Tacit Knowledge in Orchestral Performance: an application of H. H. Clark’s (1997) “Dogmas of Understanding” to the analysis of performed music

June 2, 2016


This paper presents an exploration of the ontological shift from musical materials (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, register) to activities in music performance analysis. A systematic analysis of London Symphony Orchestra masterclasses reveals the basic mechanisms of music making in four main areas: representation, audience, interaction and tacit knowledge. This exploration leads to a broader account of cognition and creativity in music performance, one that bridges inner and outer processes of awareness around domains of coordination in joint activities. In this view, the conceptualizations of musical materials are viewed as targets of focal awareness rather than the basis for cognition in music making. This account, grounded in a rich third-person phenomenological analysis of instructional materials, paves the way for a “meaningful analytics” of orchestral performance.



What does it mean to make music? There are many possible answers to this question from such diverse perspectives as music philosophy, music theory, ethnomusicology, music cognition, and performance analysis. The answers from these different fields draw on different ontologies of music. The process of defining aspects of music for use in theoretical work is the basis of all scholarly enterprises in music. This paper falls somewhere in between music theory and ethnomusicology. It is a music theory, but the materials of analysis are grounded in the activities of music making in the orchestra.

This paper explores the idea that there is a kind of knowledge in the processes of making music. This knowledge is embodied, embedded, and situated in the activities of making music. Instrumental teachers share this knowledge through a variety of instructional methods and materials. While instrumental instruction is subjective, the knowledge of many teachers taken together can be systematically organized using concepts drawn from the cognitive sciences—multimodal coordination, layered meaning, instrumental affordances, tacit knowledge, and ad hoc conceptualization. The results offer a “translational science of musical practice”—a bridge from subjective expertise to a more systematic account of cognition and creativity in music making.

The dogmas of understanding presented in this paper are widespread assumptions that underlie both formal and informal investigations of cognition in music making. Most people educated into the Western tradition of music making, myself included, have held some version of these dogmas at some point. Here they are formally deployed as rhetorical devices to help unpack the ontological shift from materials to activities along a broad range of aspects in orchestral music performance. The goal is to establish a theory of music making that is grounded in instrumental practice. In order to ground this work in instrumental practice, I have used instructional materials made publicly available by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. The knowledge that is shared in these instructional materials has been systematically organized into four main areas: representation, audience, interaction, and tacit knowledge. The aim is to bring analytical practice and research on music performance more into line with current theories of representation, concept formation, situated cognition, and tacit knowledge. In doing so, I propose an account of cognition in music performance that bridges inner and outer processes of awareness around domains of coordination in the activities of making music.

Analysis and Performance

In the analysis of performed music,1 musical materials (e.g. notes, rhythms, phrases, harmonies, melodies) need to be distinguished from musical utterances (see H.H. Clark, 1997). An utterance can be defined simply as the action of saying something. Musical utterances are the actions of producing musical sounds. Sounding a note is not just about its material qualities; it is about how the note is sounded, and how meaning is associated with that sound. For example, when a bassoonist “plays middle C” she coordinates her embouchure,2 air speed and pressure, and fingers to produce a sound that satisfies the conditions for middle C. In practice, rehearsal, and performance an utterance of middle C can also signal a musical concept (e.g. the tonic).3 At the same time, it serves as a musical cue conveying the dynamics (e.g. mezzo piano), tempo (e.g. moderato), character (e.g. dolce, sotto voce), and style. The utterance is also an invitation, “here we go; the piece is starting; please listen; it starts this way”. In addition, the utterance of C can present a meaningful evocation—a novel layer of meaning added for the benefit of members of the ensemble or audience,4 “this is the way we heard Joe play it last time." We recognize the utterance as “saying something” at these different levels of action and their corresponding layers of meaning (see H. H. Clark, 1996). The levels of action in music performance must be extended to account for the presence of a signal and a cue, as well as the possibility that a performance is also “speaking to” the musical work and its past performances as well as the physical and social environment in which it is currently being played.

Levels of action in a musical utterance:

  1. the utterance
  2. the signal for self and other
  3. the cue for self and other
  4. this instance of the musical work
  5. this physical and social situation

For the performer, each of these levels of activity is subsumed in one action. A performer does more than play a “middle C”—she presents a signal and cue to self and other, and to the listener, and to the performance space, and the social context. Writing on music performance tends to privilege the score as the source of meaning in music making (Kaastra, 2008b). However, this focus on musical materials has led to one of the oldest dogmas about meaning in music making.

D1(L): Dogma of Musical Meaning (Listening): For listeners to understand a performance, they must first decode the musical materials.

And its alternate,

D1(P): Dogma of Musical Meaning (Performing): For performers to play a musical work, they must first decode the musical materials.

The problem with these dogmas is that listeners and performers do understand musical utterances quite apart from their ability to analyze or decode the musical materials. We understand what the performer is saying. We “listen for” dynamics, timing, character, and more subtle nuances of style, timbre, resonance, and intonation. Members of the London Symphony Orchestra demonstrate awareness and mastery of these levels of activity in their instructional materials for the Youtube Symphony Orchestra project (Kaastra, 2014):

  1. Bassist (level 1): “The sforzando needs to be a lean rather than a heavy accent.” “Pull weight away for diminuendo.”
  2. Bass Trombone (level 2 signal): “Exaggerate the dotted rhythm so that the correct rhythm will be heard through the orchestra.”
  3. Violin (level 3 cue): “The notes need to be beautiful but it is more important that you are clear about timing.”
  4. Bassoon (level 4): “Think of captivating your audience in the same way Scheherazade did in order to avoid being killed.”
  5. Tuba (level 5): “You need to sound like overfed first trumpets. We want all the energy and character of a first trumpet player, but on a big instrument.”

Notice that these instructions demonstrate layers of awareness in the activity of making music, not just how a passage ought to be interpreted. If musical thinking is based solely in representation and expression of musical materials, one would expect music instruction to reflect that. Instead we have a clear indication that the basis for musical thinking is strongly grounded in the activities of making music. The shift from materials to activities has profound consequences for how we understand musical thinking, especially in the rich environment of the orchestra. This leads to a second dogma, the dogma of instrumental invariance.

D2 Dogma of Instrumental Invariance: Performers determine the meaning of musical materials independently from the constraints or affordances of their instrument.

The difference is perhaps greatest between harmonic and melodic instrumental performance. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is performed in two versions, an orchestral version and a two-piano version (piano 4 hands). Pianists benefit from understanding the polychordal structure5 of the music because the piano is a harmonic instrument.6 Understanding the polytonality of the music is a helpful way to chunk finger motion, and so it makes sense that a pianist would find it meaningful both for practical and expressive purposes. But a woodwind player gains nothing by knowing the polychordal structure of a passage of music. Instead, the wind player must know something about what is salient for the purposes of coordinating her performance with that of other members of the ensemble.7 Performing on melodic instruments is a deeply situated and social activity. In order to perform in an ensemble, an instrumentalist has to know what is meaningful for the purposes of performance. She must attend from the particulars of her engagement with her instrument to the particulars of her engagement with others (Kaastra, 2013, 2014). The section of this paper devoted to tacit knowledge will explore this idea in more detail. For now, we will explore the how the concept of audience shapes the way we attend to musical utterances.


We can think of audience literally, as in those participants who are seated in front of a stage, watching, listening, and clapping on cue. But audience as I discuss it here represents a broader set of ideas regarding the purpose for finding meaning in a social context (H. H. Clark, 1997). The broader concept of audience includes the aspects of the situation that play a role in shaping the interaction. Audience can be explored at different units and levels.

One unit and level of analysis is the ensemble. When two or more individuals play together, they are responding with each other. Research that takes an ecological approach8 supports the idea that we “listen for” based on our roles in the experience. The musical utterances become meaningful for someone in a specific musical setting. This challenges the idea that all music is understood in the same way. We can borrow from H. H. Clark’s D4 (1997, p. 574):

D3: Dogma of Undifferentiated Hearers: Listeners understand musical utterances in the same way regardless of their role.

And its cousin,

D4: Dogma of Autonomous Performance: A musical work means the same thing no matter where it is performed.

With a focus on musical materials, it is difficult to conceptualize how musical meaning is arrived at in different contexts. This is in part because musical materials in the Western Art Music tradition are so theoretically rich and meaningful in an abstract sense. One way to understand this is to explore how ensemble roles influence processes of attention and sensory engagement in performance.

Performer Roles

In live performance, there are explicit and implicit roles for each person performing, and the roles can change based on the content of the music and the process for performance. In orchestral performance, it is possible to both overestimate and underestimate the importance of seating in how musicians understand their work. On the one hand, we encounter the misconception that orchestral performance is “ossified, stilted, and predictable” (Sawyer & DeZutter, 2009). There is a common misconception that the conductor plays the orchestra, and that individual players bear little personal responsibility for the overall success of a performance. The reality, as most instrumentalists know, is far more complex.

D5: Dogma of Orchestral Hierarchies: The conductor plays the orchestra

In this view, the activity of performing in a large ensemble seems, to anyone who has not actually played in an orchestra, largely automated. Of course, performances are never the same from one night to another, and this view seriously overestimates the role of the conductor in getting it right. In reality, seating determines a great deal about how we attend to the activity of making music from within the orchestra. There are explicit roles in the orchestra, for example, the first chair is the leader of the section, and the concertmaster is the leader of the ensemble. These roles are particularly important for organizing the procedures of rehearsal and making larger interpretive decisions. When the music starts, however, the content will often imply alternate hierarchies for listening. For example, the woodwind section may need to “listen down” to the second bassoon to lock in their tuning of a chord. Then they may shift their attention to the flute to support a quiet solo passage. London Symphony Orchestra musicians offer a glimpse of some alternate hierarchies that determine what they are “listening for” in a series of online masterclasses.

  1. Oboe: “Be under the flutes.”
  2. Bassoon: “This melody is a memory of the longer oboe melody played earlier in the movement.”
  3. Timpani: “Be near the trumpets, because you need to be hand in glove.”; “You need to be locked into the basses and cellos.”
  4. Clarinet: “You don't want to stick out; you want to be the icing on the cake.”; “Play in character of the flutes.”

This is by no means a complete account of the alternate hierarchies that are possible, nor are these instructions intended to be prescriptive. The examples support the idea that a hierarchy of listening drives processes of attention and awareness in ensemble performance. Expert instrumentalists like the members of the LSO understand that the music implies certain roles for the purposes of attention, and those roles determine what they are listening for in their own playing and in the orchestra.9 The oboist is positioning his sound below (quieter than) the flute sound. The bassoonist is playing his melody just the way the oboist did earlier in the movement, but a bit softer. The timpanist anchors his performance in that of other sections. The clarinetist is positioning his sound in the first example as “icing” and the second example he is mimicking a flute sound. Notice that these instructions go beyond interpretation of the musical materials and into the activities required for engaging in music making. The players do not say, “play it exactly like this." They say, “Listen this way, and place your sound [under, over, inside] what you hear.” So far this discussion calls into question the following statement:

D6: Dogma of Determinate Meaning: Performers have an interpretation of a musical work in mind and it is up to the audience to identify that interpretation.

While performers certainly are concerned about how their music reaches the audience, the concept of audience should be broadened to include the situated listening from within the ensemble.


Performance in an orchestra is a thoroughly social activity. When one player "says something," the entire group responds in kind. Responding and coordinating responses happens in real time, in less time than it takes to think through what just happened. A good way to understand this is by drawing out another of H. H. Clark’s “dogmas of understanding” (D7 Clark, p. 581).

D7: Dogma of Autonomous Processes: Playing and listening are autonomous processes

Performers “coordinate at all levels of processing” (Clark, 1996). They monitor their own and others’ contributions for successful completion. This monitoring is a basis for participating; it is ongoing; it is iterative; it is "responding with." Successful completion does not refer to flawless interpretation, but to the ability of the performers to draw out meaningful connections with each other. Each utterance is placed meaningfully in a responsive context.10 Orchestral performance is not as brittle as we are led to believe. As with other kinds of meaningful social interaction (Clark, 1997), players adapt in real time.

D8: Dogma of Musical Perfection: The processes of understanding music are fundamentally designed for flawless utterances.

Instrumentalists do strive for perfection. However, a common misconception is that there is one perfect way to utter a musical phrase. In reality, what is more important about a musical utterance is the sense in which it is connected to what is going on around it. You see this reflected in statements by members of the LSO:

  1. Cello: “Practice it all in one bow, in separate bows, so that you are flexible and can do it all ways.”
  2. Oboe: “Work it out intellectually but then play it naturally…. Imagine where the music is flowing to. We could play it very static, just trying not to make a mistake, but this wouldn’t be the essential meaning of playing. …The music should sing, it should relax and it should express itself.”

Flexibility is mentioned over and over again in the LSO’s Youtube Symphony Orchestra masterclasses. If orchestral performance were as scripted and “mindless” as we are led to believe in the literature on music making (e.g. Sawyer, 2003), musicians would not emphasize this flexibility. In reality, orchestral music performance requires a tremendous presence of mind to continually attend to, pick up, and draw out what is meaningful. Flexibility and the ability to recover after a mistake are two critical components of expert performance. When mistakes are made, the performance does not stop. Rather, the players continue to pick up what is working and move forward. Some members of the LSO discuss this in their lessons.

  1. Flute: “Don’t get caught up with the rests. If you play the rests, the piece will come to a stop.”
  2. Cello: “Practice the shift, of course, but in performance, think of something else before the shift.”

Both of these instructions focus on the contents of awareness. The flutist is saying that to keep a feeling of movement through a series of melodic fragments in a passage; he has to cover over the rests rather than giving the rests full attention. The cellist is giving instructions about a very challenging and exposed shift. These instructions came to her from another cellist, who has a strong record of success with that shift. “Think of something else”–don’t put all of your attention to the one shift; instead move through that tricky area and you will either hit or miss, but you will recover gracefully. This leads to another misconception that touches on the nature of creativity in music performance.

D9: Dogma of Scriptedness: Performance that relies on a musical score fundamentally lacks creativity.

Music making never just appears out of nowhere. It does not spontaneously erupt in forms we have never experienced. What instrumentalists miss by focusing on the perfect expression of a phrase is the idea that, by practicing and rehearsing, we are learning to attend to the particulars of performance to learn greater awareness and control over those particulars so that when the moment comes and we are performing in context, we can manage the tremendous mental resources required and use our ability to attend in specific ways, to connect what we are doing to what is going on all around us.11 It is the process of connecting aspects of the music that is creative in the orchestra, as well as in less scripted and improvised music making. When we play without a score, we simply use a different set of coordination keys (Kaastra, 2008a, 2011).

Tacit Knowledge

There is another dogma, deeply buried in our collective misunderstanding of music making:

D10: Dogma of Mindless Performance: The performer can make music but be unaware of any expressive or creative processes.

And its cousin,

D11: Dogma of Musical Expertise: A performer is knowledgeable about music on in so far as she can speak intelligently about it.

Tacit knowledge and creativity

The difficulty here is two-fold. Firstly, critics (including our own inner critics) maintain that a performance that does not move us in some way, often related to an interpretive ideal, lacks expressive or creative purpose. Secondly, theorists, (including our own inner theorists) maintain that the only knowledge that counts is declarative knowledge “about” the music. Sadly, when we believe that performance is only knowledgeable when it is expressed in declarative terms, we lose the ability to conceptualize the more basic cognitive processes of musical engagement. When this understanding is limited, it only makes sense that salient aspects of the performance might be lost with it. Our understanding can only progress when we can ask the right questions.

I propose an account of cognition in music performance that emphasizes processes of awareness around the particulars of music making (Kaastra, 2008a, 2008b, 2011, 2013, 2014). This account applies Polanyi’s structure of tacit knowledge to explain how instrumentalists bridge inner and outer processes of attention and awareness in performance. In essence, I am proposing an account of cognition in music making that would benefit from further exploration in the range of approaches currently used to study ad hoc conceptualization in language (see Barsalou 1983, 1999, 2003; Barsalou & Prinz, 2002; Glushko et al. 2008; Casasanto & Lupyan, 2015). In this view, the structural and metaphorical conceptualizations12 of music theory are targets of focal awareness, rather than the basis for cognition in music making.

In the orchestra, performers monitor the particulars of their own and others’ playing (Kaastra, 2013, 2014). The particulars in music performance include any and all aspects of sensory engagement that can be manipulated. The possibilities range from the very obvious–finger and arm motion, to the very subtle–the intake of a breath and embouchure formation.

Polanyi (1966) says that tacit knowing always involves two "terms," the proximal and the distal. “We attend from something for attending to something else… from the features to the face” (1966, p. 10). Internally, if I have “play as softly as you can” as my target, many aspects of my subsidiary awareness are automatically restructured to meet that target. These can include air speed, air pressure, finger pressure, hand position, posture, embouchure pressure, embouchure size, embouchure shape, and tongue placement. I will not be attending focally to each of those aspects of my performance; rather, I choose a target that will work best for current purposes. Sometimes a target will include structural knowledge of the score (e.g. play it more quietly on the repeat). Other times a target might have more to do with an imaginative portrayal (e.g. play it with all of the filigree of a Viennese ball).

In musical terms, we attend from the technical particulars to the utterance. The technical particulars are proximal; they belong in our subsidiary awareness, literally inside our bodies. The note is distal; it is the situation we are striving to master, the object of our focal awareness. As we progress to increasing levels of musical sophistication, we choose different targets of awareness. Those targets restructure the aspects of subsidiary awareness to meet new goals. This is the functional aspect of tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966).

The particulars of performance on the different instruments vary greatly. Stringed instruments do not involve the breath, but the bow. Yet, string and wind players are able to recognize based on their mutual knowledge, beliefs, expectations, and experiences (Clark, 1996) what is meaningful for the purposes of coordinating the performance (Kaastra & Kirsh, 2013).13 One way to explore this is to say that the particulars of performance expose perceptual objects for us (see Noë, 2012).

For example, performance on a brass instrument requires a very complex coordination of perceptuo-motor processes. It involves tactile sensations in the lips, jaw, mouth, and throat, and tactile and kinesthetic sensations in the airstream, fingers, hands, and arms. Sensory perception in music making involves listening; it also involves other sensory systems such as chronoception, proprioception, and sometimes nociception. Coordinating performances requires not only a deep familiarity with ones own sensory engagement, but by extension a familiarity with what other musicians are also experiencing as they play. I direct the reader to a wonderful performance by the ensemble, Mnozil Brass called, “Lonely Boy” (see reference list). In order for this performance to be possible, the brass players must have very stable access to shared perceptual objects in performance. They literally share their performance of an instrument with each other.

Performers manipulate the particulars in order to produce musical utterances that are meaningful for current purposes. This is true at a very basic level of music making. Even without an instrument in hand, we can manipulate the particulars of clapping to create meaningful material. Even keeping the same rhythm and tempo, we can use flat or cupped hands; we can alter the distance and pressure to create different qualities of clapped sound. It is also what the great teachers address when they focus doggedly on technique (famous examples include the teaching of Janos Starker, cello, and Stephen Maxym, bassoon and many, many others).

Concluding Thoughts

Orchestral performance is a richly creative and powerful way to make music–yet the gulf between performance and scholarship in Western Art Music is still vast. It is time to move beyond the dogmas and misconceptions of the tradition and engage in meaningful analytics on practice. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of human cognition (see Barsalou & Prinz, 2002; Johnson, 1987) and yet, many dogmas of understanding obstruct a discussion of creativity in Western Art Music performance. It is time that some of these dogmas are let go in favor of a deeper exploration of the fundamental mechanisms of music making. These mechanisms share a common root with the processes that support language use. They are found in our ability to manage joint awareness, understand roles and goals, enjoy meaningful multimodal interaction, and respond meaningfully with each other.


This paper pays sincere and humble homage to Herbert H. Clark, and to one of his brightest papers, “Dogmas of Understanding” (1997). Herbert H. Clark’s (1996) book, Using Language totally revolutionized my understanding of music making. His conceptual framework helped me to organize the knowledge built up through years of dedicated practice and study. I would also like to acknowledge Brian Fisher for his constant encouragement and support.


1For simplicity, all references to performed music in this paper refer to Western Art Music (WAM) performance.

2Embouchure is the combination of jaw, lips, teeth, and tongue on the instrument.

3The tonic of a key, e.g. C is the tonic of a C major scale.

4See Monson, 1996.

5Polychordal means the sounding of two different chords at the same time. This produces the dissonance that is characteristic of this work.

6Sheila Silver, graduate course, "Contemporary Music Analysis", SUNY Stony Brook, 1995.

7This is not to suggest that the analysis of musical materials won't deepen our understanding of the music; simply that it is not what a woodwind player needs to know to do her job.

8(e.g. Reybrouck, 2012)

9We can call this "situated listening", after Hutchins (2000).

10For more on this, see the action ladder that is used to conceptualize monitoring in face-to-face conversation (Clark, 1997 p. 582).

11See D. Schoen, "The Reflective Practitioner" ch. 8 for a full discussion of reflection-in-action.

12See Larson, S. "Musical Forces" (2012).

13See also Kaastra, 2012. 



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5119 Last modified on March 8, 2019