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Enhancing musical performance

Michael Berry

Este artículo explora la noción de “alteración/mejora del performance” en relación a la música. La primera sección estudia las formas en que ejecuciones musicales en vivo o en grabación pueden ser alteradas y “mejoradas”. La segunda sección explora los criterios en los que se fundamentan estos juicios, tomando en cuenta cuestiones como el contexto de estas alteraciones dentro o fuera de competencia y contraponiendo la terapia con la alteración/mejora. La sección final explora el impacto de estas estrategias en la teoría musical encarnada. El adiestramiento musical produce cuerpos alterados que experimentan la música de manera diferente a los cuerpos “normales”. El cuerpo alterado —musical o no musical— es anormal y las experiencias de este cuerpo alterado así como las de quien lo observa también son consideradas.

Palabras clave: alteración/mejora de la interpretación, tecnología, cuerpo, cyborg

This article explores the notion of performance enhancement as it relates to music. The first section explores the variety of ways in which a live or recorded musical performance can be enhanced. The second section explores the bases on which these judgments are made, weighing questions of in and out of competition usage as well as questions of therapeutic versus enhancing. The final section of the article explores the impact of performance-enhancing strategies on embodied music theories. Musical training creates altered bodies that experience music differently from “normal” bodies. The enhanced body—musical or non-musical—is abnormal, and the musical experiences of this altered body, or the musical experiences of a witness to this altered body are examined.

Key words: performance enhancement, technology, body, cyborg

In this article, I will examine the notion of performance enhancement in music. To do so requires adopting the perspective that music is fundamentally a human activity, in contrast to many studies of music that examine the notes on the page. The discipline of performance studies provides a theoretical framework in which to explore music as a human activity. Performance studies, as developed by Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, and others, seeks to understand a performance not on its own terms, but as it relates to other performances. This approach allows us to compare a variety of different situations that may initially appear to be unrelated. Through this comparison, broad similarities emerge across varying types of performances.

In his introductory text on the topic, Schechner (Schechner 2006) lists eight basic types of performance: performance in everyday life; in the arts; in sports; in business; in technology; in sex; in ritual; and in play (31). These performances all have in common a basic chronology comprising proto-performance, workshop, performance, and aftermath. Proto-performance consists of activities, generally on an abstract and individual level, that prepare one for participation in a performance. Proto-performance activities may include things like coursework in school or other formal training, or individual practice in sports or the arts. Workshop is a more specific kind of performance preparation that typically involves all of the participants in a performance. The workshop phase includes activities such as a reading of a script by the cast, an orchestral rehearsal, or a strategic planning meeting. The actual performance is the end result of the two pre-performance stages and is typically presented to a wider audience (in contrast to the pre-performance stages, which are typically private or semi-private). Aftermath includes a variety of responses to the performance. Examples of aftermath include reviews, memories, photographs, and even other performances.

As a consequence of their broad similarities, it stands to reason that whatever modifications we make to one type of performance we can make to another. Each of these performance types can be enhanced in a variety of ways. Technology is constantly being made smaller and faster. Enhancing sexual performance has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Performance enhancement in sports has overshadowed the Tour de France in recent years and has infiltrated baseball and even golf. Performance enhancements can be introduced at any stage of the performance process. Athletes spend time training individually and with their team or they may take performance enhancing substances over the course of a competition. A musician might make editorial changes to a recorded performance using the latest computer software.

The prevailing wisdom is that, in order to become an expert on a particular topic (be it music, architecture, soccer, etc.) one must devote approximately 10 years or 10,000 hours of dedicated study (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer 1993). It would stand to reason that any attempts to cut down this time would be seriously considered. Performance enhancement has thus become a hot topic, and a lucrative one, at that. Sales of sexual performance enhancing drugs were at about $3 billion in 2006; they are projected to net just shy of $7 billion by 2012 (Intelligence 2006) Worldwide sales of Cialis jumped 35% in less than a year (Lilly Posts Q4, 2005 Profit 2006). Performance enhancement has achieved a high visibility through some recent high-profile cases in sports. The U.S. Senate recently held hearings about steroid use in baseball. The 2006 Tour de France was rocked by scandal when the overall winner Floyd Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone. With so much money at stake (revenue for drug companies; prize money for athletes), it should not be surprising that performance enhancement has become big business.

A substantial amount has been written about performance enhancement in other disciplines, but very little has been written about performance enhancement in music (some notable exceptions will be discussed shortly). We might begin our inquiry by examining work done in other fields in order to stimulate our thinking on the topic. In his book The Viagra myth, Abraham Morgentaler raises questions about sexual performance enhancement that might apply equally to a discussion of musical performance enhancement (Morgentaler 2003). Morgentaler, a urologist associated with Harvard Medical School, uses a number of case studies to illustrate what we can learn about sexuality by studying patients’ use of Viagra. One of Morgentaler’s high school friends tried Viagra, but refused to take it again because it set artificially high standards that would be difficult to live up to. Some of Morgentaler’s clients without erectile dysfunction wonder if Viagra might “supercharge” their otherwise normal abilities. Others have been taking the drug without their partner’s knowledge and are worried about either the difficulty of keeping the secret or the reaction of their partner when he/she finally learns that the performance was being enhanced: one woman tearfully relates, “All this time I thought is was me who was turning him on” (39).

These questions can easily be reframed to apply to musical performance enhancement. Enhanced musical performance sets unnaturally high standards for the performer to maintain. Many fans are disappointed when they hear an artist in concert that they know primarily through recordings. Similarly, a musician who may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol may now find it difficult to perform to the same level in the absence of these substances. A naturally skilled performer might wonder how they can “supercharge” their performance, perhaps by using methods developed for people with legitimate medical issues. This raises the issue of therapy versus enhancement, which will be a theme of the second part of the article. Others who have been secretly enhancing their performance might be reluctant to perform without the enhancement or to reveal their use of enhancement to their fans for fear of losing fans, revenue, or other assets.

This article explores the notion of performance enhancement as it relates to music. The first section explores ways in which a musical performance can be enhanced. Performers may take medication to alleviate stage fright. Technology can be used to enhance a live performance by amplifying it or altering the sounds in real time. A recorded performance can be altered in a variety of ways: levels can be adjusted, wrong notes can be excised, and extraneous noise can be removed. Recordings that are not of performances present an extreme case of performance enhancement.

Some of the methods are considered legal/ethical; others are considered illegal/unethical. The second section explores the bases on which these judgments are made. In sports, most performance enhancing substances are banned only in a competitive arena. In the absence of similar competitive environments in the music world, on what basis can we judge the ethics of performance enhancement? Another ethical question surrounding performance enhancement deals with the distinction between therapy and enhancement. Therapeutic use of performance enhancement strategies would be an attempt to redress a known deficiency, to bring the person in line with a standard of “normalcy.” Enhancement can be seen as a misuse of therapeutic strategies when no deficiency is present. But where do we draw the line between normal and deficient?

The final section of the article explores the impact of performance-enhancing strategies on embodied music theories (such as those presented by Cumming 2000, Zbikowski 2002, and others). Musical training creates altered bodies that experience music differently from “normal” bodies. The enhanced body—musical or non-musical—is abnormal, and the musical experiences of this altered body, or the musical experiences of a witness to this altered body are examined. Disability studies provide a lens through which to view the musical experience of the altered body. Specifically, the enhancements can be understood as prosthetics appended to performing bodies.


Ways to enhance musical performance

Musical performance is unique in that it makes both intense physical and mental demands on the executant. These demands are put in place in both the short term (a concert or a practice session, for example) and in the long term (the discipline required to practice daily and to seek employment). Studies have shown that skilled musicians spend only about a quarter of their practice time manipulating their instrument: the other 75% of the time is spent thinking, making notations in the score, and so on (Williamon 2004). Thus, in order to attain the level of “expert” musician, one is required to maintain a very high level of mental and physical focus over many, many hours and years.

There are a variety of ways in which musical performance can be enhanced. Some of these are considered more legitimate than others. In order to consider how a musical performance can be enhanced, we first need to examine the notion of musical performance, a notion that is made problematic in the age of technology.

I would like first to offer a definition of musical performance. My intention is not to hash out a detailed ontological debate, but rather to offer a working definition for the purposes of this article. In this article, I recognize two broad categories of musical performance: live musical performance and recorded musical performance. A live musical performance takes place when a person or group of people follows a set of instructions (a score, a framework for improvisation, or other type of prompt) in a good faith effort to honor the intentions of the composer. The definition is not overly restrictive: it allows for solo and ensemble performance, score-based or improvised music, and mistakes made in the course of performance.[1]


Most discussions of musical performance restrict themselves to live performance. Stephen Davies (Davies 2001), Theodore Gracyk (Gracyk 1996), and Lee Brown (Brown 2000) are among those who include recorded performances in their discussions of musical performance. Brown (2000) posits two kinds of recordings: documentary recordings and works of phonography. Documentary recordings are those that claim to document faithfully a live performance with minimal intrusion or alteration from engineers, producers, and the like. Works of phonography are recordings that exploit the means of their production: put another way, a work of phonography is impossible to recreate live. Most computer music would fall into the category of works of phonography. Technological means can certainly be used in the service of creating an “authentic” documentary recording; conversely, even pure works of phonography have a performance in some sense at their core.

Having arrived at a definition of musical performance, we are now in a position to discuss in detail how musical performances can be enhanced. Most obviously (and perhaps most scrupulously), musical performance can be enhanced through practice. Williamon’s collection of essays, Musical excellence, (Williamon 2004) lists a variety of other methods through which musical performance can be enhanced. Some of these methods enhance the mental aspects of music-making; others enhance the physical aspects. The book contains chapters on improving sight reading, improvisation, and memorization. All of these serve to enhance the mental processes at work in a musical performance. Approaches such as yoga, stretching, and Alexander technique all primarily enhance the physical domain.

By and large these enhancements apply to live performance, although they will no doubt be evident on a recording as well. As Davies suggests, if we know that a recording is of a live performance, we will accept that what we are hearing took place in real time (Davies 2001).[2] Recorded performances can be subject to a much wider array of enhancements, which I will discuss below.

Technology can be used to shape a live performance. Microphones and amplifiers are among the most well-known examples of technology enhancing live performance. Lip-synching has become fairly commonplace at live pop shows where the artist is expected to sing and to execute complicated dance steps. Robert Walser actually suggests that advances in electric guitar and amplifier technology facilitated the new virtuosity in rock music (Walser 1992). According to Walser, amplification provided sustain and increased volume that put the guitar in the same league as the pipe organ, and allowed for the kind of flexibility associated with instruments like the violin (272).

Related to Walser’s discussion is the intimate relationship that some genres share with their modes of production. Operas and symphony concerts for the most part shun electronic amplification in live settings (outdoor concerts being a possible exception in some cases) whereas musical theatre and rock bands commonly use microphones, electronic instruments, and amplification. Crossing these technological boundaries may be seen as a form of performance enhancement. A well-known example of such a transgression would be Bob Dylan’s surprise use of electric instruments at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Pete Seeger, one of the elder spokesmen of folk music at the time and generally a docile man, was evidently enraged by Dylan’s transgression.[3]

Recorded performances can be altered in a variety of ways. The most obvious and commonplace method of enhancing recorded performances would be through adjusting the mix. The volume levels of individual instruments could be changed from the original performance simply by turning a knob or moving a slider. Timbral aspects of the sound could be altered to some extent as well. This practice stretches all the way back to the early days of recording when Leopold Stokowski, who was concerned that the engineer was usurping his authority as conductor, would push the engineer aside and adjusting the knobs himself (Brown 2000, 361).

Recently, with the advent of high-powered digital technology, recordings can be radically altered. We see in the market a multitude of software-based audio editing applications. These applications range from simple bass-boosting plug-ins and graphic equalizers to plug-ins that can adjust the pitch of a vocal track, remove sibilants and plosives from a vocal track, and even breath sounds.

As the audio signal is modified in these ways, the final product becomes less of a documentary recording and more like a work of phonography, despite what the record companies might have you believe. If the buying public assumes that the recording leans to the documentary recording end of the spectrum, then hearing such a recording creates unrealistic expectations in the listener that will likely not be met in live performance.

Additionally, one can synthesize a “human” voice using software such as I have described above. Philippe Depalle, Guillermo García, and Xavier Gardet (1995) recount how they synthesized the voice of a castrato for the movie Farinelli. The authors recorded a soprano and a countertenor and digitally combined the voices. Both voices were digitally manipulated: the timbre of the soprano voice was altered to match more closely that of the countertenor, and the countertenor’s voice was made brighter using various electronic filters. The result is a voice that has the wide range accorded to the castrato and the timbre of a young boy. In conclusion, the authors mention that they had to synthesize three notes that would be impossible for modern singers to perform, but allegedly would have been within the capabilities of a skilled castrato. One of the notes was to be held for nearly thirty seconds at a fortissimo dynamic. Digital synthesis of this kind creates significant problems for any embodied theory of listening, and I will discuss this in greater detail below.

Drugs are a final way in which performance can be enhanced. While drugs (both legal and illegal) might come immediately to mind when the subject of performance enhancement in other disciplines comes up, in the case of musical performance enhancement, drugs might be last on the list. There is little doubt that many musicians rely on caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol to varying degrees to enhance their performance, as does quite a lot of the general non-musical public.

We might break drugs into two broad categories: therapeutic and recreational. Therapeutic drugs would be any drug—prescription or over the counter—taken to remedy a medically diagnosable condition. Aspirin is an example of a therapeutic drug that most musicians probably use regularly. It can relieve headaches, muscle aches, and other common ailments. Beta blockers are another type of therapeutic drug in common use among musicians. Beta blockers can be prescribed for musicians who suffer from performance anxiety, a condition that can elevate heart rate and blood pressure, cause profuse sweating, and cause trembling. In extreme cases, musicians might require shots of cortisone, a steroid, to relieve the pain caused by carpal-tunnel syndrome or similar maladies. In all cases, these are drugs that are carefully regulated, the doses are carefully chosen, and the treatment is generally supervised by a medical professional. The motivation for taking any of these is to return a disabled body to “normal.”

Musicians are notorious for their use of recreational drugs, which may range from caffeine and nicotine to the more serious heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The distinction between recreational drugs and therapeutic drugs is that recreational drugs are not taken to heal; rather, they are taken to stimulate the brain or to create altered states of consciousness. There is any number of reasons that a musician may choose to take these kinds of drugs. Caffeine and nicotine are both powerful stimulants and may be used to help the performer stay awake. Others argue that hallucinogenic drugs enhance their creativity. Some use these drugs in the course of performance; some use them to relax after a performance.

Wilson and Roland claim that “These [drugs] may get a performer through a performance but are ultimately destructive in that they create dependence and the fine edge of the performance is lost” (Wilson and Roland 2002, 51). All of the methods of enhancement suggested above seem to privilege technical perfection at the expense of emotion or “edge.” Such an observation raises the question how important is technical perfection to a “good faith” effort to reproduce a musical work? Put another way, does a good faith effort necessitate a certain level of technical perfection? What if one person’s good faith effort is substantially more out of tune than another’s? Such questions are taken up in the next section of the article.


The ethics of performance enhancement

I have illustrated some of the ways in which musical performances can be enhanced. Are these enhancements ethical? There are two main considerations that I’d like to examine here: the enhancement of performance in and out of competition and the distinction between therapy and enhancement.

In the case of sports, which are competitive by nature, performance enhancements are carefully regulated so as not to afford one competitor an unfair advantage over another. Music is not openly competitive in the way that a football game is, but I would contend that it is competitive in other ways, and this competition drives musicians to avail themselves of performance-enhancing strategies. The questions of legality and ethics that surround performance enhancement appear to be less important in music than in sport because of the absence of overt competition.

Music is competitive in several different arenas. There is competition for jobs, which most often takes the form of a live audition. There are competitions for soloists, chamber ensembles, and the like. There is competition for entrance into prestigious music schools. Many of these forms of competition involve the submission of recordings at their earliest stages and live performances are generally required of the finalists. As such, there exist possibilities for performance enhancement in both domains discussed above.

Perhaps most common and most prevalent is a sense of self-competition or self-improvement. Many of the authors in Williamon’s collection mention the high level of skill required of a performer and the demands and stress put upon them in pursuit of their goals. Robert West says that “Musical performance can be among the most difficult and demanding of human activities and generally occurs in situations when the personal cost of failure or even suboptimal performance is very high” (West 2004, 271; italics mine). West continues, noting that “All of this takes place in a context where the performer knows he or she is being subject to evaluation, possibly by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people” (272). Clearly musicians are under a lot of pressure, whether they perceive it as put upon them by the listeners or by themselves. This intense pressure can result in performance anxiety in the performer. According to Glenn Wilson and David Roland, performance anxiety stems from a fear of negative evaluation by others (Wilson and Roland 2002, 48).

Wilson and Roland relate that most musicians describe auditions as the most stressful musical experiences because they combine performing and being evaluated with an inferior social status: the audition committee is in a position of power, enabling them to offer or to deny the musician a job. Other forms of competition are similarly stressful, more so than ordinary performances given for entertainment. The more control the performer has over her environment, and the more performers that are participating simultaneously, the less stressful the performance is likely to be (Wilson and Roland 2002).

Gary McPherson and Emery Schubert call for a reevaluation of the ways in which we evaluate musical performances (McPherson and Schubert 2004). The authors discuss two forms of evaluation commonly employed: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. Norm-referenced assessment evaluates a performance in comparison with other performances. Criterion-referenced assessment evaluates a performance according to a predetermined set of attributes. Most competitions and auditions employ mainly norm-referenced assessment: the intention here is to determine a winner. Typically, the stakes are also very high in these sorts of events: jobs, large sums of money, and prestige are at stake. As mentioned earlier, these situations prove the most stressful for musicians, and I suspect that various methods of performance enhancement would improve a performer’s chances in one of these situations. Most sporting events use norm-referenced assessment, and this system of evaluation is no doubt what drives some athletes to consider performance enhancement strategies.

I imagine that most musicians use criterion-referenced self-assessment in their own practicing and self-critique. The average concert-goer no doubt uses a sort of criterion-referenced assessment strategy when they evaluate a performance.  These situations are generally less stressful, and I suspect the incidence of performance enhancement is lower in these situations. Statements such as “the performance was good, but it wasn’t everything I had hoped it would be” have an implicit set of criteria underlying them. More often than not, these are the day-to-day performances given by the section member of a local orchestra where considerably less is at stake. A missed note or two is not likely to cost a musician her job, not likely to result in overwhelmingly poor reviews, and not likely to drive away subscribers.

Based on this, it seems to me that performance enhancement is more likely to be found in high-stress, high-stakes situations, most of which are associated with a norm-referenced assessment system. In any event that relies on a norm-referenced assessment system, the competitors must arrive and compete on a level playing field. In performances that use criterion-referenced assessment, the stakes typically are not as great and thus the use (or lack of use) of performance enhancing strategies is less problematic. The question that arises out of this is how do we determine what is enhancement for someone and business as usual for someone else?

The distinction between therapy and enhancement is quite a thorny one. Francis Fukuyama outlines the problem implicit in this distinction (Fukuyama 2002). Fukuyama discusses the effects of two prescription drugs, Prozac and Ritalin. Prozac is prescribed for patients who exhibit signs of depression. Prozac helps manage depression by raising the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that relays information between neurons in the brain. It plays a part in our mood, sexual desire, sleep patterns, and memory, among other things. Fukuyama raises quite a few questions from this seemingly commonplace finding: what constitutes a “low” level of serotonin? Could what is considered “low” for one person be normal for someone else? What if the serotonin level is only a little low? If increasing serotonin levels in the brain makes us happier, then why would a person with “normal” levels of serotonin not want more serotonin circulating? Why wouldn’t everyone want to have as much serotonin circulating in his or her brain as possible? Could we prevent wars if everyone has elevated serotonin levels (46)?

Fukuyama also discusses the thorny case of Ritalin. Ritalin is a carefully controlled drug prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD). But Ritalin has been shown to increase performance on a variety of tasks in people who do not have ADD: it was the drug of choice in high schools and colleges in the 1990s because it enabled students to stay awake longer. The drug has many similar pharmacological effects to Ecstasy, which is an illegal substance in the United States, most likely because of the severity of its possible side effects. A variety of questions arise from this case as well, such as why not prescribe Ritalin for non-ADD patients if it will help them be more productive and the side effects are minimal? Why is Ritalin legal and Ecstasy not? Could Ecstasy be made legal and subject to regulations that are similar in strength to those that regulate Ritalin (48)?

Regulating pharmaceuticals is tricky business. According to the guidelines put forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a substance earns a place on their prohibited list if it meets the following criteria: Medical or other scientific evidence, pharmacological effect or experience that the substance or method has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; Medical or other scientific evidence, pharmacological effect or experience that the Use of the substance or method represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete; WADA’s determination that the Use of the substance or method violates the spirit of the sport described in the introduction to the Code. (Agency 2003, 15-16)[4]


The WADA guidelines allow for therapeutic use exemptions (18). These criteria align with Fukuyama’s observations regarding dangerous side effects being one of the primary reasons that such substances are regulated. Violating the spirit of the sport is perhaps easier to conceptualize then violating the spirit of the musical performance, but if we understand both of these activities to be demonstrations of human potential and skill, then the difficulty erodes somewhat. Furthermore, the definition of musical performance I gave above specifies a “good faith” effort to reproduce the composer’s intentions. It seems to me that any sort of cheating is no longer a good faith effort.

Gordon Reddiford (Reddiford 1998) offers a definition of cheating in sports that can easily be adapted to musical performance. First, cheaters attempt to obtain results that are not truly their own. Second, cheaters misrepresent what they are doing in order to achieve those results, and in so doing, conceal their methods and motivations for doing so. Third, cheating only takes place if an outside party—an audience—assumes that all is well at the time of the deception (227-8). Such is the case with musical recordings, particularly in the digital age where programs like those offered by Waves (discussed above) can manipulate the most minute aspect of vocal delivery. The results of the recording process are not truly representative of the sounds of the performer’s voice. They are the product of technological manipulation. Even in the case of several takes spliced together into one “complete” take, the final product is not representative of the musician’s capabilities. The motivations for enhancing a performance are often not clear. As per Davies’ assertion (stated above), listeners accept the fact that on a documentary recording, the listener will assume that performance decisions are being made in real time and, by extension, the product of those decisions is represented in the final performance, be it recorded or live. In response to Reddiford’s third point, the audience typically assumes that nothing is wrong when they listen to an altered performance. It is only when the ploy is made apparent that the enhancement affects the listener. A review of a concert by Midori, to be discussed below, is evidence of this.

Certainly most forms of musical performance enhancement are not chemical, at least presently, and most people would not consider many of the methods outlined unethical, per se. However, we can extrapolate potential problems from the sorts of questions raised by Fukuyama and others. I’m certainly not suggesting that Alexander Technique be banned for musicians taking auditions. The future will no doubt bring a number of difficult questions as the line between therapy and enhancement erodes. In an essay on “cosmetic neurology” (to be discussed in greater detail below), Anjan Chatterjee asks: “Would you give your child a medication with minimal side effects half an hour before piano lessons if it meant that they learned to play expertly?” (Chatterjee 2004, 973). Paul Attinello envisions a similar future of chemically constructed bodies, the result not of nature, but of interacting synthetic chemicals in the bloodstream (Attinello 2007). Such options are no longer the stuff of Huxley’s Brave new world, as Fukuyama suggests; rather, the technologies to offer such solutions are already available or are being developed right now.


Performance enhancement and musical bodies

In the final section of this article, I explore the impact of performance enhancement on the body. I will begin by summarizing some current theories of embodied musical listening. I will then discuss the creation of musical bodies, a phenomenon that suggests how musicians might perceive music differently from non-musicians. I will then discuss how both musical and non-musical bodies experience enhanced musical performance and the impact that the enhanced performance has on the body.

Theories of embodied listening have developed rapidly in the last ten years. The basic premise of embodied listening is that we perceive of music in relation to the orientation of our bodies in space. We might understand the relative frequency of a pitch in relation to the orientation of our bodies in space. We might conceive of dynamics in terms of the physical force that it takes to play at that level. We might understand a performer’s dexterity in terms of our own dexterity (or our lack thereof!).

Lawrence Zbikowski’s work draws on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work on metaphor and cognition (Zbikowski 2002).[5] According to Zbikowski, we understand music in relationship to the orientation of our bodies in space. Image schemata—fundamental ways of understanding how our body interacts with the world—permit cross-domain mappings onto musical features. Zbikowski gives the example of VERTICALITY, the fundamental notion of up versus down, as a schemata. Western musicians are able to map their notational system onto VERTICALITY: notes that are higher on the staff (“up”) have a higher pitch; notes that are lower on the staff (“down”) have a lower pitch. This schemata is also borne out in the construction of some of our instruments as well as the technique required to produce sounds from those instruments. Our adoption of this particular schemata is largely the product of culture: Zbikowski mentions other cultures who conceptualize pitch as “small” (high pitch) and “large” (low pitch), for example.

Andrew Mead develops the notion of “kinesthetic empathy,” suggesting that we understand musical performance in terms of what our bodies do to produce sound (Mead 1999). Mead recounts a story of listening to an oboe player premiering a new concerto. In the course of listening, Mead found himself gasping for air after holding his breath a little too long. Mead realized that he had been breathing along with the soloist, who at some point began using circular breathing. [6] He further suggests that we can relate to the strength that it takes to play fortissimo or the delicate touch that pianissimo requires. Most non-musicians use their voice as a point of reference for understanding the physicality of music, in lieu of having instrumental experience on which to draw. To some extent, the armchair conductor or the air drummer could be seen as experiencing music in this kinesthetic way.

Naomi Cumming offers perhaps the most nuanced understanding of the musical body (Cumming 2000). According to Cumming, musical bodies are created by the intersection of the performer and the instrument. The resultant sound is essentially the creation of that performer’s “body.” This is evident when we discuss a particular performer’s interpretation of a work. Audiences then engage the performer’s body in a similar way, recognizing the difference between, say, Walter’s Beethoven and Toscanini’s Beethoven.

Many of these theories proceed under the assumption that the listening body is “normal.” Put another way, they proceed under the assumption that all listening bodies are similarly constructed. The burgeoning field of disability studies has done well to make problematic this notion by suggesting that different bodies have different experiences that are aligned with their individual orientations in space. I would argue along the same lines that the bodies of musicians differ substantially from the bodies of non-musicians and the differences between the two should be reflected in any account of musical listening.

Over the course of many years, the anatomy of a musician changes in response to the demands put on it by the discipline. Williamon writes:


In relation to long-term engagement in music, it is possible for musicians to experience both anatomical and broader psychological changes that permit the effective implementation of their abilities…musicians are susceptible to changes in muscular structures, bone structure, circulation, and respiration to the same degree as expert performers in other domains (Williamon 2004, 8).


Christopher Wynn Parry offers a similar observation, claiming that years of intense performance can change the structure of the body (Wynn Parry 2004, 41). Parry strengthens his argument by noting a number of injuries that musicians’ bodies commonly sustain, as well as the growth of a musician-specific field of medicine. These changes are not only limited to the anatomy of the body; the brain changes as well. For example, Eckart Altenmuller and Wilfried Gruhn relate that the hand area in the motor cortex of the brain is substantially larger in musicians than in non-musicians (Altenmuller and Gruhn 2002, 71).

As a result of years of practice, musicians develop bodies that differ from “normal” bodies. Consequently, if we adopt an embodied theory of musical perception, it stands to reason that musicians experience music differently from non-musicians. This observation is borne out in an interesting study about so-called “air-performances” (Godøy, Haga, and Jensenius 2006). Air-performing, commonly manifest as air-guitar or air-drum performance, involves mimicking music-making gestures but not being in contact with a musical instrument. Godøy and his colleagues found that expert musicians (university- or conservatory-trained) are able to mimic very precisely the gestures required to produce the sounds associated with several different piano excerpts. In contrast, the gestures made by non-musicians were much less precise: they understood high and low as right and left (respectively), generally speaking, but did little to mimic the gestures required to produce the appropriate dynamics and articulation.

I have demonstrated how we might construct two types of listening bodies: the non-musical listener and the musical listener. We can similarly construct two types of performing bodies: the “normal” musical performing body and the enhanced musical performing body. Conceivably we could posit a non-musical performing body, but the chances of us experiencing music that is being produced by them in any meaningful way are slim. The musical performer’s body is constructed in the manner detailed above: years of practice and discipline result in a body and mind that have been altered by the experience. The enhanced musical performer’s body is presumably similarly developed (although not always) but is reconstructed further by the use of any of the methods outlined in the first part of this article. Both the musical listener and the non-musical listener will experience the two kinds of performing bodies in different ways. The notion of virtuosity provides us with a point of entry into the discussion.

Virtuosity has long been prized in a variety of musical traditions. A musician who is uncommonly skilled as a performer is typically privy to wealth, power, admiration, and other perks. Walser says that virtuosity is often linked with a kind of “potency” (Walser 1992, 278). His choice of words is suggestive: performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra are intended to counteract male impotence. It would stand to reason that performers who lack virtuoso abilities could be seen as impotent, their performances in need of some sort of enhancement. Cumming opens her book with a quotation from Edward Said that echoes these sentiments:


In his book, Musical elaborations, Edward Said (1991) argues that musical performances are extreme occasions, where virtuosic soloists intimidate a submissive crowd into a state of angst at knowing their performative inferiority (Cumming 2000, 1).


If virtuosity is such a desirable characteristic—perhaps not in and of itself but as a result of the rewards it offers—then to what ends will performers go to achieve virtuosity? Any number of the methods detailed in the first section of this article could be used to enhance a musical performance—live or recorded—creating an enhanced musical body, a body that is abnormal even from musical bodies. Enhanced musical performing bodies are synthetic, much like the “chemical bodies” discussed by Paul Attinello (2007), or the bizarre creations that can result from the creative use of programs like Adobe Photoshop.

Examples of enhanced performances often arise in the comparison between a live performance and a recording. Cumming cites a review by Tully Potter of a concert that Midori gave in London in 1996:


On this evidence the Midori who sells all those CDs is a creation of the microphone and the Sony engineers. Heard “live” (10 March), she has a small, rather wiry tone with an E-string sonority that is close to a whistle. (Cumming 2000, 21)


Cumming makes the point that it is Midori who is created by her sound, not the other way around. Midori’s body is created by engineers in a studio. Her body is not her own: she is a cyborg—part human, part electronic.

In the case of technological enhancement, we can read the enhancement as a prosthesis attached to the performing body. A prosthetic is an attempt to normalize an abnormal body by bridging the gap between the abnormal and the normal through some artificial means. Put another way, a prosthetic is an attempt to erase difference (Mitchell and Snyder 2000, 6-7). In musical performance, we might understand difference as the intrusion of human error on a performance. Any sort of deviation from the score, or other perceived deficiency in performance creates difference with the score—the “normal” body. In the course of erasing difference, a prosthetic thereby “removes an audience’s need for concern or continuing vigilance” (Mitchell and Snyder 2000, 8) Perhaps this is what Wilson and Roland (cited above) had in mind when they mention that dependence on pharmaceuticals result in a loss of the “edge” of performance. If technology removes the uncertainty—the “liveness”—of live performance, audiences will lose interest and stop attending.

The musical listening body can understand and interpret (“hear”) the normal musical performing body with a fair amount of accuracy. The non-musical listening body can interpret (“hear”) the musical performing body with less accuracy, but, as Godøy and his colleagues suggest, they understand and can replicate very general movements associated with music-making.

The musical listening body potentially has a more difficult time understanding the enhanced performing body than does the non-musical listening body. Since the non-musical listening body grasps only the vague, large-scale bodily movements associated with music making, chances are the finer points of virtuoso technique will be lost on them. A competent, university-trained violinist, though will no doubt recognize the difficulty in executing a difficult run with perfect intonation while being heard over a full orchestra. Having attempted such a feat and understanding the bodily requirements, the violinist might wonder how such a feat is humanly possible.

This enhanced musical performing body can have any number of possible effects on the listener, regardless of the listener’s musical training. Several studies of performance enhancement across a variety of disciplines suggest that normal bodies strive to understand the enhanced bodies in terms of their own capabilities. Typically unaware of the enhancement, the “normal” bodies can endanger themselves trying to replicate the unnatural. This is referred to as  “passive doping” (Walsh 2007). Walsh recounts a story of a young, talented cyclist whose career ended prematurely as a result of the strain put on his body in an effort to win races against cyclists who were doping.

In some cases, the receiving body may feel the need to enhance its own performance in an effort to maintain a competitive edge. Chatterjee calls this “coercion” (Chatterjee 2004). Coercion is essentially peer pressure, and benign forms of this can be seen at music schools all around the world: everyone is in awe of the student who practices ten hours a day and, in order to remain competitive, other students will no doubt try to adjust their schedule to accommodate more practice time. It may be the case as many of these approaches to performance enhancement become more available and acceptable that enhancement will be the rule and not the exception. This appears to be the case with many recorded performances, and may soon be the case with live performances as well.


In this article I have surveyed performance enhancement in music. I have summarized ways in which performances—both live and recorded—can be enhanced, I have considered the ethics underlying the choices that performers make, and I have examined how a variety of audiences might interpret normal and enhanced performances. The enhancement of musical performance seems to be widespread in some arenas (such as live performances in popular music and recorded performances in any genre in particular) and slowly but surely emerging in other arenas (live classical and jazz performances, for example). My intention in this article is not to judge those who choose to enhance their performances, but rather to raise the questions that musicians and audiences alike must consider when they are confronted by enhanced performances. In a future where technology is both becoming faster and smaller and the human body is more and more an unnatural blend of chemicals, we need to begin considering how these improvements will alter our creation and perception of art.




  • [1] My definition here is based largely on the work of (Davies 2001).
  • [2] Although (Auslander 1999) argues that when we hear an amplified performance, we’re not hearing performance at all; rather, we’re hearing the vibrations of the speakers.
  • [3] I suspect that microphones and amplification were used at this concert. These were used with the intention of making the artists heard, not with the intention of altering the mechanism of production.
  • [4] Italics are in the original and point to terms that are defined in an appendix to the code.
  • [5] Lakoff and Johnson’s theories are explained in (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 2003; Johnson 1987)
  • [6] Circular breathing is a technique used when playing a woodwind or brass instrument. The mouth creates a steady stream of air while new air is drawn in through the nose.


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