Musical motion: the experience and aesthetics of movement in South Indian raga performance

The interconnection between music and movement can be observed in everyday life: for example, in the tendency for people to move along with music, and to use motion-related words when talking about music. In response, musicologists and philosophers have theorized the phenomenon of ‘musical motion’: the sense of movement experienced when listening to music. In this project I examine the experience of motion in performing, learning, and listening to music, focusing on South Indian, Karnatak music – a style that is particularly interesting in this context due to the tendency for Karnatak vocalists to produce spontaneous hand gestures while singing.

The aims of this project are twofold. The first is to elucidate how musical motion contributes to meaning in this particular style: how it intersects with theoretical and aesthetic notions such as rāga (melodic type), sañcāra (characteristic phrase), and bhāva (mood). The second aim of the project is to address fundamental questions regarding the nature of musical motion, examining consistency between listeners’ self reports of experienced musical motion, and asking whether there is any correspondence between listener experience and performer movement. To achieve these aims the project employs an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together methods from music cognition, music analysis, and ethnomusicology.

The results from the various strands of this project will be integrated to contribute to knowledge both on meaning in South Indian raga performance (exploring how movement is part of that meaning), and on the experience of musical motion more widely. This research is significant because although mind-body dualism has been extensively critiqued, there remains a tendency in musicology and elsewhere to exclude the body and physical movement from accounts of musical meaning, experience, and aesthetics.


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Pearson, L., & Pouw, W. (2022). Gesture–vocal coupling in Karnatak music performance: A neuro–bodily distributed aesthetic entanglement. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Pearson, L. (2022). Inscriptions, Gesture, and the Self: Notation in Karnatak Music. In E. Payne & F. Schuiling (Eds.), Material Cultures of Music Notation: New Perspectives on Musical Inscription. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pearson, L. (2021). “Improvisation” in Play: A View through South Indian Music Practices. In A. Bertinetto & M. Ruta (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Improvisation in the Arts (pp. 446-461). Abingdon: Routledge.

Pearson, L. (2020). A Socially Situated Approach to Aesthetics: Games and Challenges in Karnatak Music. In A. Hamilton & L. Pearson (Eds.), The Aesthetics of Imperfection in Music and the Arts: Spontaneity, Flaws and the Unfinished (pp. 61-72). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hamilton, A., & Pearson, L. (Eds.), (2020). The Aesthetics of Imperfection in Music and the Arts: Spontaneity, Flaws and the Unfinished. London: Bloomsbury Academic.