Experience and meaning in music performance

The Open University


Project summary


Entrainment Network

Entrainment in Congado




Detailed project description

The major research project Experience and meaning in music performance, directed by Professor Martin Clayton, investigated musical performance of several kinds, experience and meaning construction. The research concerned the role of "entrainment" (i.e. the synchronisation of musicians and listeners to musical rhythms); gestural communication and movement; and the relationships between these psycho-physiological processes, and processes of meaning construction. By correlating musicological description, ethnography and analysis of the movement of both performers and listeners, members of the project team investigate how the evidence of bodily movement relates to the formal analysis of music, and how both of these articulate with verbal reports on musical experience and with accounts of musical meaning. The central thread of the project comprises our work on north Indian raga performance: other threads include studies of jazz (Mark Doffman), posthardcore rock (Andy McGuiness), Cuban popular music (Adrian Poole) and Afro-Brazilian Congado (with Brazilian scholar Glaura Lucas).

Research Questions and Problems

At the heart of this project lay the question, ‘How does the immediate experience of musical sound relate to processes of meaning construction and discursive mediation?’: in other words, what is the relationship between our immediate involvement in musical experience, and the way we talk about music, including assigning meaning and value? In order to explore this question, it is necessary to combine verbal reports about musical experience with empirical methods that are not dependent on those reports. This project, therefore, synthesized traditional ethnographic work (such as interviews with musicians) with investigation of the non-verbal or paralinguistic behaviour associated with music making. The key problem we addressed was: how can empirical study of non-verbal behaviour in musical performance be integrated into a programme of ethnographic research? In addressing this question we also asked: what can we learn about processes of performance, reception and meaning construction by studying non-verbal behaviour as well as verbalised reports?

Research Context

Some of the streams which fed into this research from other disciplines were:

  • Research on the phenomenon of entrainment - the synchronisation of two or more periodic rhythmic processes - in the biological, cognitive and social sciences.
  • Applications of this and related ideas in music psychology, and in the study of proto-musical behaviour in child development.
  • Film and video-based studies of human interaction and communication.
  • Challenges in recent decades to the idea of mind-body duality, and the emergence of new theories on the embodied nature of cognition.

These trends have influenced thought in a range of musicological fields. This project aimed to develop theoretical paradigms and methodologies in this area, and the features of Indian classical music (such as the fact that it is transmitted orally, performed without a score and yet the subject of a sophisticated theoretical tradition and a rich metaphorical discourse) made it an ideal testing ground for these studies.

Data collection

The project addressed the key question by attempting to correlate three different kinds of information: music transcription and analysis; ethnographic interviews; and analysis of the physical movements of performers and listeners. All needed to be gathered by means of audio-visual recording. Recordings were made in the following situations:

  1. Concert performances, in both public concerts and private recitals.
  2. Teaching and rehearsal sessions.
  3. Interviews with performers, their students and listeners, which will investigate the intentions behind performance and the experiences of performer and audience.

Recordings of Indian music were carried out in Mumbai (April 2003 and May 2005), Pune (December 2006), Kolkata and elsewhere in West Bengal (December 2004 and January/February 2007), Cambridge and London (from 2004). We have also made recordings of Congado ritual in Brazil (May 2006) and of jazz and rock music performance in the UK. A large sample of recordings were archived by the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), British Library Sound Archive (BLSA) and Archive and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, India (ARCE).


Performances were subject to a preliminary stage of analysis, in which the main features of interest are described, alongside the most interesting features of the performers' interviews and (where available) observations from teaching and rehearsal contexts. From these recordings a subset were selected for detailed transcription, which include both musical and gestural information: the latter are based on coding of certain features using observational analysis software. (For examples of analyses see Clayton 2007.) From these pieces we isolated extracts for more detailed coding, and the statistical analysis of the resulting data.

Discussions with listeners, and sections of interviews with musicians, were interpreted according to Tagg's method of music-semiotic analysis. This method, based on applied Peircian semiotics, uses analysis of para- and inter-musical associations made by listeners to identify the 'meaning' of particular music features within a given cultural context.

These different analytical strands are synthesized in order to address key hypotheses relating to the project’s aims.

Last updated 1 April 2007