two singers and a DJ performing on stage

DJ Frank and Janiece Myers accompanied by Jasmine Joel
live at the Cavern © Ben Potter

Performance has always been a central part of musical practice and live music continues to be a highly important aspect of many people's musical lives. It provides a direct contact between musicians and their audiences and is a significant part of the music industry. Most major cities have a thriving live music scene and the major live music venues in the UK were estimated to be worth £743 million in 2007 (DCMS 2007).

In the days before recorded sound all music was performed live in some way, whether communally in situations such as family or community gatherings and the church, or by musicians and singers in the concert hall or various other social settings. The development of recorded sound technologies in the late 19th century changed all this. The emergence of the recording, radio, film and television industries meant that music was now predominantly heard in recorded form. It was only when recorded music became so ubiquitous that people really started using the category of 'live' performance in order to distinguish live from recorded music. More recently the boundaries between live and recorded sound have often become blurry as DJs and sound artists incorporate samples of recorded sound in their music making. While DJs used to just play records to audiences who wished to dance, now they might also re-mix and compose as part of their set. In these instances it has become common to advertise a live DJ set.

Live performance in the contemporary age must therefore be understood in relation to recorded sound and a context in which audiovisual media permeate our daily lives. In an age where music can be manipulated and enhanced in the studio, live performance gives visual and aural 'proof' that music originates from a particular musician or group. It also provides a platform for displays of virtuosity and emotion. In a sense it reunites the link between sound and vision that recorded music separates.

Live performance can also provide audiences with a chance to witness musicians playing in the flesh. Well known musicians are disembodied through radio and recordings or mediated through television. This has increased the specialness of the live experience as it provides a real sense of connection between performer and audience. For music fans seeing a live music performance can be a once-in-a-lifetime event. For example, in November 2007 fans from all over the world came to London for a one-off reunion by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. The promoters claimed there were twenty million lottery entries for just 20,000 tickets. Similarly, pop and rock acts like Robbie Williams, Oasis and the Rolling Stones regularly sell out stadium shows for hundred of thousands of fans.

No matter what form they take, all musical performances are characterised by certain conventions in style, form, gesture and look. Follow the links below to find out more.

There is also information about Gesture and performance and Performance and gender in the Image and design section.