5 The (actual) music, the music itself, musical

What do these phrases really mean? What kind of work do they try to do? What weaknesses in thinking about the nature of classical music do they hide?


Let’s begin our exploration of the delusions that underpin WCM ideology by looking at some clichés of musical discourse.


  1. ‘The actual music’ and ‘the music itself’

‘The actual music’ or ‘the music itself’ is a concept that I find constantly cropping up in discussions with students, usually because we are discussing performance-made meaning, the things scores seem to suggest in varied performances. What people want in such talk is a way of excluding performance variation in order to deal only with something people feel must lie behind it, something more than simply the score, something that includes form and meaning, yet precedes performance. Although one never gets a convincing answer to the questions, ‘What is the actual music in this case? Where is it?’, people still tend to believe that somewhere this level must exist. And it’s not hard to understand why. If you’re brought up as a musician to believe that every score encodes the music its composer imagined, and that a good performance recreates that, then you are bound to feel that ‘the actual music’—some underlying core—is there somewhere behind the score; and the thought that it might not be is quite frightening: it seems to deny everything one’s been taught to believe about both the nature of what one is dealing with and one’s mission as a performer.

‘The music itself’ is a powerful concept with a strong tendency to exercise its power over interpretation. Once you’re persuaded that there is an unchanging core that contains the essential identity of a piece of music then you have to accept, when you perform that piece, that you must at the very least fully perform all of that core. Or if you don’t you must expect people to complain that something vital is missing. But what is it? What does it consist of? In practice, no one knows. If it’s just the notes in the score then the concept has no purpose. And so it’s an idea that’s available to be used by anyone (but typically a teacher, a critic or a music analyst) who wishes to claim that something they feel is essential really is a key ingredient and must always be experienced in any performance. It’s coercive, in other words: it aims to force others to conform to one’s own understanding. It’s a way of turning a feeling about a piece into a directive that claims an objective, authoritative basis.

Suzanne Cusick objects to talk of ‘the music itself’ on several grounds linked to ways in which musical discourse is normatively masculine and patriarchal.[1] She cites Marcia Citron’s analysis of the gendered nature of the almost equally coercive concept ‘absolute music’ to argue that ‘the music itself’ ‘has always been both a gendered and a political entity.’(493) I don’t disagree (except with the word ‘entity’: more of that in due course); and although I’m going to come to normativity and patriarchy later in another context where they are especially obvious I don’t discount the insidious way in which ‘the music itself’, in functioning as an authority beyond question or individual interpretation, takes on, and draws power from, characteristics of patriarchy. In Cusick’s closely argued conclusion, ‘immersion in and identification with ‘the music itself’ provide us with a sonic experience of the middle-class self…, a sonic model of the middle-class’s image of god.’(495) This helps to deepen and substantiate Christopher Small’s view of WCM as sounding the values of white, middle-class westerners.[2] We shall come back to it in Chapters 30 and 32 when we look at ways in which WCM is understood in terms of religious belief and attachment.

Richard Taruskin, a few years earlier, described ‘the music itself’ as ‘a cordon sanitaire, a quarantine staking out a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, performed and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, this is, in perfect sterility.’[3] This aspect of the notion concerns the way in which it seeks to protect a space—a favourite space for music theorists—in which the notes talk to each other, according to ‘purely’ musical rules, without concern or need to consider anything those notes might evoke or resemble: abstract or ‘absolute’ music, uncontaminated by imagination or performance. We shall look at another of these quarantines later when we come back to ‘arrangements’; but this one is even more insidious because it does so much political work in disempowering performance or even imagined sound in the making of musical identity (as if there could be music without at least imagined sound). Taruskin observes how this kind of work is done in the case of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, ‘of all things’. It is indeed hard to think of any piece less sensibly separated from the impressions it produces in listeners’ imaginations. But that itself goes to show how ruthlessly the notion of ‘the music itself’ operates: if it can appropriate The Rite of Spring without raising a critical eyebrow, what can’t it do?

Henry Kingsbury, in his classic 1988 book on conservatoire culture, noticed that there were several different ways in which staff and students used the notion of ‘music’,

and yet each sense of the word is characteristically used with a particularly charged intensity (as though affirming a sacred or quasisacred belief) or as an implicitly accepted terra firma reality. When one asks what it is that conservatory students and teachers are talking about when they refer to music, the music itself, or the actual music, one answer is that to a considerable extent they’re talking about each other… they are talking about intercontextualized, configured social relationships.[4]

What he means here is partly that the same word has different meanings in different kinds of discussion, and that everyone knows immediately which is meant because they have all learned to make the same assumptions as they have learned to act as musicians. So ‘the music’ in one context means ‘the score’, which is a very curious mapping, unusually strong in English. French does not confuse to a similar extent ‘la partition’ with ‘la musique’; nor Italian ‘la partitura’ with ‘la musica’; nor German ‘die Partitur’ with ‘die Musik’; but you can see how easy it is to accept that confusion once you believe, and everyone agrees (because it’s constantly discussed) that there is ‘music itself’ independent of and preceding performance. ‘The music’ in this sense is not the score, but something more complex and meaningful yet at the same time pure and essential, transmitted by the score and yet somehow independent of sound, created, unchanging, eternal. Once a culture agrees this it is talking, in effect, about something godlike. That’s what Kingsbury means by ‘affirming a sacred or quasisacred belief’. So in coming down to reality, and asking what this actual music consists of, and where it is to be found, one is already close to blaspheming. That is how the concept is protected from scrutiny. It’s so well-embedded through repetition during training, and so sanctified through mystical valuation and suggestion, that it is almost safe from challenge. But not quite.

For what this kind of talk really concerns is whether people are agreeing that what they hear is what they ought to hear. Has the performer made the music in such a way as to reach and reveal the music itself? What that music itself really is is something on which musicians believe they agree at a particular place and time, even though they can’t tell you what it is. Still less can they tell whether musicians at other places and times would have agreed; yet that question never arises because it’s assumed to be something that never changes. What we’re dealing with here is another way of talking about what is agreed to be the proper character for a score. It’s a way of sanctifying what’s proper at the moment. Kingsbury (1988, 162–3) illustrated this using a criticism of Horowitz compared to Cortot, identifying three components of ‘the pure presence of the music itself’: 1) ‘A proper relationship of respect from the artistic performer for revered composer’, 2)  ‘a perceived affinity of the performer’s style with currently prevalent norms of performance,’ and 3) ‘a shared understanding of interpretive style between the performer and the critic’ [or indeed, I would add, the teacher or any musically trained interlocutor who shares this kind of specialist upbringing]. Essentially, you know that someone has got down to the music itself when you hear it. In other words, it has everything to do with performance. It’s just that performance norms are so inaudible because they are norms—the way everyone makes music at the moment—that one can’t hear the performance in the norm.

The very fact that we have need these phrases, ‘the actual music’ and ‘the music itself’, is a consequence of the fact that performance changes the identity of scores, minutely from performance to performance, and more radically as performance style changes over time. We need them, to provide spurious reassurance, precisely because there is no actual music or music itself. There are simply many different performances of the same (or similar) scores. Everything we’ve been trained to believe about the composer as the ultimate authority and the score as their law requires that there be unchanging meaning—that’s how states control behaviour—and therefore we have devised a form or words that reassures us that nothing changes. Having a notion of the music itself gives us a powerful tool with which we can criticise and exclude a performance that disrupts conventional understanding of the identity of a piece, that’s to say the character of music normally arising from performances of a score. We’ve already seen in Chapters 3 and 4 that the composer contributes less to this identity, and the performer more, than WCM ideology claims. And now it’s easier to see why that claim is made so strongly and insistently. If there is no music itself, but only music that arises out of performances, then WCM loses most of its claims to sacred status at a stroke. It becomes a practice of scores and of performances that take scores as their starting-points to make music. And we have to begin instead to see the performer as the music-maker, the everyday creator, and the composer as someone who helps, providing some notes with (one hopes) potential to sound good. Sacrilege indeed.

This is not to say that there is nothing in scores that contributes meaning or value to music in performance. Far from it. It is perfectly obvious that the composer contributes greatly, and that some scores give rise again and again to overwhelmingly powerful musical experiences when performed, whatever the performance style. Of course. Compositions are highly suggestive. But exactly what they suggest cannot be pinned down, or if it can then there will be few interesting performances. Just how far scores are from being definitive we’ve already seen in the Brahms Ballade in Chapter 3. In an earlier study I looked at three recordings of Schubert’s song, ‘Die junge Nonne’, leading to three quite different understandings of what is going on in the poem (religious fervour, fear, dying).[5] What is the actual music there? The notion is always contingent upon performance.[6]

Rather than draw boundaries around what must not be changed, it’s much more interesting, and more useful as a tool to test the concept, to try to find out what can be changed. Can we get a score to work convincingly, for example, by getting it to do the opposite of what it normally does? I attempted this, together with the pianist Mine Doğantan-Dack and soprano Diana Gilchrist, in a workshop in 2013, when we exchanged characters of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata and Schubert’s song ‘Erlkönig’, whose meters and rhythmic profiles are similar but whose traditional characters are opposite. I outlined what this requires for the Moonlight back in chapter 1.[7] In the workshop we did this principally by swapping their conventional tempi, taking ‘Erlkönig’ to dotted crotchet=ca 56 and the Moonlight to ca 75; but of course when you do that you change a lot more than just speed: the very different mood that the speed suggests also requires different articulation, loudnesses (dynamics in conventional musical parlance, but I want to reserve that word for something else that we’ll discuss later), vibrato (for the singer) and timbre. Do try this at home if you’re a pianist or singer. The Moonlight works remarkable well as a storm, and ‘Erlkönig’ recovers the full horror of a song about child abduction that we’ve lost in nicely-behaved Lieder recitals. Given that both make plausible musical and emotional experiences in themselves, where now is the actual music or the music itself? If the answer is only that it lies in the composers’ intentions, then it adds nothing and we have no need for it. I think it tries to do more than that, and fails. There is no ‘actual’ music or music ‘itself’. There are scores, and there are (real or imagined) performances starting from them that create musical experiences. Whatever sense one has of a musical composition emerges from, and may later be a residue of, those experiences.[8]


  1. ‘Musical’

We’ve seen how ‘the music itself’ is used as a tool for policing performance and talk about compositions. A related form of policing is the notion of being ‘musical’. As Kingsbury wrote,

The value of playing (or singing) “musically” is a genuinely sacred value in the conservatory, quite possibly the ultimate value…’ (1988, 51) For ‘it is commonly held among conservatory musicians … that a person either is or isn’t “musical,” and on such matters there is little that can be done to change things one way or the other. The statements that Johanna was “unmusical” were parallel in their thrust with saying that she was untalented. The voice faculty’s judgement of Johanna was in effect a statement of doom. (1988, 65)

‘Musical’ is thus the stamp of approval on your musical identity card: if you’ve got it you’re allowed to seek work, if you haven’t you’re not. The musicianship it accepts and the identities it permits are, of course, those that are currently normative. You may be accused of being unmusical either for not using the expressive resources of normative style (for sounding dull, in other words), or for using non-normative expressivity (for being unconventional); and a norm-constrained imagination in your listener may be unable to tell the difference, another factor that makes unconventional performance risky. In both cases you are failing to play by the rules, although obviously the second case is much more intriguing. Musicality in the first sense, of being interesting, can be taught; it is not a natural gift, god-given, in your genes, there or not. A good teacher usually has little difficulty in showing a student with adequate technique how to be musically interesting. (There’s a nice example of this in Bach playing, facilitated by András Schiff in a masterclass in Gstaad.).

Musicality in the second sense we have already seen constantly changing over time. One of my favourite examples is provided by the Slåttebrekk and Harrison website on Grieg’s playing of his own scores, mentioned in Chapter 3. Grieg’s musicality is quite unlike that of the modern Grieg ‘specialists’ they offer as counter-examples: the sound clips they provide are well worth listening to. Any number of early recordings of singers and violinists make the same point: their ensemble (or seeming lack of it, although in fact it may be carefully calculated for expressive purposes we now don’t even hear),[9] their very different vibrato, and above all—because we find it so horrifying today—their portamento, are all liable to be condemned as hopelessly unmusical now. And yet these were the superlative performers of their day. What is musical changes. That is why it’s easy to use as a license to work: it guarantees adherence to current norms. But it is not an absolute value, and it is wide open to abuse in the interests of preventing experimentation and the development of new ways of being musical.

And so again, this is a coercive word, used not because it rests in any objectively-demonstrable facts about musical ability but simply as another tool for constraining difference. If we weren’t so afraid of unconventional playing there would be no need for it. But we are, and it serves all too useful a purpose in performance policing. What is wrong with difference given that music can be made from one and the same score in so many different ways? If WCM training and practice are infected by delusions as gross and yet as powerful as these, on what other delusions does it rest?


Continue to Chapter 6: ‘Further Western Classical Music delusions’

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[1] Cusick, Suzanne G. 1999. Gender, Musicology, and Feminism. In Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds),  Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 471–98.

[2] Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. 1st ed. (Middletown CT: Wesleyan), especially his ch. 12.

[3] Taruskin, Richard. 1995. A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and “The Music Itself”, Modernism/modernity 2(1), 5-6.

[4] Kingsbury, Henry. 1998. Music, Talent, and Performance: a Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 158.

[5] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2007. Sound and Meaning in Recordings of Schubert’s “Die junge Nonne”, Musicae Scientiae 11(2), 209-36.

[6] For more on this see Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2012. Compositions, scores, performances, meanings, Music Theory Online 18(1), paras 3.2–3.6. Also Cook, Nicholas. 2014. Between Art and Science: Music as Performance, Journal of the British Academy 2, 1-25 at 7 (reflecting many of his earlier publications): ‘While… texts do not determine performances or the meanings they embody, they create a potential for the generation of certain meanings or kinds of meaning. These meanings emerge in the act of performance, and crucially, it is through performance that we come to know what meanings a given dramatic text or musical score may afford.’

[7] I’ve previously described this in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2013. The Emotional Power of Musical Performance. In Tom Cochrane, Bernardino Fantini and Klaus R. Scherer (eds), The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Musical Arousal, Expression and Social Control (New York: Oxford University Press), 41-54 at 51–2.

[8] I say more about this in Leech-Wilkinson (2012).

[9] This is likely to be a finding of the PhD thesis in progress by Christopher Terepin of King’s College London.

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