Musical Facial Expression and Gesture

Photo: Ekaterina Bazhanova (Mezzosopran)

Particularly in the eighteenth century, the conviction that there was an essential relationship between musical contents and the facial expressions and gestures of performers, so that “a large part of music” lay in the art of gesture (Johann Mattheson) belonged to the topoi of an enlightened musical aesthetic. In the tradition of antique rhetoric, facial expressions and gestures were understood to be an important element in an expressive musical “sound discourse.” Namely, the expositions of Quintilian and Cicero on the orator’s actio served as foundation for later views concerning the significance of both those phenomena for musical performance; Cicero maintained, for example, that by its very nature every stirring of the spirit or disposition had a characteristic correspondence in the orator’s facial expressions, intonation, and gestures—“Omnis enim motus animi suum quemdam a natura habet vultum et sonum et gestum“—so that his entire body, his play with facial expressions, and his voice had the sound of an instrument’s strings, struck by corresponding emotion (“corpusce totum hominis et eius omnis vultus omnesque voces, ut nervi in fidibus, ita sonant, ut a motu animi quoque sunt pulsae”).

That facial expression and gesture can contribute something essential to the quality of musical performance and its reception remains a broadly held view. Recent empirical studies have confirmed and modified it in various respects.

Our project is aimed at arriving at differentiated answers to the following questions:

  1. What can facial expression and gesture contribute to the positive or negative experience of music?
  2. In this respect what different functions can be identified between facial expressions and gestures?
  3. What can facial expressions and gestures contribute to an understanding of musical contents and structural particularities?
  4. What role do performers’ facial expressions and gestures play in the evaluation of a musical performance?

These questions are themselves aimed at gaining insight into the extent to which facial expressions and / or gestures are capable of steering listeners’ attention to entirely different passages in a work than is the case with performances experienced in a purely acoustic manner