Shape in music: A plethora of meanings with a cross-cultural twist

The idea of giving music a shape seems to be a universal concept in the teaching and performing of music. The experience of most musicians dealing with shape derives not only from practice but also amongst an orchestra with a conductor showing visual shapes, which musicians transform into the music that they play. Although this phenomenon seems to include the majority of musicians, there has been very little research concerning the differences in use of the term “shape” and the situations in which they apply it. The most recent research concerning music and shape has produced a working definition of the term shape: “a tool for realizing the music expressively, whether improvising or performing from a score; or whether performing alone or with others” (Helen Prior, in a presentation given at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2 december 2010).

© Richard Termine for The New York Times

Dr. Helen Prior, research assistant at King’s College London, contributes greatly to the area concerning music performance and shape. Her most recent project (see also in collaboration with Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has started out quite exploratory in that she seeks to branch off the many variables which have been spotted to affect our understanding of musical shape. By reaching participants via professional and personal contacts and further snowballing effects, they were able to collect a large amount of data (231 people completed the questionnaire) in this first step of research. These participants differed in several attributes including their cultural background, their choice of instrument, musical proficiency (ranging from music student to professional music teacher or performer) and whether or not they performed classical music only, non-classical music only or both styles. Once contacted, these participants were instructed to complete a questionnaire with open-ended and close-response questions to ensure collecting both qualitative and quantifiable data. The main areas focused on throughout the questionnaire include how the participants think about shape in musical situations and language and word use discrepancies occurring between cultures.

A main finding from this completed yet still unpublished questionnaire study is that musicians do think and talk about shape in relation to music whether in private practise, rehearsal, performance, teaching, or composing. The research showed that thinking about shape is most commonly found in performance related situations especially when performing a musical phrase or melody. Although the musical shape is used among classical and non-classical performers, exclusively classical performers agree with the idea of musical shape in more scenarios than non-classical and not exclusively classical performers.

Other areas of Prior’s research on musical shape focused on cultural differences amongst those born in the UK and those born in other countries. Her questionnaire was aimed at figuring out whether or not shape was a universal concept and if it was used similarly by people with dissimilar heritages. When thinking about shape dealing with performances, those born in the UK were viewed as “slightly less committed” to strongly agree instead of only agree with using shape related metaphors. Another cultural difference emerged between people who are (also) fluent in a language other than English and those who are not. Those that were not fluent in another language agreed more robustly that a performer adds shape to the music. These two groups also differed in how they viewed emotive or expressive attributes in connection with musical shape. Again people who lack the abilities to speak a second language were most likely to agree and strongly agree with this statement. However, the results were flipped when shape was associated to a plot or narrative: English speakers were less apt to agree to this statement. Another cultural aspect tested was whether or not music caused mental images to appear when a person prepared or performed music. Those who can speak a language other than English and those who can only speak English were likely to agree in similar amounts, while those that did not speak another language disagreed more.

A cultural characteristic that differed amongst the participants from different linguistic backgrounds was the translation of the word “shape”. German and Swedish participants are just two of the many cultures that often thought that “Form” was the direct translation from their mother tongue while a few other cultures disagreed or were unable to find a mutual understanding. What is the conclusion from this?

Overall these results lead to the conclusion that some conceptions about musical shape are universal, while other aspects are more style-specific, or language/culture-specific. While musical shape generally seems to be a common concept amongst musicians, they show noticeable variations in usage and comprehension of the term “shape” corresponding to the style of music they play or their original cultural background.

Since this first project was quite broad, it leaves a vast amount of space for future studies to be conducted in the separate areas of culture, language, and differences amongst instruments. Specifically, future studies could focus on small groups of instrument in their typical rehearsal environment, e. g. a string quartet or a choir, and their use of shape within their rehearsal setting. A useful qualitative method to examine this scenario would be to videotape and evaluate the verbal and nonverbal communication (i. e. gestures) amongst a group of musicians (Davidson & Good, 2002). In our opinion, a reduction to musicians trained in English would enable the researcher to assume that their understanding of the word shape is more or less the same. This seems useful to us because the discrepancies of several translations of “shape” lead to confusion and therefore inconclusive data. Hence, it might be advantageous to study one language or culture at a time. When sufficient data is obtained concerning the individual cultures, future studies could then consolidate the findings to form a cross-cultural study.

The existing results that this study has provided us with reveal an interesting area of research concerning the way people talk about music and the concepts they produce in their minds. Since this specific study included a cross-cultural angle it has produced diverging points of reseach to be engaged with in the future.

Lauri Dossman and Anna Wolf

Further information:

Davidson, J. W. & Good, J. M. M. (2002). Social and Musical Co-Ordiantion between Members of a String Quartet: An Exploratory Study. Psychology of Music, 30(186), 186-201.

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