Much Ado About Humming

Portions of this post were presented at the International Conference on Music and Gesture at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, U.K., and the national meeting of the Society for Music Theory in Toronto, Canada. This post serves as an introduction to a larger body of work concerning gesture and meaning in music.

Glenn Gould’s habit of vocalizing as he played has long been the subject of discussion. Criticism has come from conductors, recording engineers, even disgruntled consumers who have proposed the release of “humming-less” versions of the Gould catalogue. Gould himself was sympathetic to those who were bothered by it but he maintained that he played less well without it, characterizing his vocalizing and gesturing as a kind of “wishful thinking.”

It is not unusual for musicians to vocalize as they perform, but where does this habit—if it could be described as such—come from? What function, if any, does it serve? Part of the answer may lie in the physical inhibitions of young musicians being supplemented by cognitive imagery. In other words, the mind fills-in what the hands are not yet able to reach. Gould biographer Geoffrey Payzant offers the following explanation:

“Young but rapidly developing musicians will find his mental grasp exceeding his physical grasp; and unless he puts complete confidence in the mental while waiting for the physical to catch up, he will be discouraged and fall by the wayside. Accepting the mental and placing such confidence in it at an early age is all that is required of making a musical idealist; musical ideas are more important than their physical embodiments.”

Gould himself felt that the “ideal state” of a composition is the score itself. Adherence to this sense of Platonic idealism suggests then that a performance of any kind, on any instrument, necessarily falls short of the ideal. Music for Gould seems to have been much more a form of cognition than of sensation—of thinking rather than of touching or hearing. And for him, when a lower-level experience (the tactile) fell short in some way of a higher-level experience (the cognitive), vocalizing might have been a mechanism to stabilize the problem.

The Importance of Imagery
One way to connect the physical performance of a piece and its intellectual conception is to create a mental image of the composition. This image can establish conceptual and auditory boundaries, such as key and tempo, providing an environment that fosters creativity and manipulation. John Shepard writes: “Imagery and spatial visualization offer rich alternatives to the typical structures imposed by language and traditional ways of thinking. Imagery might be differentially sensitive to different kinds of mental manipulations, with imagery being generally more responsive to reinterpretations of parts than to changes in overall organization.”

Gould was known to have memorized scores before attempting to play them, and freedom from the printed score would have permitted him to develop a mental image of the composition as he was working through his interpretation (i.e. the manipulation of the image). The structural image of a composition can include formal elements such as expositions, developments, episodes, and recapitulations, etc. In addition, harmonic elements such as tonal areas and modulations can be considered, as well as surface-level melodic elements including themes, subjects, and motivic development. If Gould did have a mental image of a composition’s structure, or at the very least, a kind of mental “map”, then instances of voice-jumping in his vocalizing could be a manifestation of this mental imagery. When Gould vocalized while performing, he would either sing along with a prominent melody, switch between voices, or even improvise an original melody.

Example 1: Die Kunst der Fuge, Contrapunctus I, mm. 70-78, J.S. Bach.

In this first example, Gould sings the leading tone C-sharp found in the soprano voice in m. 70. He stays with the soprano voice until the first half of beat 1 in m. 73, at which time he switches to the eighth note activity in the tenor voice. By the second half of beat 2 he is singing the dominant pitch A in the bass voice. Gould maintains this pitch, though it is now found in the tenor, and begins to sing an entrance of the counter subject. On beat 2 of m. 75, Gould sings the tenor G, then picks up the soprano voice for the last part of m. 76. Gould returns to the tenor voice, displacing the first half of beat 1, (presumably to take a breath) and continues through the first half of beat 1 in m. 77. Gould jumps to the alto voice in the second half of beat 1, then on the first half of beat 2, he sings the soprano voice, and finishes the m. with the eighth note figure found in the tenor. The piece ends on the tonic chord (D), and Gould ends on the fifth scale degree (A).

Example 2: The Goldberg Variations, Aria, mm. 1-8, J.S. Bach.

In example 2, from the Goldberg Variations, Gould begins by singing the bass line, arpeggiating a G major triad (vocal sounds an octave lower than written). The harmony in m. 2 moves to the dominant (D), in first inversion. Rather than continuing with the bass line, Gould stays on the pitch D, though there is no D until beat 3 of the measure. He mimics the rhythm of the melody (i.e. the ornamentation), but in terms of pitch, fills out the harmony. In m. 4, he reaches the tonicized pitch D, and catches the last part of beat 1, creating an upper-neighbor pattern D-E-D. The harmony changes to the dominant in third inversion, and Gould follows the bass line. Interestingly, despite the (nearly inviolate) tendency for sevenths to resolve downward by step (which happens in the score), Gould jumps back to D, perhaps influenced by the D in the melody.

Example 3: C Minor Partita, Sinfonia, mm. 33-41, J.S. Bach.

In this example, Gould is singing the soprano line almost note for note until m. 36 where he sings only the first part of the figure. At this point one can speculate as to why he didn’t continue. The selection is rapid (though he was able to keep pace from mm. 33-36) and it might have been necessary to take a breath. Interestingly, though he is able to take a breath in m. 36, he does not continue with all of the pitches found in the right-hand part. Instead, he mimics the first beat in the right hand for mm. 36-37, then switches to the left-hand part. It is possible that the switch is due to the complexity found in the right-hand part of m. 37, but there is another event that might have been occupying his attention: the mounting harmonic tension of the pre-dominant moving to the dominant.

In m. 38, Gould predominantly sings the note F (ii˚6) but he maintains the left-hand rhythmic figure. However, as the harmony moves to the dominant, Gould sings eighth notes on the pitch G. This is a telling event because there is an entrance of the subject starting in m. 36 in the left hand. This example reinforces the idea Gould could have been thinking structurally at these particular moments: rather than mimicking privileged foreground material (the subject), he instead seems focused on the building harmonic tension.

Example 4: Die Kunst der Fuge, Contrapunctus IX, mm. 45-56, J.S. Bach.

Example 4, from the Art of Fugue, is an even more telling example of the foreground versus the middleground. Measures 45-47 feature an elaboration of G to F in the soprano voice. Gould emphasizes these pitches though he vacillates between the rhythmic activity of the soprano and alto. In mm. 47-49 he creates, albeit vocally, a sequence of mm. 45-47, however this time he is prolonging the motion of C to B-flat in the soprano while mimicking the rhythmic figure in the alto.

Singing along with a predominant melody can be performed without much consideration of a composition’s structure; there is a singular, linear consideration, as if you were driving down one familiar road that will take you to your destination. Jumping to another simultaneously-sounding voice requires a more comprehensive image of the composition’s structural framework. Imagine driving down a road and deciding to make a turn at an intersection: there would be some forethought involved in preparing for the turn—some prior awareness of the available choices, even if that awareness occurs only shortly before the choice is made to turn.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gould’s vocalizing is his tendency to defy surface-level expectations (i.e. voice leading) in favor of other privileged events (e.g. thematic entrances), in unexpected places. What remains a mystery is whether his vocalizing represents a reinforcement of those events (as one might presume), or whether they are a supplement to the performance (his “wishful thinking”). Put another way, does his vocalizing mimic the foreground choices of his interpretation (what he is trying to highlight in the performance), or are they buttresses against what is concurrently sounding in the piano?

After making many transcriptions of Gould’s vocalizing—sometimes different performances of the same piece—there is little to suggest that he ever had a prepared or regular vocal “part”, just as he rarely had a definitive performance in mind prior to his recording sessions. Instead, it seems that his vocalizations were as varied as the interpretive choices he made for his recorded performances—choices that changed from day to day and famously, from mood to mood. What should not be overlooked is the fact that Gould’s vocalizing was only one aspect of his extra-musical habits: it was not unusual for him to be performing with one hand, conducting with the other, singing a sustained pitch found in the melody while his lower jaw was mimicking the rhythm of a second contrapuntal voice, all the while marking each downbeat by rhythmically furrowing his brow.

While it is not possible to know exactly why he made every single one of those vocalizations, it remains a fascinating manifestation of the musical mind, and of the context-dependent pressures that influence musical performance.

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7 Responses to Much Ado About Humming

  1. Matthew says:

    I found this very interesting. Listened to Gould many many times but never considered analyzing it in depth, as I’m glad you did. Amazing to me to know that his vocalizations differ between performances, being a spontaneous reaction to the music. Also the differences between vocalizing the primary voice, secondary, and sometimes his own representation of the piece’s energy. Perhaps like gaining an entry into his brain?

    The first time I heard him play, the humming caused confusion and irritation. Then, as I watched videos, I learned that the movements and sounds serve to communicate the musical message, indispensable.


  2. Sean says:

    Thanks, Matthew.


  3. I’ve come to think of the humming and singing as part of The Glenn Gould Experience, though the first time I heard it I was wigged, no doubt because I didn’t expect a classical musician to be making those noises. There’s lots of vocalizing among jazz pianists — Erroll Garner and Earl Hines are the best examples I have — but there it’s more rhythmic, not especially melodic.


    • Sean says:

      Though many instrumentalists vocalize, it’s interesting how prevalent it is among pianists. I think that it’s due in part to the physical characteristics of playing the piano, but also because the piano is one of the least forgiving instruments—it’s a percussion instrument with strings. And it seems that in order to coax a singing-tone from it, pianists sometime find themselves singing; supplementing the divide found between their musical imagination and the actual sound coming from the piano.


  4. Kenneth Goodenough says:

    Sean, how are you able to transcribe the humming? The only recording where I can clearly make out the pitch of the humming is on the ’81 Goldberg recording, and that is only at certain sections.


    • Sean says:

      Kenneth, the Goldberg example does indeed come from the 1981 recording, but it takes some EQing to bring out his vocal. If you are using software with a parametric E.Q., boosting frequencies around 1KHz to 3KHz helps, while shelving-off the low-end frequencies. This makes for an awful piano recording, but makes the vocal clearer.

      The other examples from this post come from films, and the audio captured much more of his vocalizing than usual since they weren’t made in a recording studio.


  5. Pingback: Glenn Gould, une vie à contretemps. | Contrapuntalism

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