6 Further WCM delusions

6.3 You must play structure


A fine study of musicology’s difficult relationship with performance is Nicholas Cook’s Beyond the Score (2013), whose second chapter is largely concerned with the belief, shared by most musicologists and performers, that it is essential to identify a piece’s ‘structure’ and then in some way or other to perform it.[1] ‘Structure’ can cover a lot: the way a piece is made using melodic, harmonic or formal ‘ideas’ (usually recurring patterns of pitches), which may either be ‘constructed’ by the composer deliberately or unintentionally but either way (musicians are taught) through a combination of technique and genius; or larger-scale formal planning which applies patterning to longer passages or even whole movements; or anything that the composer can be argued to have done that a commentator thinks important. In every case, the commentator sees the performer as being tasked with sounding whatever they think is important about the composer’s structural working. Exactly how one might do that is another matter, a matter on which performers, teachers and critics are never likely to agree; fortunately perhaps, as it remains one area that norms have failed to conquer thoroughly. Does one emphasise the theme when it returns; does one stress the flattened supertonic because it’s a feature of the piece’s threatening character; does one under- or over-play the false recapitulation? And so on. But there are some assumptions that are currently shared across the board, outstandingly that compositional phrases are to be marked by separating them in performance, typically getting quieter and a little slower towards their ends, and making a slight break before the start of the next, as if one were reading phrases and sentences from a book. Put like that it seems so obvious as to be beyond question. But, for all its similarities and despite the attraction of the grammatical metaphor, music is not words: it makes sense less precisely (non-semantically) and therefore more flexibly and variously. No specific meaning is being transmitted; and so the way in which one element relates to the next is not constrained by a need to mean one thing rather than another. Moreover, as Cook has shown by comparing music and speech recordings from people born during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century (2013, 71–7), the way speech is nuanced to enhance meaning has changed, so that what we think is natural in speaking is not what was natural when the earliest recordings were made. We should not be so surprised, then, that when we listen to the oldest recorded musicians we do not hear musical phrasing, or other structural features, being sounded in the way we regard as natural at the moment.

Cook offers a sophisticated and revealing example in his chapter 3 (2013, 56–90), which compares Heinrich Schenker’s analysis of the G-flat Schubert impromptu (Op. 90 no. 3) with the recorded performance of a pianist he admired, Eugen d’Albert (1864–1932; cf Schenker 1868–1935). While d’Albert’s performance is close in several details to Schenker’s advice to performers of this score, it is very far away from Schenker’s structural analysis which, as Cook shows, has much more in common with the modernist performances of younger pianists. Schenker’s theoretical ideas changed, in other words, while his conscious sense of how pieces ought to be performed remained the same (even if he may unconsciously have been influenced by new approaches). It was a younger generation of theorists, reading Schenker and listening to younger musicians, who were the first to feel that formal structure and performance fitted naturally together, because by then they did. What’s so delightful about this example is the extent of the mismatch between theory and taste in one individual musical thinker: what works perfectly in Schenker’s theory is simply not what works perfectly for him in practice. It’s hard to think of anything that could show more clearly just how separate ideas about music can be from experiences of it; or of why it’s so important not to allow performance, and beliefs about what is ‘proper’ in performance, to be dictated by ideology.

There are further examples of this kind of ‘rhetorical’ playing (Cook’s useful descriptor), including playing straight through the composed and notated phrase-breaks (which Schenker specifically recommends (Cook 2013, 72)), in recordings by Grieg of his own scores, these offering a particularly telling example given that the composer is supposed to know best. These Grieg performances are well discussed and illustrated on the website made by the pianist Sigurd Slåttebrekk and producer Tony Harrison at www.chasingthebutterfly.com, who comment that ‘Grieg in his own performances contradicts almost everything his own written page seems to reinforce.’ And there are further examples in Anna Scott’s work on Brahms as performed by pupils of Clara Schumann.[2] Our assumption that phrasing must be sounded were not theirs: ‘structuralist performance … should be seen as a historical style’ (Cook 2013, 87), not a fact of nature. If the challenge for performers at the moment is how to play structure without overdoing it, without making it crudely obvious, does the fact that one can easily overdo simply reflect the fact that it’s peripheral to music cognition in the first place? In Cook’s words (87), ‘it is not even obvious that it makes sense to think of structure as something that compositions ‘have’, as opposed to affordances for the creation of structural and other meanings in performance.’ In other words, it’s just an option; and so the question for the inquisitive performer becomes ‘what (other) kinds of senses can these notes make?’


Part of the problem with the idea of structure in performance lies in the tendency to think of it as physical form, as something that’s there because the piece exists and—like all things that exist—has structure. On this rests the plethora of metaphors for music that draw on architecture or landscape. Goethe may or may not have called architecture ‘frozen music’ but it’s an idea that has resonated with many. [3] Sometimes it’s useful (if a little bizarre) to take a metaphor literally and see what it would mean, as a way of testing what kind of plausibility it can hold. If we start with a classical revival building, as in this photo of Holkham Hall in Norfolk, UK, we can think metaphorically of various qualities it might share with music.

Rhythm is clear in the columns and regular windows, whose spacing implies equal time taken to move from one to another. Harmony could be claimed a very loose sense, that the ‘composition’ is ‘harmonious’, meaning that elements combine into larger simultaneities. Counterpoint might be claimed in the layers of windows were it not definitive of musical counterpoint that the same material combines at a distance, not simultaneously. And as for form; is there plausible musical form here? One could try to see it as a musical ABA form, but the principal unit here is in the centre, which in musical ABA is subservient, as here:

However well this works musically it makes little sense for living unless you’re identical twins or spouses who don’t get on. Charles Rosen sees the sonata principle as key to the classical style, so here is Holkham Hall in sonata form.


The problem that’s crudely exposed here is now obvious. Spatial and temporal perception work quite differently. The building exists, it has form, it can be appreciated as a whole, none of which is perceptually true of music, despite the 200-year tradition of seeing music as an object, a ‘work’. Music is an experience: it happens, it doesn’t exist; and as something that happens, through responses to sounds heard over time, it makes quite different perceptual sense to anything that has physical structure. Ways have occasionally been found to relate the two, as in the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis’s scores that share their outlines with his architectural drawings, pitches on the page following curves of surfaces in the drawings. But that is not what happens in most WCM. In music as perceived you are always experiencing the present moment, never observing the whole. You can only observe the whole by converting it into space via a technology (such as score or waveform) for visualizing it: but that observation is not an ecological musical experience; it is only pattern recognition.

That musical form is not perceived as a whole is well-confirmed by research in music psychology that showed listeners unbothered by reordering sections of a musical composition. I discussed this in Leech-Wilkinson (2012):

As Gabrielsson and Lindström report (2010, 383),

Konečni and his co-workers . . . demonstrated that changing the order of movements in Beethoven sonatas and string quartets, randomizing the order of variations in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or rearranging the order of different parts in sonata form as in the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony in G minor K. 550, had little or no effects on university students’ ratings on various hedonic (e.g., beautiful, pleasing) or emotion- related (e.g., exciting, emotional) scales.

Tillman and Bigand (1996) chunked three pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Schoenberg into (musically adequate) segments of about six seconds, and then played these either in original or in backward order to university students, who rated them on emotion-related scales. There were significant differences among the pieces in all scales but only two significant differences between the two versions (original vs. backward) of each piece. They concluded that for these subjects, musical expressiveness was mainly influenced by local structures within the chunks, not by global musical structure.

Cook (1987) recomposed the endings of six significant piano compositions by canonical composers and found that university music students’ preference for the modified versions increased in proportion to the length of the piece. The further the end from the beginning the less problematic (indeed, the more desirable) was a non-tonic ending. This only emphasizes the extent to which musical response operates locally, as the oldest performers a century ago assumed. Performers seem to outline structures, and feel that they are, but in fact all they are doing is working from moment to moment while keeping a sense of longer-term intensity modulation: a little more here, a little less there, and so on. If there is more direct control exercised over the whole it has yet to be shown.[4]

All of this confirms Levinson’s intuition (1998) and Lamont & Dibben’s (2001) demonstration  that structure is less important to listeners than the musical surface.[5] And so,

We really have little choice but to conclude that music is made (sounded) and perceived locally, through those details of the musical surface that performers are able most precisely to modify and of which listeners are most aware. All this indicates what in all honesty we know very well, that music is controlled and perceived from moment to moment: long-term structures are theoretical, useful for composers, an invitation from analysts to imagine music in a particular way, but apparently not perceptible (save in the vaguest outline via memory). (Leech-Wilkinson (2012), 4.10)

The landscape metaphor is more interesting because it allows the notion that music is a journey, something that happens in relation to objects but does so over time. Steven Isserlis aims to capture the interaction of local perception with a view of the whole when he maintains that

a performer who understands the structure of a work will be blessed with the freedom of a bird flying above [a] forest, perceiving each detail in all its exquisite clarity, but able at all times to make out the overall direction of the path. Foreknowledge of the form—the story—must inform the interpretation from the outset.[6]

But is that really so? It’s not as if one has much choice about where to go as one plays a score: (with a few twentieth-century exceptions) there aren’t alternative paths through the score; it’s not really possible to get lost. What Isserlis means is that a sense of a goal enables a performer to judge more persuasively the sounding of each step along the way, to move purposely rather than haphazardly from note to note. This may be so, if not actually then at least in increasing the performer’s confidence that their decisions about how to shape each moment are not arbitrary but have some larger rationale. In such a heavily policed environment that reassurance is worth having. Equally, in a less condemnatory and anxious environment, we might gain a valuable interpretative and psychological freedom by abandoning the illusion of perceptible long-term structures; because, in line with the research just summarised, it’s very possible—perhaps likely—that shaping well the local moves (step by step) inevitably leaves listeners at the end feeling that the whole has been well-formed too. How could that feeling not emerge from the persuasive performance of each moment? Might it then be that WCM ideology emphasises structure for reasons of its own? One might be (following Cook 2013) that structure became a concern as an aspect of the take-over of musical thought by the values of twentieth-century modernism in which making structure visible was virtuous. It’s easy to relate to this the notion that the composer is a genius in construction, supporting the narrative in which the composer-god can be presented as supremely organised and far-sighted, while at the same time offering a way of imagining oneself as sounding the composer-god’s plan?

WCM behaves more like a story, given that the characters’ fate is unknown at the start: one has to read the whole in order to find out what happens. Isserlis offers this analogy, too, but still with the claim that

Music, like fiction, needs form and shape in order to be believable or moving. Needless to say, musical forms can be infinitely varied—and perhaps the word ‘story’ is confining it too closely, when so much music might as easily be perceived as a poem, a fantasy, a reverie; but whatever its nature, a composition needs the discipline of a preordained structure in order to attain the inevitability of satisfying art. (Isserlis 2018, 127)

WCM ideology needs this to be true. But there is ample evidence that it isn’t in the work of all those writers who begin with no idea of how they are going to end (Charles Dickens a particularly telling example). Being in the same position as the reader simply admits that a story, and indeed a piece, can go anywhere so long as each moment follows interestingly from the last and provided that at the end there is a sense of completion. In other words, it’s a matter of how the experience feels, not of how it’s constructed (or not). A composer may have put multiple layers of structure into a piece, because composers have been brought up within the same ideology or (for composers before the nineteenth century when it became explicitly promoted) because it’s a convenient way of generating extended music from modest materials. But that does not mean that that structure must be sounded in performance, particularly since it seems not to be doing the perceptual work that the ideology claims for it. In sum, as performers well understood before the advent of modernism, you don’t have to play structure: all you have to do is take the listener convincingly from one moment to the next. Everything else is optional, which is not to say that it is without value or purpose if it helps the performer perform.


Continue to 6.4 ‘Current performances offer the best solutions’

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[1] Cook, Nicholas. 2013. Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press), 33–55.

[2] Slåttebrekk, Sigurd and Tony Harrison. 2010. Chasing the Butterfly: Recreating Grieg’s 1903 Recordings and Beyond… http://www.chasingthebutterfly.no/?page_id=87. Scott, Anna. 2014. Romanticizing Brahms: Early Recordings and the Reconstruction of Brahmsian Identity (PhD thesis, University of Leiden).

[3] The possible origins of the phrase are traced by Grey, Thomas. 1992. Metaphorical Modes in Nineteenth-Century Music Criticism: Image, Narrative, and Idea. In ed. Steven Paul Scher, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries (Cambridge University Press), 93–117 at 95–6.

[4] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2012. Compositions, scores, performances, meanings, Music Theory Online 18(1), paras 4.8–4.9. Gabrielsson, Alf, and Erik Lindström. 2010. The Role of Structure in the Musical Expression of Emotions. In Juslin, Patrik N., and John A. Sloboda, eds. 2010. Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Application (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 367–400. Tillman, Barbara, and Emmanuel Bigand. 1996. Does Formal Musical Structure Affect Perception of Musical Expressiveness? Psychology of Music 24, 3–17. Cook, Nicholas. 1987. The Perception of Large-Scale Tonal Closure. Music Perception 5, 197–205.

[5] Levinson, Jerrold. 1998. Music in the Moment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). Lamont, Alexandra, and Nicola Dibben. 2001. Motivic Structure and the Perception of Similarity. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 18(3), 245–274 at 263-4.

[6] Isserlis, Steven. 2018. Reflection. In Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, and Helen M. Prior (eds). Music and Shape (New York: Oxford University Press), 127–8 at 128.

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