Visual aspects of live performance

spotlight shioning on a microphone stand in front of curtains on an empty stage

© istockphoto.com/Jason Lugo

Live performance constitutes the original, and in some respects the most direct, connection between sound and vision. The relationship between the two takes many forms - sometimes seemingly instinctive and organic, other times highly choreographed and stylised.

One trait that many popular music performers share is the use of visual presentation to add further dimensions to musical delivery. When musicians perform on stage they use more than just the music to get their message across. The way they dress, move and even look at the audience all serve to communicate a complex set of meanings and emotions. As audience members we tend to judge the musical and visual aspects of performance against the store of popular music performances we have witnessed in the past. As the academic and writer Noel McGloughlan notes;

"popular music has its own history of performances, its own performing discourse, its own way of organising meaning and value. In... finding pleasure in popular music performers, in their music, in their clothes, their bodies, we are considering a performance, not in isolation, but as a performance within a history of performances, the enactment of identity within a series of identities." (McGloughlin, 2000: 271)

Musicians and singers use things such as costume and gesture in order to emphasise aspects of the music they are performing. Just as in the everyday world what we wear can be rich in connotations, so it is in musical performance, and this in turn affects the way we respond to the music. For their part, facial and bodily gestures may be used by performers to give expression to the music’s emotional intensity, whilst other gestures might be used to create a sense of intimacy with an audience.

Another important visual aspect of popular music performance is its staging. Differing types of popular music have different conventions, ranging from minimally lit, stripped down stage settings to elaborate and highly expensive stagings that utilise state-of-the-art technology, complicated lighting routines and a host of other visual stimuli. In all of these ways, visual performance style is another key factor in creating meaning for a popular music act.

Follow these links to explore aspects of visual performance style: