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Listening and Responding to the Evidence of Early Twentieth-Century Performance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020


Early recordings raise fundamental questions about our response to music. Why do these performances seem so strange to us? How could they ever have made musical sense to listeners? How might we make sense of them now, in our very different music-cultural environment? This paper looks at some of the ways in which musical sounds model other processes involving change over time. A mechanism is proposed that may underlie the cross-domain mappings generating musical meaning. Music is seen to be exceptionally adaptable to the modelling of other experiences, able to offer many potential likenesses, among which those with most relevance to what an individual brain already knows and believes are favoured by conscious perception. Performance and perception styles change over time as certain kinds of potential meaning are selected for their relevance to other aspects of contemporary experience. The model helps to explain how subjectivity is constructed and how it changes.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Musical Association

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2 Rob Cowan, interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gramophone, 79 (November 2001), 10–11. My thanks to Edward Taylor for this reference. The recording was reproduced in the accompanying cover CD (GCD 1101, track 12), taken from EMI CMS7 63750-2.

1 A transfer by Andrew Hallifax of the 1906 recording may be downloaded from <>. For help in playing FLAC files see <>.

3 A sound file is again available for download: <>.

4 The following three paragraphs, including the quotation, and two others later, were extracted from a preliminary draft of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to the Study of Recorded Musical Performances (London, 2009), < >>.

5 Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Record Guide (London, 1951; 2nd, rev. edn, 1955), 529.

7 Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, trans. Joyce Crick (London, 2003); Mary Eloise Ragland, ‘The Language of Laughter’, SubStance, 5 (1976), 91–106; N. J. C. Vasantkumar, ‘Postmodernism and Jokes’, The Postmodern Presence: Readings on Postmodernism in American Culture and Society, ed. Arthur Asa Berger (Walnut Creek, CA, 1997), 212–38; Frances Gray, Women and Laughter (Charlottesville, VA, 1994); John Morreal, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany, NY, 1983).

8 Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (London, 2001); Herbert M. Lefcourt, Humor: The Psychology of Living Buoyantly (New York and London, 2001).

9 Stephen Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (London, 2005), 82.

10 T. Matsusaka, ‘When Does Play Panting Occur during Social Play in Wild Chimpanzees?’, Primates, 45 (2004), 221–9.

11 Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 82–3.

12 Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 81.

13 Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, ‘Portamento and Musical Meaning’, Journal of Musicological Research, 25 (2006), 233–61.

14 Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA, 1991); Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals; Steven Brown, ‘The “Musilanguage” Model of Music Evolution’, The Origins of Music, ed. Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown (Cambridge, MA, 2000), 271–300. See also Steven Brown, ‘Contagious Heterophony: A New Theory about the Origins of Music’, Musicae scientiae, 11 (2007), 3–26.

15 See especially the literature on lullabies cited in Leech-Wilkinson, ‘Portamento and Musical Meaning’, and the more recent Charles O. Nussbaum, The Musical Representation: Meaning, Ontology, and Emotion (Cambridge, MA, 2007).

16 An excellent survey of approaches is Musical Communication, ed. Dorothy Miell, Raymond Macdonald and David J. Hargreaves (Oxford, 2005).

17 Roger J. Watt and Roisín L. Ash, ‘A Psychological Investigation of Meaning in Music’, Musicae scientiae, 2 (1998), 33–53.

18 Alvin M. Liberman and Ignatius G. Mattingly, ‘The Motor Theory of Speech Perception Revised’, Cognition, 21 (1985), 1–36; John Sloboda, ‘Does Music Mean Anything?’, Musicae scientiae, 2 (1998), 21–32, repr. in idem, Exploring the Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function (Oxford, 2005), 163–72; Patrik N. Juslin, ‘Communicating Emotion in Music Performance: A Review and Theoretical Framework’, Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, ed. idem and John A. Sloboda (Oxford, 2001), 309–37; Arnie Cox, ‘The Mimetic Hypothesis and Embodied Musical Meaning’, Musicae scientiae, 5 (2001), 195–212. For a philosophical approach towards the same theory see Peter Kivy, Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions (Philadelphia, PA, 1989), and Stephen Davies, Musical Meaning and Expression (Ithaca, NY, 1994), esp. chapter 5.

19 The single case that comes close to disproving this conclusion is that of Glenn Gould, whose highly unusual manner of performance, possibly an expression of Asperger's Syndrome, seems to lie beyond the norms of the period style. How Gould nevertheless made a career as a player is a fascinating issue and deserves much more focused study. On Gould and Asperger's see S. Timothy Maloney, ‘Glenn Gould: Autistic Savant’, Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, ed. Neil Learner and Joseph N. Straus (New York, 2006), 121–35.

20 Among many recent studies by Cross see especially ‘Music and Meaning, Ambiguity and Evolution’, Musical Communication, ed. Miell et al., 27–43; ‘Music and Cognitive Evolution’, The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Robin I. M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett (Oxford, 2007), 649–67; and ‘The Evolutionary Nature of Musical Meaning’, Musicae scientiae, Special Issue: Music and Evolution (2009–10), 179–200.

21 Monty Python's Flying Circus: Just the Words, ed. Roger Wilmut, 2 vols. (London, 1989), ii, 53–7.

22 Geoffrey Miller, ‘Evolution of Human Music through Sexual Selection’, The Origins of Music, ed. Wallin et al., 329–60 (p. 349).

23 For a sample of recent work see The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, ed. Isabelle Peretz and Robert J. Zatorre (Oxford, 2003); Music and Emotion, ed. Juslin and Sloboda; and The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, ed. Susan Hallam, Ian Cross and Michael Thaut (Oxford, 2009).

24 Tia DeNora, ‘Music as a Technology of the Self’, Poetics, 27 (1999), 31–56; eadem, ‘Historical Perspectives in Music Sociology’, Poetics, 32 (2004), 211–21 (p. 218).

25 The strongest examples of music's power in this respect come from music therapy. See, for example, Kari Batt-Rawden, Susan Trythall and Tia De Nora, ‘Health Musicking as Cultural Inclusion’, Music: Promoting Health and Creating Community in Healthcare Contexts, ed. Jane Edwards (Cambridge, 2007), 64–82.

26 Among numerous other studies see John Sloboda and Andreas Lehmann, ‘Performance Correlates of Perceived Emotionality in Different Interpretations of a Chopin Piano Prelude’, Music Perception, 19 (2001), 87–120; Klaus Scherer, ‘Vocal Expression of Emotion’, Handbook of Affective Sciences, ed. Richard J. Davidson, Klaus R. Scherer and H. Hill Goldsmith (Oxford, 2003), 433–56; and Patrik Juslin and Petri Laukka, ‘Communication of Emotions in Vocal Expression and Music Performance: Different Channels, Same Code?’, Psychological Bulletin, 129 (2003), 770–814.

27 Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music, esp. chapter 8, paragraphs 101–9.

28 Arthur N. Popper and Richard R. Fay, ‘Evolution of the Ear and Hearing: Issues and Questions’, Brain, Behavior, and Evolution, 50 (1997), 213–21.

29 Laurel J. Trainor and Robert J. Zatorre, ‘The Neurobiological Basis of Musical Expectations’, The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, ed. Hallam et al., 171–83.

30 See especially David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

31 See for example Zohar Eitan and Roni Y. Granot, ‘How Music Moves: Musical Parameters and Images of Motion’, Music Perception, 23 (2006), 221–47, and Juslin and Laukka, ‘Communication of Emotions’.

32 Alf Gabrielsson, ‘Emotions in Strong Experiences with Music’, Music and Emotion, ed. Juslin and Sloboda, 431–49.

33 For a clear introduction see Thomas Stainsby and Ian Cross, ‘The Perception of Pitch’, The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, ed. Hallam et al., 47–58.

34 The best synthesis of the recent evidence is in Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 62–8.

35 See especially Isabelle Peretz, ‘Brain Specialization for Music: New Evidence from Congenital Amusia’, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, ed. Peretz and Zatorre, 192–203.

36 Synaesthesia, the state in which this happens automatically and permanently, has generated much significant research into the neurological basis for this ‘blending’ or ‘cross-domain mapping’. See especially Richard E. Cytowic, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

37 Zohar Eitan and Renee Timmers, ‘Beethoven's Last Piano Sonata and Those Who Follow Crocodiles: Cross-Domain Mappings of Auditory Pitch in a Musical Context’ (forthcoming). I am extremely grateful to the authors for allowing me to see a typescript. A summary of a conference presentation appears in Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, ed. Mario Baroni, Anna Rita Addessi, Roberto Caterina and Marco Costa (University of Bologna, 2006), 286–7.

38 The estimate is arrived at in Bente Pakkenberg, Dorte Pelvig, Lisbeth Marner, Mads J. Bundgaard, Hans Jorgen G. Gundersen, Jens R. Nyengaard and Lisbeth Regeur, ‘Aging and the Human Neocortex’, Experimental Gerontology, 38 (2003), 95–9.

39 For this theory of consciousness see especially Susan Greenfield, The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self (New York, 2000).

40 Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, ‘Recordings and Histories of Performance Style’, The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. Nicholas Cook, Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and John Rink (Cambridge, 2009), 246–66. See also Stephen Shennan, Genes, Memes and Human History (London, 2002), and Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Chicago, IL, 2005). For an earlier working-out of this approach see Leech-Wilkinson, The Changing Sound of Music, chapter 7, paragraphs 20–32.

41 Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, ‘Musicology and Performance’, Music's Intellectual History: Founders, Followers and Fads, ed. Zdravko Blažeković (New York, 2009), 791–804. The material on Schubert song is also to be found in The Changing Sound of Music, chapter 4, paragraphs 21–3 and 37–45.

42 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Mastery of the Maestro’, Sound Figures, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA, 1999), 40–53 (p. 41, and cf. p. 52 on Cadillacs).

43 More examples appear in recordings every year. For a tiny sample I recommend the violinist Rachel Barton Pine in the Brahms and Joachim concertos (Cedille Records, CDR 90000 068, rec. 2002), and the recordings of Schubert's Winterreise by Christine Schäfer with Eric Schneider (Onyx Classics, ONYX 4010, rec. 2003) and by Nathalie Stutzmann with Inger Södergren (Calliope CAL 9339, rec. 2003).

44 In a series of lectures (forthcoming in book form) on ‘Musical Subjectivities’, this one entitled ‘Constructing/Composition Subjectivities’, the British Library, 16 February 2009.

45 To mention just one example, see Lawrence Kramer's essay on Schumann's Carnaval in Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History (Berkeley, CA, 2002), chapter 5.

46 Kramer's Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley, CA, 2007) is particularly interesting here, recognizing finally the power of performance to remake a score and the corresponding limitations of score to encode a work.

47 Elena Gerhardt with Coenraad V. Bos (piano), Schubert, Der Wegweiser (Winterreise, D.911, song 20), HMV matrix Cc10435-2, rec. 11 March 1927, issued on HMV D 1264, HMV EJ 154, HMV ES 275, Victor 6838 and Victor ND 535. Available for download from <>. Stutzmann, as in note 43 above, track 20.

48 ‘Building a Library’, CD Review, BBC Radio 3, 7 February 2009.

49 A treasure-trove of negative rhetoric along these lines is reconstructed in Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music: A Period Performer's History of Music (New York, 2007), esp. chapter 3. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978).

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