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As we have seen so far, music can incorporate so many levels of meaning, depending on who is making it and who is listening. We have already seen that music can express many different ideas and concepts through melody, rhythm, and words. Another important aspect of musical expression is performance. Music must be performed in order to exist. A piece of music isn’t just “out there” to be admired, like a painting. It needs to be recreated at each hearing. It cannot exist unless we are there to listen. The re-creation of the music—and what it conveys to audiences—is what ethnomusicologists call performance.


When a rock band takes the stage before a crowd of enthusiastic young people, or when a Javanese gamelan (court orchestra) presents a concert of intricate music played on expensive, exquisite bronze instruments before an audience of dignitaries, a society’s values, ideals, and self-image are put on display for all to see and hear. What the gamelan performs depends on context. In a private, intimate court setting, the gamelan displays the elegance and largesse of its patrons. In a Western urban concert hall, the gamelan helps to activate some curious listeners’ appetite for the “exotic” sounds of the East. Among Indonesians, the gamelan helps activate cyclical concepts of time and beliefs in reincarnation that predominate in the Hindu religion. Performance is the realization and presentation of music in its social and cultural context—values and ideas set in sensory form.






Listen to this selection by the Wesleyan University gamelan ensemble:



How do we identify the important elements of a musical performance? Imagine the last time you saw a live concert with a favorite artist or group. Remember the setting, the excitement of the crowd, or the feeling of seeing a solo artist play “acoustic” in a small club venue. Think about the audience, onstage chatter with the audience, the lighting and sound system, and what the artists were wearing. Now listen to the same group or artist on a recording using headphones. Everything that is missing is an important piece of performance. Consciously or not, singers convey values through behavior, dress, and attitude together with the sounds they are making. These elements of performance can change the meaning of the music itself.


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