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Motion, action and gesture
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Motion, action and gesture

In this video, Alexander Refsum Jensenius explains how to distinguish sound-modification, sound-accompanying, communicative and gestural movements.
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The sound-producing action is only one type of music related motion found in music performance. Another one is that of sound-modifying actions. As the name implies, these are also connected to the sound, but to the modification of sound rather than the production itself. I can illustrate this by using the simple instruments I have here now. So for example– so for the stick, it’s possible to change the characteristics of the sound by moving the other hand above the stick.
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For the kazoo, it’s possible to change the diffusion of sound by using the other hand.
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For the cabasa, there are lots of ways that the sound-producing and sound-modifying actions can play together.
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Most instruments allow for some kind of sound modification. In the piano, for example, the pedals are typically used for sound modification.
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On the guitar, it is possible to dampen strings, or bend the strings, to modify the sounds.
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And on the trumpet, it is possible to use a mute to alter the sound quality.
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Musicians also have some other very typical movements, what we call sound-accompanying. We often find such sound-accompanying movements in the upper body of a performer, for example, in the head movements or upper-body swaying of a pianist.
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In a classical piece like here, it is quite common to observe that the performer is following the shapes, you could say, of the melodic phrases with the body. As such, it’s difficult to say whether the movements are creating the phrasing in the sound, or if it’s the other way around. Another example, is that of how a DJ is moving to the beat of the music, which we can call entrainment movements. Since the pulse of the body entrains, that is aligns itself, to the pulse of the musical sound. This we can see in the head, or for example, in the foot tapping of a performer.
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The sound-accompanying movements may also be closely connected to what could be called expressive movements. These may or may not be directly related to the sound being played, but are closely connected to some expressive elements, such as we see here in an example of a trumpet player.
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Finally, we may also have a large group of what could be called communicative movements. These are often not connected to the musical sound at all, and may, for example, be how musicians are looking at each other during a performance or giving signs, more as the conductor movements, or even communicating directly to the audience through body language, or some kind of gestures. Talking about gesture, which is a term that has been used widely in recent years, our take on this is that a gesture is defined as an action that is used to express some kind of meaning. In linguistics, gestures are often used to describe actions with a very explicit meaning, for example, this.
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Gestures in music are not as obvious, but there are lots of examples of how music related movements with expressive qualities have some kind of meaning attached to them. One example is that of the hand lift seen at the end of a piano performance.
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Here the performer holds the position just a little bit longer than we may have expected, which becomes an efficient gesture building up tension before the final release.
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An important element though, and why we are careful about differentiating between motion, action, and gesture, is that movements describe the physical properties that can be measured and recorded. Actions describe what we describe as one coherent movement sequence, but the actions themselves are mental constructs. Similarly, gestures are also mental constructs, and the meaning of a gesture is also highly dependent on our cultural background and the context that the gesture appears in. This is important to bear in mind when we carry out research on music related motion, so that we can differentiate between what we can objectively observe and what our interpretation is of those observations.
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