1995-96), 23-41

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