From Stage to Page: Studying the Performance of Music

A Musicology of Performance Sep 17, 2015

Why study the performance of music? Is it not the composer who creates “the music” that listeners of Western classical music enjoy hearing? Does the performer matter? What can an instrumentalist, conductor or singer contribute to “the music” left behind by the composer and immortalised in the notated score? Well, if performers didn’t matter, why do we remember their names, attend their concerts and buy their recordings?

But while performers may matter, isn’t it simply the music critics’ and journalists’ job to assess performance against some cultural norm of how “the music” should be performed? What else could be said that might deserve the label “musicology”?

Although such questions have been debated now for decades, with more and more studies being published that focus on the role of the performer in our perception and evaluation of standard repertoire pieces, the paradigm shift in attitude is far from accomplished. The residues of the “page to stage” or “score to performance” approach are prevalent as music scholars struggle to overcome prejudices favouring the compositional/authorial hand, the supremacy of the written sign and of analytical theory over auditory stimulus and embodied experience. The tenet that the role of performance is to bring out compositional structure is strongly ingrained, and performance analysts tend to look for such equivalences when aiming to explain the effectiveness of various interpretations.

A Musicology of Performance has a very different take. It builds a bottom-up theory of musical performance by placing the performer truly in the centre and exploring what she or he actually does. It offers many examples when the “flow of signification” is from “stage to page”; where the perceptual analysis of performances leads to the interpretation of the score, to discoveries in “the music” that are made audible by the performer. I use these instances, as when I discuss performances of the Preludio movement of Bach’s E Major Partita, to show how often score (compositional) analyses can be irrelevant to performances. Structural segments identified through harmonic or other score analyses may be far less important for performers who instead use physical-embodied matters such as hand position, figuration, bowing, sonority, exhilarating virtuosity and so on to shape their interpretation of “the music”. In other words, what Carolyn Abbate called the “drastic” (vis-à-vis the “gnostic”) is here captured and discussed at length, for perhaps the first time (at least in any real depth and detail) since Abbate’s call for such an approach in an article published in 2004.

Furthermore, this approach highlights various musical hierarchies that might be less clear if approached from the vantage point of music theory. For instance, a student may be told to execute the notated rhythm accurately, to pay attention to harmonic motion and to observe articulation marking, among other instructions. When this student is faced with the score of the Loure movement of the E Major Partita, however, complications may arise due to potentially conflicting information. A performance analysis – as opposed to a score analysis – can better help the novice because the auditory signal clarifies the hierarchy assisting the shaping of gestures that create momentum; in this case the harmonic content (dissonance-resolution) should override the prerogative of rhythm and turn the rhythmic pattern on its head.


Such observations lead to another novel contribution of this book, namely an exploration of the interaction among performers. Through published interviews, biographies and comparative listening, cross- as well as inter-generational dialogues can be observed. These highlight the importance of aural traditions and aural/embodied learning: the true bread and butter of performing musicians. Collaborating with, modelling, observing, imitating, absorbing the music-making of all kinds of performers – such interaction goes under the skin of performers and contributes to their own musicianship and musical persona. In our current competitive higher education world where funding is scarce and reserved for the written word published in ranked journals with a high impact factor (the buzz word for saving money, meanwhile, is technology), the educating and nurturing of musicians is seriously endangered. The study of performance shows the limited importance for the performing musician of the written word, of treatises, of theory, of music history. On the other hand, it underscores a hundred times the significance of practice, of participation, of listening; of doing rather than thinking. Thus A Musicology of Performance is also a call to question, on the basis of evidence provided, the wisdom of current trends and policies in musician education (at least in the UK and Australia). It questions the push for more research output in place of appropriate measures for excellence in artistic practice.

Finally, the book offers initial steps towards enlisting Deleuzian concepts to account for differences between performances. It explores how terms like molar lines, molecular lines and lines of flight can be adopted to tease out the roles of different performance features in creating the style – unique or otherwise – of various interpretations. There is a multitude of interactive elements and clusters of elements that contribute to the overall aesthetic and effect of a performance from the cultural and historical to the technical, musical and physical, as well as the neurological. Thinking of Deleuzian assemblages and multiplicities while drawing analogies with complex dynamical systems might be a way forward, a means of accounting for the multimodal experience and multidisciplinary understanding of Western classical music performance.


A Musicology of Performance: Theory and Method Based on Bach’s Solos for Violin is a must read for academics and post-graduate students and an essential reference point for the study of music performance, the early music movement, and Bach’s opus. It is freely available to read at

Dorottya Fabian

Dorottya Fabian is Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales and author of A Musicology of Performance (OBP 2015).