Gestural Perspectives on Popular-Music Performance

Samuel Gardner, Nicholas J. Shea

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Music theory has grown to encompass various forms of bodily movement in analysis, including instrumental performance, dance studies, and cognition-based methods. In this paper, we demonstrate how observed physical gestures in popular-music performance can foreground the relationship between the music’s surface elements and its structural features. Live performances by Macy Gray, Alex Lifeson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe offer various interpretations of physical gesture across vocal and guitar performance. Our analyses illustrate how a performer’s physical gestures aid musical understanding for both the audience and the performer, how pronounced fretboard gestures reflect the embodied segmentation of musical phrasing, and how the demands of instrumental and vocal performance create a hierarchy of gestural function that blurs the boundaries between sound production and musical processing. By focusing on physical gestures that might otherwise be overlooked in traditional music-theoretic analysis, we aim to advocate that each physical movement, from subtle to overt, plays a role in the surface-to-structure process. Paying close attention to such gestures can alter how we hear the music by allowing new nuances to enrich the musical performance and its perception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalMusic Theory Online
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Gesture
  • Live-performance
  • communication
  • embodiment
  • perception
  • popular-music
  • structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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