What is Music Theatre Actually? (A Theory of Musical Performance)

In the previous post, I discussed a few attempts to define ‘music theatre’ (particularly in relation/opposition to ‘opera’), and the value of such a venture. I focused on Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s book The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), which opens with the question ‘What Is Music Theater?’, and features a chapter entitled ‘Towards a Theory of Music Theater’. Suffice it to say, I didn’t find this book particularly useful in providing a framework through which to understand ‘music theatre’, ‘the New Music Theatre’, or indeed, ‘opera’ as its opposite. Nevertheless, the book did force me to confront my own understanding of these terms—and subsequently to deconstruct this understanding—to try and figure out why I found the authors’ formulations so frustrating.

As a result, I am now trying to outline an internally coherent definition of music theatre that can satisfy my own specifications. (It also happens to be my definition of ‘live music’.) Such a definition must be as resistant as possible to potential abuse by cultural gatekeepers, as a tool for essentialising taste and value categories. It must therefore be able to include anything and everything that has ever been called ‘music theatre’, as well as everything that could be called ‘music theatre’ on the basis of this set of included elements. The category that I’m trying to define is a very broad one indeed, potentially including around half of all ‘theatre’ and half of all ‘music’. Nevertheless, I don’t believe I could even attempt a coherent argument for a value-neutral category any smaller than this.

While some of the ideas laid out in this and the next blogpost may appear to be commonplaces, I hope that I can organise them systematically enough that they might begin to resonate with each other in new and useful ways. Anyone who follows my blogs will have realised by now that attempting huge holistic ‘theories of everything’ is a particular pleasure of mine. I would add that it is also a guilty pleasure, involving as it does an urge to mastery. I hope that, in this case, such a brazenly general theory might at least point towards some of the reasons why people misunderstand each other’s music. Being open to different musical genres involves more than a passive relativism, or a ‘letting go’ of taste and value criteria. Musical openness means imagining alternative forms of desire, embodiment, sociality and knowledge. Every musical ‘tribe’ has its own cosmology, as well as its own theology. My aim is to identify some of the deep structures, myths and ritual behaviours that underpin them all.

‘Music’ and ‘theatre’ as interpretive processes 

Music and theatre: any theory of music theatre must begin with these two crucial terms. Neither are ‘scientific’ (or ‘natural’) categories, and so the validity of any definition cannot be proven. Nevertheless, it is still necessary to propose definitions that can function axiomatically, on the basis of which a theory of music theatre might be constructed.

Both ‘music’ and ‘theatre’ are Eurocentric terms for practices that can be (mis)recognised in pretty much every culture in the world, even though many cultures wouldn’t necessarily recognise or understand these practices as such. Rather than attempt universal definitions of ‘music’ and ‘theatre’ that would fit every culture’s self-understanding of their own ‘musical’ and ‘theatrical’ practices—an impossible and unnecessary task—I will focus on these current Eurocentric categories as I personally recognise them from within.

Indeed, it is this very process of (mis)recognition—through which a European audience can hear ‘music’ and experience ‘theatre’ in the ritual practices of tribal societies in Papua New Guinea—that is the object of my definition. If ‘theatre’ and ‘music’ exist, it can only be as processes of interpretation: patterns of recognition, ways of seeing, listening practices. Music begins and ends with the listener, theatre with the audience member; these individuals may have other simultaneous roles, as performers, writers or directors, but it is only in its reception that music/theatre can be said to exist. What’s more, it requires a particular mode of reception, rather than merely the eliciting of a response or the communication of a message. It must involve ‘reception-as-music’ or ‘reception-as-theatre’, and the self-conscious recognition of this process as such.

‘Music’ is the experience of a set of stimuli as music. ‘Theatre’ is the experience of a set of stimuli as theatre. When someone listens to a piece and declares ‘that’s not music’, then it isn’t music. When a guerrilla theatre troupe fools a passerby into thinking some extraordinary event has really taken place, it isn’t theatre.[1] Music becomes music (and theatre becomes theatre) only when it is recognised and experienced as such; furthermore, anything that is recognised/experienced as music is therefore music. Nevertheless, ‘music’ and ‘theatre’ reside in the becoming (the process of recognition); these are neither essential properties of the ‘text’ before reception, nor lingering qualities bestowed upon the ‘text’ as a result of reception.

This is the definitional framework with which I will proceed, and though I cannot prove it to be ‘correct’, this is because there is no correct definition of music or theatre; there are only useful definitions and less useful ones. I consider this a useful definition for my purposes. Clearly, though, the definition is not complete. We are faced with tautologies: music is music and theatre is theatre (unless there really is nothing to music or theatre beyond the arbitrary assignation of terminology). So how do music and theatre actually function as interpretive processes? As I see it, both terms represent clusters of more-or-less codified fictional conventions, relating to the ‘real world’ through established patterns of analogy, homology and mimesis.

All theatre is mimetic

In a previous essay, I defined theatre in terms of a ‘presentation-as-world’. In keeping with the Stanislavskian emphasis on the if operation in theatre (acting as if this were real), we might apply the same ‘as if’ principle to the construction of a virtual world whose internal logic and integrity we can understand and invest in enough to follow a dramatic sequence of events. While this formulation would appear to emphasise the creator/performer who is ‘presenting’ this world, it is actually entirely reliant on the audience to experience events as if they are being ‘presented-as-world’.

We might reformulate this definition in terms of a) intentionality (‘presentation’), and b) mimesis (‘world’). In this case, intentionality pertains to the audience member, rather than the author: it is the self-conscious reception of theatre-as-such.[2] The audience member isn’t seeking out the author’s ‘message’, the director’s ‘intentions’ or the composer’s ‘voice’, they are merely experiencing events through the interpretive frame of ‘theatre’.

Mimesis is a contested (and perhaps exhausted) term in theatre studies, but I use it in an expanded sense, to mean that the virtual ‘world’ of theatre is always judged in relation to the ‘real world’. The audience member uses all the same faculties in their evaluation of the virtual world that they would in the evaluation of the real world (unlike in music, for example, when they only use their ears (see below)). Indeed, any construction ‘as-world’ can only be a function of mimesis. It involves a kind of applied phenomenology, and operates as the precondition of all meaning production in theatre.

Yet mimesis is not the same as verisimilitude. The logic of a theatrical world may be identical to ours, or it may be quite different. The logic may remain consistent or appear to shift throughout the performance, encouraging us to reconsider preceding events. This logic and integrity may threaten to break down, with actors breaking character, coming down from the stage, conversing with audience members as ‘themselves’. However, at each stage, the audience will continue to re-evaluate proceedings in relation to this ‘presentation-as-world’, refining their understanding of the logic of the world presented, to re-accommodate any potential disruptions within an expanded cohesive whole. The audience must believe in the logic and integrity of the world presented, otherwise they simply cease to experience the events as theatre. Selective attention is used to filter out aspects of the performance (other audience members, exit signs, ushers) that don’t fit easily within this cohesive world.

Theatre functions via two ‘as ifs’ then, couched within each other. The audience experiences events as if they are ‘presented-as-world’. The presented virtual world functions as if it contains an internal logic and coherence, analogous to the internal logic and coherence of the ‘real world’. Through this process, the audience comes to believe that meaningful connections, patterns and lessons can be derived from the contemplation of theatrical worlds, in the same way that these can be derived from the ‘real world’.

No music is mimetic

Music is exceptional. It occurs in the ‘real world’ only as exception. It is not of the world; instead, it interrupts the world, is imposed upon the world, both demands and creates states or zones of exception. These qualities are as much indicative of the construction of the ‘real world’ as they are of ‘music’, in our rationalist culture. While music is a near-constant presence alongside the real world, it remains exceptional, and affords listeners the chance to (partially) leave the real world behind. It opens up portals, however shallow these might be.

Music relates to the world, but through analogy and metaphor. It is never mimetic. Even a piece composed entirely of field recordings, or of Foley sound effects, ceases to be mimetic when it becomes music. Indeed, the only way that it can become music is to cease to be mimetic. Another piece might involve performing everyday actions in a kitchen. As theatre it is mimetic, but as music it is not. In such situations, hearing-as-music can seem counterintuitive (and many audiences would struggle to achieve it). It requires an abstraction beyond the ‘world’ apparently being presented, instead tuning in to the ‘exceptional’ musical realm running alongside it. Music and theatre are two entirely different orders of fiction, signifying in entirely different ways. It is this absolute non-identity between theatre on the one hand, and music on the other, that is the basis of all music theatre.


All music is drama

The becoming-music of sound is a dramaturgical operation. In this case, the ‘dramaturge’ is the listener.

By ‘dramaturgy’, I’m referring to a whole host of interpretive decisions.[3] This might involve identifying subjects/agents/protagonists, detecting goals and motivations, assessing relative power and capacity, judging the context of the action (location/dimension/ambience), identifying moments of crisis and reconciliation, and reconstructing actions and events as they suggest changes in hierarchies and transformations of the ‘social’ context. For example, I have written at length about the ‘listening practices’ implicated in the song (certainly the most common musical form in music theatre). Listeners experienced in understanding and evaluating pop songs will intuitively group the timbre-differentiated sonic forces in a particular way, and assign importance to certain moments within the song’s emergent structure, as a method of assessing the relative power of these groups. The resultant power analysis feeds back into the interpretation of other signs (linguistic, gestural, intertextual).

As with the pop song, different ‘genres’ can be defined in terms of the imposition of different interpretive decisions, or different sets of variables. Some sets of variables produce meaning more easily when applied to certain types of sonic phenomena; moreover, the decisions involved will almost always be intuitive. Nevertheless, like ‘music’, ‘genres’ are fundamentally a function of interpretation and not an essential quality of the sonic phenomena in question. Listeners might disagree on the value or meaning of a certain recording or performance as a result of applying different (genred) sets of interpretive decisions.

Schechner’s model of performance

In order to bring these two definitions together—to situate them both within the broader realm of performance and use them as a basis for a definition of music theatre—I want to draw on one of the founders of performance studies: the director and theorist Richard Schechner. My recent introduction to Schechner’s work made it immediately clear what I was so keenly missing in Salzman and Desi’s book, and in musicology/opera studies more generally.

In Schechner’s essay ‘Drama, Script, Theatre, and Performance’ (from Performance Theory (New York: Routledge, 1988)), he provides a model of theatrical performance comprising a series of four concentric circles (Fig. 1). The largest circle is that of ‘performance’, which contains the smaller circle ‘theatre’. Within that is ‘script’, and finally, the smallest circle: ‘drama’. ‘The larger the size [of the circle]’, Schechner notes, ‘the more time and space covered and the broader the “idea area” occupied’ (p.71). With the exception of the ‘drama’ element—the smallest and most specialised circle—Schechner treats this as a universal model for the human theatre–ritual axis. He characterises these nested domains thus:

The drama is the domain of the author, the composer, scenarist, shaman; the script is the domain of the teacher, guru, master; the theatre is the domain of the performers; the performance is the domain of the audience. (p.71)

As applied to modern Western aesthetic theatre then, the drama is the ‘written text’ or ‘score’ (e.g., the dialogue that constitutes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet); while the script (perhaps counter-intuitively) is the ‘basic code of the events’—what we might call the ‘staging’, ‘sceneography’ or ‘treatment’ (e.g., a particular director’s plan for the re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet).[4] The theatre is the ‘event enacted by a specific group of performers’ (e.g., the way the performers actually ‘inhabit’ and ‘realise’ this particular Romeo and Juliet production). Finally, the performance is ‘the whole constellation of events’ that actually take place on a particular night at a particular venue, ‘from the time the first spectator enters the field of performance…to the time the last spectator leaves’ (p.72). (All terms that refer to circles within this model will appear italicised from now on.)


Fig. 1: Schechner’s model (from Performance Theory, p.72)

Schechner is as interested in the pre-‘performance’ dimensions of the theatre process—devising, rehearsal, preparation—as he is in the public-facing dimensions. Much of his directorial work with The Performance Group involved blurring these distinctions and exposing ‘backstage’ elements of this theatrical process. However, the perspective I’m interested in is that of the individual spectator; hence, I am tempted to simplify his model by eliding the script and the theatre (i.e., the ‘plan’ for the drama’s realisation, and the way in which it is actually enacted by the real performers). While Schechner points to the theatre of Brecht, and in particular his Verfremdungseffekt, as an example of a method that effectively plays with the ‘seam’ between theatre and script (with the performers ‘performing themselves performing’), the resulting tension is as much between drama and theatre (character/narrative and performer) as it is between script and theatre (director/stage action and performer). Either the despotic director is rolled together with the author, mapping an arbitrary course that the performers expose or resist, or otherwise the director is rolled together with the performers, in a collective act of deconstruction vis-à-vis the author’s text.

This is to say that, from the audience member’s perspective, there are only three levels of reality at work: the fictional world of the characters who exist only virtually (e.g., Romeo and Juliet); the ‘real world’ in which the performers are professional or amateur actors with their real names in the programme; and—between these two—the temporary ‘presented world’ of the production, in which the actors can become the characters.[5] While this isn’t a ‘real’ world like the one outside the theatre, it is a world which is set up—according to its own interior logic—to real-ise the virtual characters of the drama. It is a world within which Romeo and Juliet become real within the terms of the presented world; hence, their deaths are real for that world. The world presented is the world necessary (however warped or stunted) for these virtual acts to be made real. Forget ‘virtual reality’; theatre is the production of ‘real virtuality’.

What’s more, the audience invests in the interior logic of this presented world in the same way that it invests in the very different logic of their own realities. Onstage deaths are to be mourned, not because they remind us of real deaths, nor because we are ‘tricked’ by ‘fakes’, but because they are real, within a temporary world in which we believe. Schechner writes that the murders in Hamlet ‘are not “less real” but “differently real” than what happens in everyday life’ (p.169). He calls it theatre’s ‘double or incomplete presence, as a here-and-now performance of there-and-then events’.

By adapting Schechner’s theory to my narrower definition of theatre, we can reduce his model from a four-tier ‘production-oriented’ scheme to a three-tier ‘reception-oriented’ scheme (Fig. 2). In the centre is still the drama: the virtual life of the characters, the visceral power of their actions, the immediacy of their motivations, the level on which (we might imagine) they understand their own subjectivity, sociality and agency with the same intuitive clarity that we understand our own. The second tier is the theatre: the presented world assembled from signs and relics, magical props and flows of mediatised data, unconscious poetry and erotic displays, and other ways of blowing open the semiotic process. These gaps and fissures become the medium across which the audience’s understanding of the theatrical world—its constitutive logic—is sutured. Correspondingly, the theatre is the medium through which the drama is realised. The outer tier is the performance: the life-world of the spectator as they encounter the theatrical event, as well as the ‘real-world’ context that frames and filters both theatre and drama.

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Fig. 2: Three-tier ‘reception-oriented’ model

All three tiers are integral elements of the reception (and construction) of theatre in the experience of the audience member. They do not exist prior to the spectator, nor will they remain essentially identical from spectator to spectator. While Schechner’s notion of the drama included written texts, mine is limited to the experience of the drama as one of the three parallel levels on which a single theatrical event is simultaneously experienced by a single spectator. Some audience members may be able to discern more levels—the trademark style of a noted director, the ‘quality’ of a particular performance, interesting variations between performances, the idiom of the set design, the musical value of a composed score—but this is usually the result of specialist/backstage experience in the production process, and involves the imposition of a meta-theatrical gaze on the performance. In every case, beneath this gaze, there must still be the assumption that all levels of the performance are ‘ideally’ coming together to serve this tripartite structure.

Different theatrical performances of different genres, with different aesthetic aims and ideologies, emphasise or obfuscate different ‘circles’ within this structure. A highly naturalistic, Stanislavskian production might aim to dissolve any distinction between drama and theatre, effectively transforming the performers into psychologically complete incarnations of the characters. A lot of contemporary theatre aims to dissolve the distinction between theatre and performance, with performers ‘playing themselves’, addressing audiences directly, and realising the drama (which usually concerns ‘the performer themselves’ as key virtual protagonist) through storytelling, lectures or tours. Some theatre-makers may even try to dissolve the distinctions between all three, staging organised discussions, audience-led games, or simply preparing a meal for everyone. In each case, the three levels are always still in operation, and can always be perceived, even if they are functioning through their own erasure. The moment that these three levels cease to be perceptible, the events are no longer experienced as theatre.

Modelling music

From this three-fold structure, we can discern an equivalent model for music. Indeed, the model could be identical, if we adjust our definition of the second-tier ‘theatrical’ world to include non-mimetic ‘worlds’. In this case, we’d still have three concentric circles: drama, theatre and performance (see Fig. 2). The drama of music, as discussed before, is the configuration of agents and actions, individual and social forces, conflicting desires and motivations, crises and resolutions, which are involved in the becoming-music of sound. Described as such, they appear as ideal-types, narrative conventions, structures of feeling which precede their sonic actualisation. They are interpretive resources (part of a multi-purpose interpretive apparatus) drawn upon by the listener, so as to ‘make sense’ of the sonic stimuli.

The theatre of music adopts the domain of sound as presented world: an arena in which virtualities can be realised, similar to the temporary stage worlds of mimetic theatre. Indeed, I’ve previously described this dimension in terms of an invisible ‘sonic stage’, only discernible through the presence of sounds upon it. Again, signs and relics are combined with flows of noise, visceral triggers both erotic and pain-inducing, and clichéd gestures that are assigned magical powers or else lose all conventional meaning. Here, the drama seizes upon the sound and animates it; the sound, being the realisation of the drama in the physical world, delimits and defines the drama, while pushing back with its material weight. The drama must constantly be reassessed, reassigned and reconstructed by the listener.

Finally, the performance of music involves the ‘real-world’ context in which the sounds are heard. I should say at this stage that, while I hope the reader will recognise this tripartite model in the performance of music in general, I don’t actually believe in the existence of ‘music in general’ (or indeed ‘music-itself’). As a result, I will restrict this discussion to the ‘performance’ of recorded music, for reasons I will get into later. The performance of the sounds via playback device, then, involves the vibrations as they interact with the listener’s environment and body, the source and directionality of the sounds, the way they affect or interrupt the listener’s physical and mental activities, and various other parameters that characterise the border between music-as-exception and the non-musical ‘real’ world.

Again, we have a tripartite model suggesting three parallel levels on which a listener experiences a piece of music. Immediately, we can recognise in this model some very conventional ways of conceptualising classical music; for example, the drama could be ‘the composer’s voice’ (what the composer is trying to express/communicate); the theatre could be ‘the notes themselves’, as they ‘exist’ on the score (perhaps combined with the interpretation of the conductor or soloist, which should nevertheless be ‘faithful’ to the score); and finally, the performance would be the sonic realisation of the piece by a particular ensemble or musician at a particular event. This is effectively the same scheme, although—from the perspective of the individual listener—it surely involves a great deal of disavowal and projection, strenuously assigning this or that subjective impression or emotion to the genius/ineptitude of composer, conductor or performer, subordinating the entire listening process to the task of judging quality (or apportioning blame) according to official value guidelines.[6]

Song acts

While I do believe the drama-theatre-performance model works for music in the same way as it does for theatre, I don’t want to confuse terminology by continuing to use terms like ‘the theatre of music’ when I have previously defined theatre according to its non-identity to music. Instead, I want to borrow from my work on pop songs and re-label the model as it specifically relates to vocal music.[7]

Elsewhere, I have discussed songs in terms of ‘song acts’. Like speech acts, song acts are performative utterances, ways of doing things with the voice. They are actions that the singing voice (the ‘vocal-subject’) performs, in response to a particular (musical) ‘situation’, in order to affect that situation and its own position within it. While each phrase or gesture could be interpreted as a performative utterance, most pop songs also constitute a single unified song act: an action by a single vocal subject in a single situation, on the basis of a single motivation or desire. The unity and coherence of a song (as musical ‘text’ with a single title) is produced by the unity of intention on the part of the vocal subject (or, more precisely, as this intention is interpreted on the part of the listener). Song acts can succeed or fail, or they can achieve something different from the intended result. The intention, like with speech acts, might be very simple: to elicit an emotion or reaction from an addressee (pity, guilt, jealousy), to declare love or to end a relationship, to sexually excite a partner, to diss a rival in a way that demonstrates dominance, or just to clarify a complicated or conflicted thought or emotion to oneself, in a way that will reinforce or realign the subject’s position within the situation. They might also be very complicated or ambiguous, so much so that they are only describable in quite abstract terms: ‘staying afloat’, ‘breaking free’, ‘remaining whole’, ‘owning the beat’, etc.

The enactment of song acts involves a complicated sonic interplay between melody and accompaniment, metre and rhythmic variation, language and sonic materiality. However, the motivation for a song act is rarely a musical one (and even when it is, the musical motivation won’t line up precisely with the song act itself). Instead, behind every song act, there is an assumed speech act: the voice doesn’t know it’s singing, and it certainly doesn’t know it’s being heard by an audience (beyond the implied addressee). The world in which the song act is a speech act—in which the love song is actually being spoken privately and spontaneously to the lover—is a virtual one. It is also an absurdist one: many songs have quasi-nonsensical lyrics, which certainly wouldn’t function as everyday speech acts in the real world. These are nevertheless speech acts, in that they are intended (and assumed to function) as if they were speech acts of the kind we’d recognise. Sound is the medium through which a world is constructed (the ‘songworld’) whereby the virtual speech act can function as if it were a real speech act, proceeding from a musical situation and impacting upon that situation (or not, if it fails).[8]

Following this idea, we can re-label the tripartite model speech, song and performance (Fig. 3). Imagine then that we are listening to Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’. On the speech level, we have Bieber’s persona at the core of the song: a speech act, the motivation for which is to receive forgiveness and achieve reconciliation, while maintaining pride and subtly redrawing the renewed terms of the relationship. The song level includes both Bieber-as-vocal-subject (his vocal presence within the songworld), and the surrounding musical ‘situation’. The voice plays with and manipulates the ‘situation’ to articulate his apology, sculpting it into a well-paced, emotionally seductive rhetorical display of measured penitence and calculated passion. Or perhaps we hear it differently: the situation is unresponsive to each tactic, forcing him into pitiful histrionics or exposing the ultimate shallowness of his petition. In the end, the specific interpretation of the song act’s intention and success is irrelevant. Clearly, if we misheard the lyrics or didn’t understand English, our interpretation would probably be very different; still, as long as we are able to extract some kind of meaning/value from the song, this is always perfectly valid.[9]

On the performance level, the song is catchy, distracting, makes us want to dance. Perhaps we hear it drifting out of an open window as we walk along a quiet street, or perhaps we’re listening to it on headphones as we skip home from a second date. Perhaps it’s on the radio as we receive some bad news, filling the kitchen with mocking indifference until we turn it off. If we know the song, and we know who the song is by, then the performance level might also include Bieber the singer—the real person—and our opinions or fantasies about him, but I don’t want to overemphasise this dimension.[10]

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Fig. 3: Music model using song analogies

As I said, this model functions for recorded music, in which the listener is usually removed from the sources of the sounds. The blank face of the monitor and the steady spin of the turntable bear no relation to the differentiation and articulation of sounds within the songworld. However, as soon as a discernible sound source appears—be it a live musician, or some kind of surrogate, like a DJ or lip-sync artist—we are no longer dealing with music but with theatre as well.

All live music is staged music.

It is therefore necessary to combine the two models…

All live music is music theatre

I am increasingly convinced that the primary division—the first binary choice—in the classification of those phenomena we recognise as ‘music’ is not high vs. low, pop vs. classical, Western vs. non-Western, amateur vs. professional, or even vocal vs. instrumental (which is, I would say, the secondary division). The primary division is between recorded music and live music. This is not to say that either one of these is the real music, or even that one precedes the other. Such orders of precedence are as commonly expressed as they are frequently confused. We might presume that the record is a document of a ‘live’ event (the studio session), or conversely, that any live performance is an imperfect translation of an original recorded work (since notation is another form of recording). For me, this is all beside the point, since I define music in terms of a process of interpretation on the part of the audience member. The distinction is therefore between music in which there is a non-sonic intervention in the dramaturgical process (live music), and music in which the dramaturgy is entirely fantastical (recorded music).

Again, this is not to say that live music is just another kind of theatre. Music theatre is irreducible to theatre, due to the exceptional and non-mimetic qualities of music. However, I would say that whenever live music appears in a theatrical context, even for a brief moment, the result is music theatre. Indeed, live music doesn’t necessarily require human musicians physically producing sounds; it can include automata, visualisations, synchronised events and movement (including dancing), individualised/spatialised playback devices, and any other non-sonic stimuli that can be mapped onto the sounds to differentiate and articulate them, as part of the dramaturgical process.

If all music involves the staging of sound, then all live music/music theatre involves the staging of music: this can be reflected by embedding the music model within the theatre model. Since music is a dramaturgical process, and drama is at the core of all theatre, it is possible to substitute the central circle of the theatre model with the central circle of the music model. However, because all music is non-mimetic and can only appear (in relation to the real world) as exception, it must be included in the model as a new tier, contained within the ‘theatre’ tier but irreducible to it. We are thus left with a four-tier model, with the speech act—song act dyad, enclosed within the theatre—performance dyad of the theatre model (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 4: Combined music theatre model

Music theatre as theatre

Music theatre, as the name suggests, can be experienced as both music and theatre. Yet the two processes aren’t interchangeable and can’t just melt into one another. By experiencing a set of stimuli as both music and theatre, an excess stratum (the fourth tier) emerges that cannot easily be dealt with. This is the “But why are they singing?!” stratum. In theory, there is a whole extra level on which the audience member can experience the work. But only in theory

Take two examples in which the four levels can clearly be discerned. The first example epitomises so-called ‘diegetic music’ within representational theatre. A character in the play is a troubadour; he sings and plays a love song, which the other characters listen to. In this example, the first level is that of the speech act of the singer’s virtual persona in the song, declaring his love to an absent addressee. The next level is that of the song act—the singer’s vocal subject—the material realisation of the lover on the ‘sound stage’ (i.e., between musicalised sound objects, tonal areas, metrical terrains, etc). The third level is that of the theatre in which the virtual character of the troubadour is realised in the physical body of the performer. Unlike the virtual persona and vocal subject, the troubadour is aware that he is singing, as are the listening characters. The final level is that of the performance, in which it’s the actor singing, whose voice the audience might admire quite outside of the specifics of the show.

Another example could be given, epitomising ‘non-diegetic music’ in representational opera. A character in the opera encounters his lover alone for the first time and immediately admits his undying love. The ‘music itself’—speech act and song act—might be exactly the same. The third level, that of the theatre, would be different in kind because neither the lover nor his addressee are aware that he is singing. Only the audience, at the level of the performance, are aware. Again, on this level, they might admire the performer’s voice outside of the specifics of the show.

While these four layers can easily be discerned, they must somehow be elided in order for the piece to be experienced as theatre. As we have seen, theatre is a three-tier system, involving the presentation of an internally coherent world in which virtuality can be realised. This is equally true for music theatre, which is (believe it or not!) a type of theatre. The extra tier is therefore a ‘problem’ for the experience of music theatre as theatre, which has to be solved through the staging. At the same time though, theatre is the process by which the ‘problem’ of music (its exceptionality) can be solved. Theatre is the process of the worlding of music. It is the medium through which music can appear as part of the world, as opposed to exception.

The second example shows this process most clearly. The logic of the world presented differs from ours in that it is one in which interior life has an exterior presence, in which certain types of speech act are sung, in which sociality is constructed tonally and time is experienced metrically (along with all the other rules of conventional operatic ontology). The result is a world in which music is naturalised and no longer exceptional. To achieve this, two of the levels are collapsed into each other: in this case, the song act and the theatre. According to the logic of this world, the vocal subject is the character. The musical situation is the life-world of the characters. Thus, four levels are reduced to three, with songworld and theatrical world combined into the presented world that can realise the virtual drama.

The first example functions in a similar way, although it might seem more obscure. Again, the interior logic of the presented world is one that naturalises the music, removing its exceptionality. It might appear that the ‘naturalistic’ world presented in this play, with a street musician of the kind we might encounter in the ‘real’ world, is perfectly mimetic. And yet, by presenting us with this particular ‘musician’ ‘performing’ this particular ‘song’ in this particular situation, we are being encouraged to understand its significance in a particular way. We are made to consider how it relates to the rest of the action and the characters (‘motivically’, ‘thematically’, etc). We are made to consider the character’s motivations for performing this particular song then and there. We are forced to hear ‘resonances’ or appreciate ‘dissonances’ within the wider logic of the theatrical world. Fundamentally, we are being presented with a world in which the performance of this song is integral (by virtue of its very inclusion) and thus reconfigure our understanding of the theatrical world as one in which music is not exceptional (thus assigning it real powers of clairvoyance, persuasion, seduction, resistance, etc). Again, four levels are reduced to three; this time, the speech act is combined with the song act into a special type of magical ‘action’, integral to the dramatic structure but only achieving potency within the ‘reality’ of the theatrical world.

These are two rather uncontroversial examples of music theatre, but what if we were to encounter the troubadour ourselves, singing his love song in the ‘real’ street, during the course of our day. My contention is that exactly the same process would occur in this situation. The theatrical world uses the ‘found’ location of the street as its décor; the unique ‘logic’ of the world, which normalises the music, is constructed through aspects of the singer’s performance: stance, gestures, field of attention (can he see an audience? who does he see?), relation to his surroundings, etc. The result is that, while we recognise that we don’t live in a world in which declarations of love can or should be sung, we are made to believe that the singer can perform such a world into existence. Musical performance is not just about composure and focus; it’s about constructing and dwelling within a world in which not only is singing not a strange or embarrassing thing to do, but in which it is the necessary and obvious thing to do—the only way in which to perform the speech act effectively. By convincing the audience that it is so, the singer also convinces the audience to reconstruct the logic of that world and make inferences, judgements and predictions based on that logic.

Clearly, then, it is not as simple as mapping the implied speech act (love declaration) onto the real world, and acting as if every passerby is the intended addressee of that act. Because declarations of love cannot be straightforwardly sung, a gap will always open up between the singer and the listener, even if the singer remains alarmingly ‘in character’ and the listener ‘plays along’. Consider the same situation without singing. Someone comes up to you in the street and tells you they love you. You either a) have to respond as if the declaration is genuine, even if that means ignoring it, or b) decide that it’s some kind of theatrical event and try to figure out the logic of the virtual world in which the declaration is genuine. With a singer though, there can be no confusion.[11]

Imagining mimetic music

In some senses, music and theatre seem to belong together. We are used to one accompanying the other, even enabling the other. Theatre shows rarely eschew music totally, and stadium gigs, club nights and music festivals all very clearly borrow from ‘theatrical’ vocabularies. Yet music is also a problem for theatre, just as theatre can be a problem for music (try adding dynamic lighting, scenery and choreography to a Mahler cycle by a renowned orchestra and just see how the audience reacts). Indeed, live musical performance itself is a problem: often we know when it works, but it cannot easily be taught. What exactly should one do with their face, with their body, when singing a song? Instead of concrete gestural instructions, we might instead talk about visualisations, a through-line of emotion, or else trance-like/ecstatic mental states (focus, sensitivity, openness, spontaneity), which should elicit an absorbing, convincing performance for the audience. All of this has to do with theatre, and with the construction, occupation and presentation of another world.

Similarly, the ‘problem’ of music appears as a cliché when talking about music theatre. What are these fantasy worlds in which an orchestral accompaniment can be summoned with a knowing wink, and suddenly everyone in the park is doing the same dance routine and singing the same refrain in perfectly balanced harmony, without raising an eyebrow? What kind of world is that? Not a very ‘realistic’ one, certainly. And yet, most of us are able to invest emotionally in these worlds, adapt our expectations of narrativity to their slightly warped logic, and believe in them enough to make all sorts of judgements. We do not do this by merely ignoring the music, although our familiarity with the genre may be such that we appear to take it for granted or treat it as a ‘bonus’ or ‘interlude’. Instead, the music helps construct the worlds in which the drama of these pieces can be realised.

On the other hand, music does have a certain autonomy, since the ‘theatre’ of music occurs on a purely sonic stage. The songworld is one that we can believe in just as keenly as any theatrical world, but it is consigned to the sonic realm—to a non-mimetic domain, an analogical domain—until we construct a theatrical world that can channel it, rationalise it and normalise it on its own unique terms. The fantasy world of the stage musical is no different in quality than the one the audience reconstructs around the rock band or jazz singer, concert pianist or barbershop quartet, as a result of their commitment to the reality of the song act (which is, in turn, a commitment to the real efficacy of the song act qua speech act).

Music is a problem; theatre is the solution.

The staging of music asks us to imagine a mimetic music, a non-exceptional music. Music theatre is the ‘presentation-as-world’ of the musically possible, natural and efficacious. Forget ‘musical reality’; music theatre is the production of ‘real musicality’…


In the next post, I will give examples of ways in which the four-tier music theatre model is manipulated to produce meaning in different music-theatrical genres, from pop and classical, through opera and musicals, to music videos and (finally) Desi and Salzman’s ‘the new music theatre’. I hope to show that these performance genres function both as sets of fictional/narrative conventions, but also as ritual conventions, underpinning the different ‘theologies’ of genred performance as varieties of religious experience…


[1] I could write ‘it isn’t theatre for them’, but this might suggest that this particular person lacks access to a deeper truth: that the event really was theatre, even if they couldn’t perceive it. But no, there can be no theatre that isn’t always also theatre for them, for him, for her, etc.
[2] Intentionality doesn’t have to mean authority; people who write about music and performance are still too easily obsessed with the idea of the author (a concept perhaps only really fit for visual art and literature, and then only as a kind of fictional construct). This is very often because they are creators themselves (cf. Salzman and Desi).
[3] It might seem a little convenient, at this stage, that I’m relying on a theatrical analogy for my definition of music as a fundamental component of music theatre. There has been a good deal of scholarly debate about whether music can be described ‘as’ drama, ‘as’ fiction or ‘as’ narrative, or whether a set of concepts borrowed from another discipline will always misrepresent the uniqueness of music as a phenomenon (see, e.g., Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Fred E. Maus, ‘Music as Drama’, in Jenefer Robinson (ed.), Music and Meaning (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997); Byron Almén, A Theory of Musical Narrative, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008)).
Regardless of how my approach intersects with this work, I want to emphasise that a) I’m not making claims about music as a written practice or set of objects, but as an interpretive process, and b) I don’t mean this metaphorically. I’m not saying that it would be helpful to look at music as if it were drama, but that the process of experiencing music as drama and experiencing other things as drama (both in art and everyday life) is exactly the same. There is no music before or outside of this dramaturgical process.
[4] Schnechner later suggests that, post-Derrida, an alternate term for his script level could be the text. This makes sense to me, given the enduring associations of ‘script’ with the written word (p.104, n.3).
[5] These ‘three levels of reality’ may or may not relate to Lacan’s three orders of the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic, respectively.
[6] Similar systems of displacement (‘this is the composer’s message’, ‘this is the performer’s soul’, ‘this is the conductor’s hubris’, etc etc) affect listening practices in other musical traditions. However, I believe far too much emphasis is placed on such systems by music writers and musicians, who cultivate them as markers of expertise/authority. This leads to fans unnecessarily trying to adopt these systems when discussing music, or apologising for their inability to do so, in the unfortunate belief that their own judgement systems aren’t as valid, and because alternative evaluation systems remain underdeveloped.
[7] As mentioned earlier, vocal music constitutes the majority of the music occurring in music theatre of all genres. At the same time, while I haven’t yet explored this area in detail, I would like to suggest that vocal music (i.e., the interpretive scheme that renders vocal music comprehensible, meaningful and valuable) is also one of a limited number of schemes through which non-vocal music is interpreted. That is to say, ‘songfulness’ (or the ‘voice’ of the melodic/soloistic line) is a key criterion in the interpretation of non-vocal music.
[8] I must be clear that I am using speech act in the widest possible sense, assuming that every utterance has a performative function (intended audience, intended result, calculated efficacy). And ‘speech’ here isn’t limited to language, or to the lyrics written down in the sleevenotes. Singing is in excess of language, but it is also in excess of non-linguistic vocal gestures (moans, sighs, grunts, screams, laughs). The imaginary speech act, while it can only be heard through its musical realisation, makes use of the full semiotic arsenal of imaginary speech, just as the real speech act makes use of the full semiotic arsenal of real speech.
[9] As far as I see it, the only reasons to correct someone’s interpretation of a musical work are political.
[10] Much of the listening that goes on in the world involves people interpreting and judging music by songwriters that they don’t know, sung by singers that they don’t know. This kind of listening is still perfectly valid and important.
[11] The reader might protest here that love declarations can be sung in real life, citing the serenade and its modern equivalent in the bedrooms of earnest English Literature students with acoustic guitars. In this case, might the virtual speech act not correspond exactly with the performance level? I would say not; the performer is using the speech act euphemistically, as a safety mechanism, to perform their declaration of love indirectly. While the act of performance clearly refers to the virtual speech act at its heart, the addressee has the option to hear it only as ‘theatre’ and ignore the declaration while keeping everyone’s pride relatively intact. If the addressee chooses to hear the performance as a real declaration of love, this is entirely a feature of the social context—the accepted ‘function’ of such serenades as euphemisms—on the performance level. The addressee wouldn’t be expected to respond literally to the lyrics as if they had been spoken.
I still find this an interesting example though, and just as interesting is the inclusion of serenades (or similar song acts with conventional ‘real-world’ performative power) within the drama of relatively representational music theatre texts. On the one hand, such texts clearly codify and validate such performative power: we learn from music theatre what such performances could/should mean. On the other hand, shows such as Glee (a text so rich in parallel, shifting musical dimensions) could actually make use of a doubling or tripling of performative strata, whereby actors played teenagers playing singers playing real-life pop stars playing vocal subjects playing virtual personas. There were implied performatives on each of these levels, which would seep deliciously into the meta-discourse of CD releases, live concerts and reality shows, not to mention YouTube covers and Spotify rip-offs.
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One Response to What is Music Theatre Actually? (A Theory of Musical Performance)

  1. Pingback: Logics of Musical Worlds (A Theory of Musical Genre) |

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