Performance conventions

punk bank performing on stage

© iStockphoto.com/Oleg Prikhodko

Musicians performing on stage tap into a set of well worn musical and visual conventions which help to communicate a coherent performance style to an audience. These include conventions governing the on-stage arrangement of musicians; gesture, stance and stage wear; types of verbal communication; and levels of interaction with an audience. These conventions can take many forms:

  • Tamla Motown groups with colourful costumes and sequenced dance movements;
  • hip-hop acts taking turns to rap over beats provided by 'turntablists';
  • heavy metal acts with elaborate stage sets, smoke bombs and costumes made out of comic books;
  • 'shoegazing' bands who play slow, droning sets and barely make eye contact with each other or the audience;
  • boy bands and girl groups with a different dance routine for every number and a host of special effects.

Most of these conventions are closely linked to the style or genre of music being played. The musical, social and visual styles that we associate with different musical genres tend to be reflected in common elements of performance within those genres.

For example, jazz is centred around the mastery of instrumental virtuosity, the interpretation of existing material, improvisational skills and a deep understanding of syncopated rhythmic grooves. Jazz performances therefore tend to include elements such as extended improvisational passages and instrumental solos, which highlight the virtuosity of each player, gestural conventions such as finger-snapping and head movements, and spoken introductions to the musical pieces being performed.

In contrast, punk was built around a DIY (Do-it-yourself) ethos which valued immediacy, accessibility, excitement and a lyrical concern with the lives of its performers and audience. Punk performance conventions tended to echo these elements, involving a directness (and often a lack of polish) in instrumental playing, instruments amplified to loud, often distorted volumes, aggressive posturing and ironic interaction with the audience between songs.

Performance conventions also depend upon the size of an audience and the scale of the performance event. What works as a performance at an intimate club, for instance, might be entirely inappropriate for a large-scale stadium performance. A singer-songwriter playing in a 200 capacity venue can interact with their audience on a fairly intimate level. The sheer proximity of the audience means that they have a range of options open to them. They can perform quietly with a level of subtlety in their voice and playing or use broader musical gestures to give excitement to elements of their set. Stadium rock acts, in contrast, tend to cut out musical subtleties within their music or select music from their repertoire that will suit large-scale events. This tends to involve broad gestures musically, visually and in the way in which they communicate with the audience. They may also employ particular strategies in order to make the audience feel involved in the performance. For example, music critics David Buckley and Dave Laing point to hugely successful acts such as Simply Red, the Rolling Stones and Queen, whose stage acts are "overwhelmingly about reciprocity [exchange and interaction]" between performers and audience (Buckley and Laing, 2003: 663).