Gesture and Thought

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halseyOne of the most enlightening books I have ever read is David McNeill’s Gesture and Thought. I drew on its theoretical findings for my central discussions of conducting gesture in my recently published book on choral conducting. It is a wonderful thing when you find a theory that explains so clearly things that you see in real life.

So, McNeill is concerned with how gestures relate to the way we think, and his central thesis is that speech-accompanying gestures are not merely illustrative of the way we think, but actually part of the process of generating thoughts. Corollaries of this include:

  • The less obvious the content of the idea, the more elaborate the gestures
  • People prevented from gesturing lose speech fluency and – this is the interesting bit – generate less vivid ideas
  • Culturally-shared styles of gesturing imply culturally-shared ways of thinking

You can see why I found this fascinating, yes?

Now, how well and in what ways theories developed for spoken language transfer to musical contexts is something I deal with in detail in the book, so am not going re-hash here. But musicians do make judgements compatible with this theory all the time.

For instance, I was assessing a postgraduate conducting exam some years ago with John Lubbock, and he criticised the candidate in exactly these kinds of terms. The gestures were rather unvaried, he said, and were too often mirrored in both hands. But the problem wasn’t the gestures per se, he went on to add, it was that the candidate was not hearing enough to motivate more variety and greater independence of hands. His point was that there’s so much going on in orchestral textures that there’s always something that needs balancing or bringing out or nuancing or inflecting, and if you are attending to the detail, you will necessarily be varying your gestures.

There are two schools of thought about conducting. One says you need to focus on the music and the gestures will look after themselves, while the other says that conducting gesture is a technique like and any other that needs to be learned and practised. McNeill helps us see how both are right in their way. You only get to have interesting and creative gestures by having interesting and creative thoughts about the music. But you also need to learn the culturally-shared gestural vocabulary if you are to understand the culturally-shared ways of thinking about music.

But since thought is inherent in gesture, and gesture is part of the act of thinking, whichever you start with will always lead to the other.

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