Interpretation is a commonly understood term among musicians, a term denoting the “stylistic representation of a creative work,” (Stevenson 2010).[1] However, interpretation is often wrongly believed to be a self-consistent and complete toolset for preparing the score for performance. Rather than merely augment the accepted definition of interpretation, I argue that a new term must be used to represent the superset of tools valuable to the performer, of which the traditional methods of interpretation are a subset. I argue for the use of the term Performance Design (PD) to indicate the totality of means and methods by which live concert performances are planned and prepared. Included in these means are tools from Neuroscience, Information Theory, and other audience-centric disciplines. 

 Traditional 20th-century post modernist historicist notion of interpretation relies on the notions of so-called “authenticity”[2] and of strict adherence to the wishes of a composer. These ideas rightly react against the worst excesses of an era[3] in which conductors routinely edited the text of a score, trimming so-called “excess” measures and passages, augmenting the orchestration, and frequently adding excessive portamenti to leaps in the stringsThis practice is widely panned as a general rule today, though its status as an accepted cultural practice dates before the advent of the LP, with Gustav Mahler’s own retouching of Schumann, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The well-documented view of composers such as Schoenberg, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Britten was that they did not want their music to be “interpreted” - Ravel saying “Il ne faut pas interpreter ma musique, il faut le réaliser.”[4] Similar comments by many composers repositioned the autograph as the final and complete word on how their music should be performed. 

Within present musico-cultural norms (here referring to western classical music culture unless stated otherwise), it is acceptable and appropriate for a composer to adopt this or any other orientation on the range from near-total organization (as found in Stockhausen) to near-total chaos (as found in Cage). However, an unintended consequence of this position is an often ahistorical approach to performance of music of eras in which composers did not see their own music in such rigid terms.[5] Schuller is perhaps the most outspoken exponent of this particular view and its best defender. “Given human fallibility and variability, absolute perfection is probably not achievable. But it is certainly the goal that conductors must strive for—in order to have the right to interpret, to realize, the works of the great masters, whose genius is many, many times greater than their own.”[6]

This is a concept which Botstein successfully rebuts in equally barbed rejoinder. “It is nearly incomprehensible that a musician of Schuller’s caliber should be entirely impervious to the intellectual sea change that has come upon musicians and scholars with respect to how a score might be read and how music can be and has been understood particularly as an aspect of history. At stake here is not adherence to fashion but rather the absence of any attempt at methodological self-criticism.” (Botstein 4) Botstein alludes to a “sea change” that brings in a much more humanistic pursuit that acknowledges the history of a piece and all of the aspects of performance that are illuminated. Modern practitioners know this so-called “sea change” as the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, first coined in the 1980’s and often traced in practice to the prominence of recordings of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt with Conscentius Musicus Wien beginning in the 1960’s (a time when performances might be called “historically authentic” without irony)HIP brings into PD the notion of accounting not only for precisely following the notated score as Schuller exclaims, but also the notion of sensitivity to the performance conditions under which the piece would have been performed. This includes using instrument designs and ensemble tunings appropriate both to the time and the specific region or even village in which a composer may have been working. 

HIP improved PD considerably and served to directly inform the practice of interpretation by means of opening up the kinds of interpretive questions regarding ornamentation that would have previously been answered by blind application of current performance trends. It is important to acknowledge that Implicit in the previous statement is the idea that using original ornamentation instructions is better than doing otherwise. I assert this to be true though it is beyond the scope of this paper to make a complete argument for such a statement. This also raises a philosophical question, also beyond the scope of this paper, regarding the point at which a notation in a given dimension is musically salient or musically essential to the composer’s wishes.

HIP as a movement has slowly spread its reach from scholar-performers giving strikingly divergent performances of so-called "early music" (defined here as music prior to Bach and Händel) to what is now, to varying degrees, a guiding principle for musical study in most parts of the classical music establishment. As to its precise parameters and obvious limitations much has been written and debated. However, even those at the poles, Taruskin as perhaps its chief critic and Zaslaw as perhaps its most well known exponent, find it difficult to argue with a simplified formulation such as performers, “doing [their] homework”.[7]

At this point, the limits of interpretation are mostly reached, as the scholar performer has diligently studied the manuscripts, the various editions, the cultural habits of the time, and the relevant contemporary documents. They have musically prepared the work scrupulously, and yet the preparation of a performance is not nearly complete. This is the point where an enlarged model for PD becomes necessary to fully describe the relationship between composer, performer, and audience. For such a relationship, a number of additional disciplinary tools must be appropriated into the performer’s tool belt in order to shape the experience of performance in an active and conscious way. Undergirding any appropriation is the idea that a performer must also investigate the mediation of information from the performer to the listener. There are many sub-disciplines within the sciences that contribute meaningfully to PD by investigating music perception, musical semantics, etc. in the same way that musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, are among the disciplines that have contributed to HIP. This particular curated network could be thought of as unified in attentiveness to the activities of the brain of the hypothetical audience member, and could therefore be thought of as Neuroscience-Informed Performance (NIP). It is not necessary at present to develop particular criteria for what fields may or may not be included beyond the broad definition given. NIP is meant to serve as a flexible container for research across a broad range of disciplines which contribute meaningfully to the relationship between audience and performer. This is just as the formulation of HIP in the larger sense Zaslaw described serves to encompass all those fields which do likewise for the relationship between composer and performer.

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Works Cited

  • Botstein, Leon. "On conducting." The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 11 (1997): 1-12.

  • Cohen, Joel E. "Information theory and music." Behavioral Science 7, no. 2 (2007): 137-163.

  • Farberman, Harold. The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Perspective.New York: Alfred Music Publishing, 1997.

  • Meier, Gustav. The Score, the Orchestra, and the Conductor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

  • Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels Of Our Nature.New York: Penguin, 2011.

  • Schuller, Gunther. The Compleat Conductor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

  • Stevenson, Lindberg, ed. The New Oxford American Dictionary.3rd. New York, 2010.

  • Taruskin, Richard. "On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance." The Journal of Musicology(University of California Press) 1, no. 3 (July 1982): 338-349.

  • Zaslaw, Neal. "Editorial." Early Music20, no. 2 (May 1992): 194-196.


Complete Document



[1](Stevenson 2010)

[2](Taruskin 1982, p. 342)

[3](Botstein 1997, p. 7)

[4](Schuller 1997, Kindle Locations 290-292)

[5](Botstein 1997, p. 5)

[6](Schuller 1997, Kindle Locations 280-282)

[7](Zaslaw 1992, p. 195)

Jordan Randall Smith is the Music Director of Symphony Number One.