The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the Heroes

La Musica Hypnotises the Heroes

The Theatre of Dreams is Joe Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state, that part of the sleep pattern characterised by Rapid Eye Movement and associated with dreaming. See Such stuff as dreams are made on, here.

Griffin’s Theory of Dreams suggests that an evolutionary breakthrough gave humans access to the REM-state whilst waking, in day-dreams and in hypnotic trance. Griffin and his co-writer, Ivan Tyrrel characterise this development, ‘the Mind’s Big Bang’, as the origin of consciousness, language and creativity. Their work also explains the often-noted connection between high creativity and mental illness.

My OPERA research project studies Operatic Performance as an Early-modern REM-state Activator. I hypothesise that around the year 1600, the first operas and Shakespeare’s plays ‘moved the passions’ of their audience by means of what we would now call Hypnosis. More about Music & Consciousness research strands here.

Of course, every fine performer somehow ‘casts a spell’ over their audience, but my research explores exactly how that spell functions. The aim of early opera was muovere gli affetti, to move the audience’s passions. Although present-day researchers are properly sceptical about period reports of audiences ‘laughing and weeping’, we know that music and drama does sometimes produce such emotional responses, even today.

I argue that the emotional response to music-drama might be heightened by hypnosis. And I hope to show that performance practices circa-1600 were particularly closely aligned with trance-induction processes, in order to create the psychological conditions in which the audience’s passions could indeed be moved.

In this post, I analyse one of early opera’s most famous Arias, La Musica (the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, 1607), in terms of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and as an Induction into Hypnotic Trance.

The Theatre of Dreams

There is still considerable debate amongst researchers as to what Hypnotism actually is, and there is no single accepted scientific definition. The traditional view (shared by many academics) considers someone to have been hypnotised only if they have received a formal induction including the word “Hypnosis” after which they pass specific tests, for example arm levitation.

The modern view (shared by most practitioners, and largely derived from the practice of Milton Erickson in the late 20th century) considers that trance is a naturally-occurring state that we all enter and leave many times every day. Different people can reach different levels of trance in a variety of circumstances.  In this view, self-hypnotism is easily achievable, and can be highly beneficial. Erickson’s methods were developed into the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which studies how subtle use of language can alter the listener’s mental processes.

In spite of the lack of a formal definition, there is general agreement that Hypnotism involves heightened attention, absorption (being so concentrated on the focus of attention as to be unaware of other stimuli), and an imaginative experience so vivid that the boundary between internally generated perceptions and external reality becomes blurred. Hypnotism is often (but not always) linked to deep relaxation and an experience of inner calm and well-being.

As reported in the Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis, neuro-scientific observation has confirmed activation of specific areas of the brain in Hypnosis, consistent with an increase in focussed attention, a decrease in automatic vigilance (i.e. less watching out in case a sabre-tooth tiger should suddenly attack), and dissociation of the brain’s control and/or monitoring systems. It is this dissociation that leads to the subjective experience of things happening ‘by themselves’.  Low-level unconscious processes instruct your arm to lift, and if those processes are dissociated from the normal conscious monitoring and/or control systems, you may have no conscious awareness of how or why your arm moved.

The intensification of inwardly generated experience together with reduced awareness of external stimuli outside a narrow focus of attention can lead to increased intensity of emotional reactions in Hypnosis.

Orfeus Party

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

There are many ways to induce Hypnosis, but most Inductions mimic one or more of the characteristics of trance, in order to facilitate some kind of dissociation and direct the mind inward. Ericksonian hypnotists would say that ‘Once upon a time…’  can be considered an Induction, since these words tend to relax the listener, dissociate attention from the present moment and invite an imaginative response to whatever story follows. Temporal and spatial dissociation – ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ – also encourages the mind to turn inwards and imagine whatever details are missing from the information stream of external reality.

Academic researchers are encouraged to use a Standard Induction, a prescribed script read in a monotone, often recorded so that the same Induction can be administered to a large group of experimental subjects. If the Induction is ineffective, the subject is presumed to be non-hypnotisable.

In contrast, most practitioners use different Inductions for different clients, observing that individuals vary greatly in what they respond to best. Someone whose primary sensory system is visual may respond very well to an Induction involving Guided Imagery, whereas someone more kinaesthetic might respond better to Progressive Relaxation. A logical thinker might readily dissociate when confronted with Confusing Language, a deep thinker might turn inwards to search for missing meaning in what he is told.

Many practitioners do not accept the validity of hypnotisability tests based on Standard Inductions. Richard Bandler, co-founder of NLP, is particularly scathing about such tests, which – he opines – only measure the ineffectiveness of the standard induction, and say nothing useful about the hypnotic abilities of the subject. Bandler believes that anyone can be hypnotised, if they permit it, and if the hypnotist has the necessary skills.

The core strategy of Ericksonian Hypnotism is ‘accept and utilise’. If at first the Induction does not work, then rather than labelling the failure as ‘Client Resistance’, the Hypnotist should accept the response as genuine, and utilise any information gathered to guide the choice of a new approach. For example, if the subject responds to an invitation to relax by getting more tense, the Hypnotist would be well advised to abandon an ineffective Progressive Relaxation Induction, and try something different, perhaps attention-locking and ‘sleight of mouth’ (see below).

Many Hypnotic Inductions have been published (there is an online selection here) and recorded on audio media. There is a large Hypnotism industry selling Inductions over the internet as mp3 files for download (I think Hypnotism Downloads are good, here). Once you understand the principles, you can easily write or improvise Inductions, for yourself or your friends. There is a list of books and links for further information, here.

In my research generally, and for this post in particular, I’m considering Hypnosis in practice, from the viewpoints of the Hypnotist and of the Subject, the person going into Trance. In academic language, this is a phenomenological and experiential approach: what happens, what is experienced? I take Trance to be an everyday, natural state. I consider that hypnosis is entered into willingly, as a collaborative process permitted, often actively encouraged by the Subject, within a safe environment created by a sense of mutual rapport. In NLP, it’s assumed that Hypnotist and Subject will both enter trance, each of them in a (subtly different) altered state of consciousness that optimises unconscious communication, deep learning, heightened emotions and hypnotic suggestibility.

In the special case of a performer entrancing an audience (or at least, those audience-members who are willing to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and become absorbed in the on-going drama), the performer’s altered state of consciousness is a particular type of Flow (also known as the ‘Zone’, an optimal state for elite, highly-skilled performance whether in the arts, sports or any other challenging situation). More about Flow here. More about connections between Flow and Hypnosis here.

Hypnotic Inductions are related to the typical phenomena experienced in Trance. Often, an Induction creates that characteristic blend of relaxation and concentration, or evokes specific physiological responses are evoked, so as to mimic the Trance state. Then the two-way nature of the mind-body link does the rest. [In a similar way, if you put a big smile on your face, you naturally feel happier and more relaxed. In fact, it’s sufficient to use electrodes to stimulate the smile-muscles, producing an utterly artificial smile on your face – you’ll still feel happier and more relaxed.]

So the traditional cliché of hypnosis, “follow the movement of this swinging pocket-watch” creates attention, focus, rapid eye movement and also a relaxing steady rhythm, all of which mimic the sensations of trance.

swinging watch

The rhythm of music circa-1600 is directed by Tactus, a slow beat at around one pulse per second. This steady pulse mimics the slow heart-beat of someone who is thoroughly relaxed. More about Tactus, here.

Now, as the Subject begins to slip into trance, it’s the moment for a Suggestion that encourages Dissociation , perhaps an invitation to imagine some far-away place. If that place is pleasantly dreamy, so much the better. ‘Imagine yourself lying on the beach, with the warm water lapping gently on the sand …’

Of course, TV adverts for tourist destinations use hypnotic techniques. And perhaps now you can appreciate why so many early operas are set in Arcadia.


According to NLP-guru, Richard Bandler, the most important elements of a successful Induction are:

  • Rate of speech
  • Timbre of voice
  • Intonation (the ‘melody’ of speech)
  • Breathing

Good Hypnotic speech employs a slower-than-normal rate of speaking, a soft tone of voice with downward inflections at the end of phrases. That downward inflection can transform the grammatical construction of a question – “You’d like to go into trance now, wouldn’t you?” – into a plausible statement. If the speaker emphasises certain words with an altered tone of voice, the phrase even becomes a command: “You’d like to go into trance now, wouldn’t you.”

Around the year 1600, the first opera-singers sang softly, in the intimate spaces where such court ‘operas’ as Monteverdi’s Orfeo were staged.

“One sings in one way in churches and public chapels and in another way in private chambers. In [church-music] one sings in a full voice … and in chamber-music one sings with a lower and gentler voice, without any shouting.”

Zarlino (Le institutioni harmoniche, Venice, 1558)

The pace of operatic Recitative varies with the drama of the moment, but (as we read in an anonymous c1630 guide for an opera theatre’s Artistic Director, Il Corago) in general it is somewhat slower than everyday speech. At the end of each short phrase, the last accented syllable is often considerably lengthened, and the most frequently used cadence has the melody descend to the final note. Il Corago and Jacopo Peri (in the preface to Euridice, 1600) agree that the modulazione of the voice, the melodic contour of recitative, is modelled on the ‘course of speech’ of a ‘fine speaking actor’.

Singers have to control the out-breath as they sing, and breathe in quickly between phrases. For audience members, exhaling more slowly than you inhale creates relaxation. For this reason, Hypnotists speak in short phrases, with frequent pauses in between, in a rhythm aligned with the Subject’s slow breathing.

These short phrases are chained together into long, flowing streams with few full stops. “Each time you breathe out … you feel more relaxed … and the more you relax… the more you feel… that you’d like to go into trance now… wouldn’t you.” We see the same structure in 17th-century sentence construction; many phrases are linked together; those phrases are separated by semi-colons; there are few full stops.

In operatic recitative, the composer similarly breaks up long sentences into short phrases: In questo lieto e fortunato giorno … ch’a posto fine a gl’amorosi affanni … del nostro semideo … cantiam, Pastori … in si soavi accenti … che sian degni d’Orfeo …. nostri concenti. [On this happy and lucky day …. which has put a stop to the relationship problems … of our godlike hero … lets sing, shepherds …. in such soft tones … that we honour Orfeo … with our music.] Notice again the ‘soft tones’. And by the end of this article, you’ll be able to recognise many more hypnotic techniques in this speech.

Monteverdi 'Orfeo' Act I

Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ Act I


There are many Hypnotic techniques for obtaining compliance by means of subtle encouragement, as well as direct commands.

  • Universal Quantifiers

General statements that “People find that music takes them naturally into trance”, or “Every dramatic performance alters the spectator’s state of consciousness” normalise the expected response and reassure the Subject.

  • Implied Compliment

A more subtle approach informs that “intelligent and highly-creative people find it particularly easy to enter trance”. The implied compliment lowers resistance and encourages the Subject to align themselves with the complimented group.

A lot of advertising works on these hypnotic principles of implied compliments and universal statements. Buy this product and belong to the group of beautiful people shown in the advert. “Things go better with Coke”.

  • Double Bind

This seems to offer a choice, but any choice produces the desired result:

“You can go into trance immediately, or you can take a few moments to relax gently before you go into a deep trance”.

  • Embedded Commands

Subtle emphasis can create Embedded Commands, within such Generalities and Binds.  “You can go into trance immediately, or you can take a few moments to relax gently before you go into a deep trance”.

  • Analogue Marking

This emphasis, marked by changes in tone of voice, in the speaker’s gestures or position, can communicate directly to the unconscious mind by suggesting alternative meanings. “Now, your unconscious ( = now you’re unconscious) can deepen the transformation ( = deepen the trance)”

  • Confusing Language & Trans-Derivational Search (TDS)

Unfamiliar words or confusing constructions lead the Subject to turn the mind inwards, in a search for hidden or ambiguous meanings. The technical term for this is Trans-Derivational Search. Confusing language, or confused emotions, might be delivered with unusually fast rate of speaking, or a silence might be left after a strange word: either way, the conscious mind is baffled, so that the unconscious takes over the search for meaning.

Suggestions for relaxation are often effective, but it’s even more effective to direct the mind inwards with subtle questions. “Close your eyes, and focus your attention on your hands. Notice if the right hand is more relaxed than the left. Or is the left more relaxed?” And every time the Subject breathes out slowly, or when the Hypnotist observes some small reduction in tension, this can be reinforced with an encouraging “Good. That’s right”. Feldenkrais Method uses these hypnotic techniques to optimise the mind/body link for effective learning of posture and movement.

As the conscious mind begins to let go, you can mix all this up with Confusing Language: “If the relaxed hand is right, you only have the other hand left, right? So right now, with your eyes left closed right up, see if you can write with the left, so the right is left to relax, and the left is right because it’s already relaxed, right? What’s left now is to go right into trance, right now, that’s right, you’ve left it all right behind you.”

  • Silence

A good Hypnotist is not afraid of silence. Once there is relaxation and concentration, a long silence can be powerfully hypnotic.

  • Attention Fixing & Eye Rapid Movement

Many Inductions relying on Attention Fixing, and/or creation of Rapid Eye-Movement. Experts use such methods for Speed Induction, with impressive results. See Richard Nongard’s demonstrations of Speed Induction, here.

Transit of Venus

Sleight of Mouth

A conjurer’s sleight of hand focuses your attention in a certain way, whilst he carries out the trick right in front of your eyes. In NLP, ‘sleight of mouth’ similarly dissociates the mind’s conscious attention on the actual words, away from the unconscious attention on the underlying meaning. Whilst the conscious mind deals with the surface details, the Hypnotist’s underlying message goes direct to the Subject’s unconscious. We’ve already seen examples of sleight of mouth: Universals, Binds, Embedded Commands, Analogue Marking, Confusing Language.  Here is a quick check-list of some more techniques:

  • Cause & Effect

It helps if the statement of cause is plausible, but the link to effect does not have be genuine. “Because you are reading this …” [that much is obviously true] “you will find it easy to learn self-hypnosis” [since the conscious mind accepted the first part, the unconscious is primed to accept the second part too].

“Because music is so charming to the ear, it can entrance your unconscious mind.”

  • Links

Cause & Effect can be suggested more subtly, by replacing ‘because’ with another, less obvious link:

“Music usually charms your ears, and in that way it uses spiritual power to entrance your mind”

Whilst I am singing, nothing moves”

  • Sugar

A pleasant-sounding word works like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Happily, most people find it easy to relax into a gentle Trance.”

  • Pacing

This links an obvious statement about the Subject’s current experience to a Suggestion.

“Every time you breathe out, you become more relaxed”.

  • Presupposition

Rather than giving a command, the choice of words assumes the desired response:

“Whilst I am singing, nothing else will be heard.”

  • Guided imagery

The Subject is encouraged to imagine that they are in some especially peaceful place. The idyllic surroundings support relaxation; relaxation and imaginative dissociation bring about hypnosis. A good Hypnotist will be artfully vague with his guidance, to leave maximum space for the Subject’s imaginative response, and to avoid jarring the subject out of trance with an over-specific suggestion that conflicts with the Subject’s inner experience.

I prefer radio to TV, because the pictures are better.

Similarly, the bare stage of a Shakespearian theatre leaves space for the audience’s imaginative response.

“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings…”

 Shakespeare Henry V Prologue

Globe Theatre

  • Multi-Sensory Absorption

Guided imagining that involves all the senses offers a rich and absorbing experience for the Subject. Absorption encourages hypnosis. Appealing to several senses also allows for individual differences between Subjects: some people are more creative with images, others with sounds, others with taste, smell or physical sensations (touch, or the position of the body).

  • Sensory Confusion

Confusing sensory information and synaesthesia (crossed-over senses: a warm colour, a blue note) create a surreal, dream-like experience and direct the mind inwards in the search for meaning.

  • Emotional confusion

“I can calm every troubled heart, and now with noble anger, now with love, I can enflame even the most frozen mind”

  • Nominalisation

Nominalisation is an NLP term for replacing active verbs – to love, to understand – with abstract, semantically complex nouns – Love, Understandings. Abstraction, ambiguity and complexity send the mind inwards in a search for meaning.

Compare the active language of  ‘Many people know about you and praise you. But they still underestimate you, because you are so cool!’ with these nominalisations:

Fame narrates heavenly Praises about you, but does not reach the Truth, because the Sign is too high.”

  • Selectional restriction violation

This is the NLP-term for re-attributing the Hypnotist’s Suggestion to some abstract concept or inanimate object:

“Your chair wants you to go into trance”.

  • Now

This one word is very powerful. ‘Now’ focusses attention and suggests an immediate response.

“Now, you can identify these Induction techniques at work in La Musica’s Prologue.”

Prologo La Musica


In the first strophe, La Musica introduces mild spatial Dissociation with the mention of far-away Permesso (a river sacred to the Muses – a more thought-provoking name than the expected Parnassus, the sacred mountain-home of the Muses). The actor Relaxes the audience with generous compliments, and fixes their Attention with varied gestures. High gestures are particularly hypnotic: rolling the eyes upwards is itself a marker of trance, and fixing the gaze a little above the horizon is often used to begin an Induction.


La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 1

La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 1


The Ritornello gives about 12 seconds pause, in which the listeners might come out of their developing trance. This is another hypnotic technique, known as Fractionation, in which letting the Subject come partially out of trance helps them go deeper in again, afterwards. Strophe 2 introduces Emotional Confusion and a Post-Hypnotic Suggestion: in the next hour or so, your emotions will be moved by a ‘story in music’.


La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 2

La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 2


The next strophe Suggests much more profound influence, by means of a subtle Link and Selectional Restriction Violation: some special kind of musical instrument takes you into the deepest part of your unconscious. “The more…. the more” is another NLP technique: the more you listen to La Musica, the more you will go into trance.


La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 3

La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 3


In the penultimate strophe, the intensity of the Induction is temporarily reduced (Fractionation), but the language of ‘desire spurs me’ holds the Attention. La Musica starts to tell a story (story-telling is a favourite method for hypnotherapists to deliver Suggestions) with vivid imagery, super-natural events and locations. Mention of far-off, idyllic places – the mountains of Pindus and Helicon, both homes of the Muses – Relaxes again, and encourages spatial Dissociation.


La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 4

La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe 4


The final strophe is the most powerfully hypnotic, taking the audience deep into trance just before the drama itself begins. Attention is fixed three times with ‘Now!’, several sleight of mouth techniques are interwoven, with a strong Embedded Command: “Don’t move!”, which creates the catalepsy characteristic of profound hypnotism. Pastoral imagery simultaneously suggests Relaxation.

The line “and it’s not heard” is particularly subtle. Italian ne (= and not) makes a confusing link. And once you are told “it’s not heard”, you strain your ears to listen for whatever it is (we are not told what it is, until after a hypnotic pause).

“Sounding wave” would have been more unusual, more synaesthetic, to a 17th-century audience than it is to us: we are accustomed to the scientific concept of Sound as a Wave, they were not. This strophe mixes sensory channels, imagery and emotion, and then suddenly …. stops!


La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe V

La Musica hypnotises the Heroes: Strophe V


And as La Musica holds all the audience in trance with a commanding gesture, Monteverdi notates an 8-seconds silence before the orchestra plays again. The Prologue is ended, La Musica leaves, and the favola in musica (story in music) begins.

theatre-palais-cardinal Louis XIII

This kind of hypnotism is not authoritarian, it cannot be forced; it needs the listener to collaborate. It relies on the audience suspending their disbelief, engaging their imagination, and voluntarily relinquishing some control to La Musica. And if you let her ‘influence your soul’, her story of Orpheus can make you laugh and cry. You don’t make yourself cry, the drama does it. But you could have stopped yourself, if you had chosen to, especially if you had decided at the beginning of the show to resist becoming involved.

La Musica’s Induction is an invitation to participate deeply in an imaginative experience.

01 Mantua 1575

When this hypothesis of seicento hypnosis first came to me, I was concerned at the apparent anachronism: after all, the word ‘hypnosis’ was invented by James Braid around 1841. But the knowledge and practice of hypnosis is much older, of course; there is evidence of it in shamanic traditions and other ancient cultures. And there is a 17th-century word for the persuasive use of unusual, image-laden, semantically dense, sometimes confusing language, in order to sway the listeners’ emotions, the study that today we call NLP: Rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the Neuro-Linguistic Programming of the Renaissance

Remember you are dreaming


Please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

A Baroque History of Time: Stars, Hearts and Music

A Baroque History of Time

The past is a foreign country,

they do things differently there.

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

The past is a foreign country;

there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language

and understood its assumptions.

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

One of the challenges of Historically Informed Performance is to try to catch a glimpse of our own assumptions, to notice where something seems so ‘obvious’ and ‘absolute’ that we  don’t even question it. The worst decisions in Early Music are the decisions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we don’t even notice there is a question to be addressed. But as soon as we become aware of an assumption, we can look for evidence of whether the same assumption held good in the past, or if attitudes might have changed with the centuries.

In this post, I’m exploring the subject of musical Rhythm by examining period concepts of Time: historical belief-systems at both cosmic and human levels; the grand philosophy and naive assumptions that underpin pragmatic performance decisions; the changing views of science; and the various practices of artists as they performed their passions. The assumption that I’m challenging is that we today understand Time itself in the same way that Monteverdi and Shakespeare did.


1900 and 1600

The question I’m posing to Renaissance Man, in order to understand his ways of thought, is the same question we can pose to ourselves, in order reveal the assumptions of our own age:

What is Time?

Modern Time

Now, it’s almost a century since the London newspaper, the Times, declared that Newton’s ideas had been ‘overthrown’ by Einstein (7th November, 1919). One might say that this ‘Revolution in Science’  which led to a ‘New Theory of the Universe’ began with a paper written by an official in the French Bureau of Longitude, mathematician Henri Poincaré. In The Measure of Time (1898), he asked two deep questions:

1. Is it meaningful to say that one second today is equal to one second tomorrow?

2. Is it meaningful to say that two events which are separated in space occurred at the same time?


A century later, the answers are: (1) we still don’t know, and (2) No. That resounding “No” came  from the work of Albert Einstein, who in his annus mirabilis of 1905 published four papers, on the Photoelectric Effect (establishing the Quantum nature of light), on Brownian Motion (addressing the methodology of statistical physics that Quantum Theory would come to rely on), on Special Relativity (overthrowing Newton’s concept of Absolute Time) and on Matter-Energy Equivalence (formulating that most famous equation, E=mc2). He also submitted his PhD thesis.

Perhaps relativistic effects helped him get so much done in just one year!


Poincaré and Einstein

The predicted and observed effects of all this new science still seem ‘paradoxical’ to most of us. Schrodinger’s Cat is neither alive nor dead, until the act of observation collapses the quantum dynamical waveform one way or another. There’s no certain answer, only statistical Probability.

Schrodingers Cat


Even Einstein himself didn’t want to believe that ‘God plays dice with the universe’ like that. Whatever the science told him, Einstein’s own assumptions were inevitably conditioned by the thinking of previous generations. Before the 20th century, religious beliefs and traditional assumptions led most people to expect Cosmic Power to control the everyday scale. Like Einstein, many of us find it hard to grasp that tiny particles might dictate the fate of the universe.

20th-century Science presents many more paradoxes. Heisenberg’s Principle means that we are forced to balance knowledge with uncertainty in pairs of values, for example mass and momentum. The more precisely we establish Time, the less we can know about Energy. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicts that a man who travels to Mars and back will return slightly younger than his twin brother, who waits for him on Earth.

Time itself might be reversed, if the arrow of entropy changes, in some future contracting state of the universe. Meanwhile, Quantum effects in the brain allow our nervous system to respond to stimuli measurably before the stimulus is received. The mathematics of Quantum Theory predict the existence of Wormholes, opening up the possibility of travel through time. This raises the question of what might happen if you went back in time and killed your Grandfather, forestalling your own birth. The Bootstrap Paradox refers to creating something out of nothing by complex loops of time-travel, like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.



In Heinlein’s novel All you Zombies, kidnapping, love-affairs and gender-change surgery leave us with a time-travelling character who is his own mother, father, son, daughter, long-lost lover and kidnapper. Scientists are struggling too: Quantum Theory and Relativity do not mesh well, so that a Grand Unified Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything is currently out of reach.

But for most of us, the paradoxes of Einstein’s science, let alone more recent findings, do not affect our daily lives. We find Relativity counter-intuitive, because we do not see it at work in the everyday world. For us, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) works just fine. If I drop an apple it will hit the ground more or less when I expect. Our intuitive assumptions about Time are more than 300 years behind the cutting edge of scientific theory.

Newton Principia 1687


We are very comfortable with Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, with its one direction ‘like an ever-rolling stream’, Time that exists independent of any other quantities. We are very accustomed to measuring the accuracy of a clock, the movement of a star, or the beating of a heart, against the absolute scale of Newton’s Time. So accustomed are we,  that as well as ignoring what we know from Stephen Hawking about post-Einsteinian Time, we also overlook the fact that Peri and Monteverdi did not know about Newton’s Time.

Early baroque musicians, around the year 1600, did not feel about Time the same way we do. They could not have had the same assumptions. Even after Newton’s 1687 publication, it would have taken some years for his ideas to gain acceptance amongst fellow-specialists, and many decades for those ideas to become part of the instinctive assumptions of the population at large.

Monteverdi’s Time

The Early Modern philosophy of Time was founded on Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle’s Physics characterises Time as

A Number of Motion in respect of Before and After

Time is only meaningful in the context of Motion or Stillness, of observable Change before/after.

In the year 1610, this was no mere philosophising: swordfighters bet their lives on it. Capo Ferro describes a swordfighting tempo as ‘measuring the Motion of my opponent by the Stillness of my sword’. Such a tempo could be long and slow, when the duellers were far apart and reluctant to come to close combat, or terrifyingly fast, as the sword-master parries and ripostes in a single lightning-strike of tempo, driving his rapier through his opponent’s left eye.

 Capo Ferro Plate 7

Viggiani’s sword treatise specifically refers to Aristotle. Agrippa’s fighting manual shows the period theory of Light, beams that come from your eyes, as he demonstrates how to save your life with a timely turn, the scanso della vita.

Agrippa rays of light

Tasso, whose poetry Monteverdi set as  the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, owned a copy of Agrippa’s book, and that music-drama is full of swordsmanship jargon: schivar (deceiving the blade), parar (parry), ritrarse (step back), destrezza (sword-skills).

Cavalieri’s musical morality play, Anima e Corpo (the earliest surviving ‘opera’, the first oratorio; Rome, 1600) presents Plato’s philosophy of Time. Past and Future are divided by the moving point of the Present, which is an instantaneous image of all Eternity. As Soul and Body battle against worldly temptations, this libretto too is full of swordsmanship jargon, but the first character to sing is Il Tempo, Old Father Time.

Old Father Time

Cavalieri tells us that Time flies, does not last, wears us away, measures us, that Time is short. We are told to do good works – act with the hand, act with the heart –there is a clear parallel to an actor’s performance, linking baroque gestures and heartfelt emotions.

But 17th-century texts use the word Time (in Italian, tempo) to translate from Greek two different words, conveying two distinct concepts. Kronos is Aristotle’s numbered Time of Before and After: kairos is a timely opportunity. In Rhetoric, kairos is when the time is ripe to press home logical arguments – I hope that as you read these words, there is kairos now.

For a swordfighter, tempo  is not only motion and stillness, but also the moment of opportunity, the crucial instant in which you must strike to defend yourself and wound your opponent.

In the Christian New Testament, the Messiah comes in the fullness of time – at the moment of kairos. And the Apostle Paul frequently exhorts his followers to seize the chance of their own instant of kairos.

In life, in debate, in a fight, or on stage, kairos is the moment to act. The anonymous 16th-century Bologna sword-master said that swordsmen need the same skills of timing as a fine singer: this gives an idea of the level of sharp rhythmic precision singers must have had back then. As one voice-student said to me ruefully of today’s early music singers: ‘we’d all be dead!’.

Hierarchy of Disciplines


Since Aristotle links Time to Number and to motion in Space, the Renaissance recognised an intellectual hierarchy relating Arithmetic (the study of Number), Geometry (Number and Space) and Music (Number and Time). At the top of this hierarchy is Astronomy (Number, Time and Space), the study of the heavens. That lofty position is shared by Dancing and Sword-fighting, which (in contrast to today’s devaluing of ballet, let alone martial arts) outrank absolute music.

Both philosophically and practically, sword-fighting and renaissance dancing are related, and ballets of the stars are a 17th-century cliché. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Nymphs ‘leave the mountains, leave the fountains’ to dance a ballo ‘even more beautiful than those danced to the moon on a dark night by the heavenly stars’. The first opera from the New World, Torrejón’s La púrpura de la rosa (Lima, Peru 1701) begins with Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, sighting a new planet.

So here are the Stars of my sub-title. For period musicians, swordsmen, even for baroque sailors, Time is a matter of Astronomy. Around 1600, it is defined by the stars and planets (on the largest, cosmic scale) and followed here on earth (on a smaller, human scale).

Three kinds of Music

Time & Music

Continuing to examine the assumptions of the past, what about practical music-making? For Cavalieri, Peri and Monteverdi, what is Music? Again, period thought was based on ancient authorities, and there is a consistent view that differs from modern assumptions.

The most significant type of music was musica mondana, the Music of the Spheres, the perfect music (inaudible to human ears) created by the heavenly  dance of the stars and planets. Musica humana is the harmonious nature of the human body, the divine image incarnate, the Word that was ‘in the beginning’ set to the soul-music of embodied Creation. Musica instrumentalis is what we mean by the word ‘Music’ today, the actual sounds we make with our voices and instruments.

These then are the three categories of my subtitle: music of the stars, of human hearts, and music as performed by 17th-century musicians. The structure of the cosmos, the beating of the human heart and musical rhythm are also the interlinked ideas that illustrate the period concept of Time. They are interconnected in philosophical theory and also in practical use.

What is Time

Slow Time (years, months, days and hours) is measured by Celestial movement. A brief moment is measured by the heartbeat, which is both a symbol and a practical measurement of musical rhythm.

Galileo discovered the pendulum effect in the late 16th century, but the first pendulum clock was not built until the 1630s. In this period, the most accurate clocks could just about count the seconds. This begs the question, how did Galileo measure the pendulum effect?

The most accurate clock available to him was his own, human pulse. This was sufficiently reliable to establish the constancy of period, around 7 seconds, for a chandelier hung on a very long cable from the roof of Pisa cathedral.


Galileo Pendulum


But Galileo also did high-precision experiments to determine the acceleration due to gravity, which required split-second timing. How could he do this? Circa-1600 clocks were hopelessly imprecise. His pulse (about one per second, when relaxed) was better, but still insufficient for such high-precision work.

History of Science researcher Stillman Drake realised that the Galilei family’s expertise in music would have solved the problem. Musical rhythm provides a reliable way to divide a one-second pulse into eight equal parts: in period notation, this is the equivalent of dividing a minim (half note) into semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

Joakim Linde has created an online simulation that allows you to repeat Galileo’s experiment with gravity and music, here.

What we need to understand today, is that Galileo was using Music to measure Time. Music was more precise than the very best clocks of his period. Music had the regular, heavenly equality of measure, that Time itself did not yet possess, since Newton’s idea of absolute time had not yet been formulated.


Measurement of Time


Hierarchy of Time

There is a definite hierarchy in this philosophy, in this period Science of Time. Celestial Time is the ideal, imitated on earth. As we look up to the heavens, to the musical spheres, the highest sphere is the primum mobile. It is God’s hand that winds the Clock of the Cosmos. This is imitated on earth, in that musical rhythm is determined by a long, slow count; in that we divide up those slow, long notes into faster notes (by division, or diminution); in that these faster notes must fit inside the rhythm pre-determined by the slow count; and in that we divide up the slow count in various proportions, in precise, whole-number ratios.


Hierarchy of Time


Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is/ when time is broke and no proportion kept!

warns Richard II.

Clocks had religious significance. Just as Protestants and Catholics argued about calendar reform, so musical rhythm is a moral imperative. As Dowland thunders in 1609 (translating Ornithoparcus from 1535) “above all things… “ (the language itself is hierarchical) …

Above all things, keep the equality of measure, lest you offend God himself!

To attempt to change Time (the modern practices of rubato, rallentando, accelerando; even the 19th-century concept that the performer can decide the tempo of a particular movement) is to risk the stability of the cosmos, to threaten your own bodily health.

When Phaeton seized the reins of Apollo’s sun-chariot, he could not control the movement of the sun through the heavens. He crashed and burned.

Sun Chariot


If your pulse stops, the music also dies.

 The take-home message from all of this period Philosophy, or History of Science, is that Newton’s 1687 concept of Absolute Time did not apply around the year 1600. Time does not measure music, because there is no Absolute Scale of Time.

It’s the other way around: Music measures Time. Time is determined by divine, cosmic forces that we see also at work in the human body and in music itself.

This helps us understand what seem to be needlessly complicated statements about musical notation, like Carissimi’s here:

The triple-metres all agree with regard to quantity, division and proportion, as is easily understood, but in the slow or fast quality, known by the Italians as tempo and by the French as mouvement, they are utterly different.

Carissimi lacks the vocabulary and the very concept of Newton’s Absolute time, and he flounders as he tries to explain something we can today express more clearly, more simply.

The triple-metres all agree with regard to the quantity, the duration of musical note-values in absolute time [a semibreve lasts 0.66 seconds, a minim 0.33 seconds, etc].

This is easily understood [but it is different from 19th-century practice, where the performer can choose the speed of a piece of music].

In the slow or fast quality [how it feels to the listener] the triple-metres are utterly different [3/1 feels slow, 3/2  feels medium fast, 6/4 feels very fast].

‘What the Italians call tempo’ can mean Time itself, or the subjective feeling of how fast a piece of music is going. Carissimi has no vocabulary to separate these concepts, except for his idea of Absolute quantity and subjective quality.

The difficulty for Carissimi’s generation is that they do not have a concept, or a vocabulary for Absolute Time. Their best measure of Time is Music. So it’s extremely difficult for them to explain how different pieces of music can have consistent note-values, yet still produce such different subjective impressions of speed.

The French language is  bit more helpful: Mouvement for a piece of music helps us appreciate that music can seem to ‘move’ faster or slower, whilst we measure time steadily. But in the 17th-century they still measure Time with Music (so one can’t establish an objective description of how music moves in time), and (looking back to Aristotle) Time itself needs movement (i.e. change) in order to be measured. Without Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, it is very difficult to talk about the subjective speed of music!

Towards the modern assumptions of Time


As the 17th century progresses, the idea of an Absolute measurement of Time emerges. Clocks become more accurate, and the clock itself becomes a metaphor of time, and of music.

Thus Playford can advise music students to learn rhythm by listening to the tick-tock of a clock. Musicians’ modifying words, such as tarde, velociter, adagio, presto function like subtle adjustments to a clock, so that it ticks somewhat slower or faster. Similarly, Frescobaldi, Caccini and others allow the Tactus beat to go faster or slower according to the affetto, just as the human heart beats faster or slower under the influence of differing emotions. Gradually, music becomes a clock that can be adjusted by emotions to count Time faster or slower.

Nevertheless, this is still far removed from Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, and from our modern ideas that music can move freely whilst time itself is regular.

We need to think carefully, we need to understand the language and assumptions of the 17th century, before we rush to conclusions about rhythmic freedom. Rather than starting from the modern assumption of Absolute Time and musical rubato, we would do better to start from the period assumption that steady time is a religious imperative; that the heavens, our hearts and our music are inter-connected.


If the rhythm breaks, the cosmos will collapse!

If your heart stops, the music also dies.


 No rubato, no conducting



Please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Sherlock Holmes and the Wedding Dance: Tactus & Proportions in Monteverdi’s ‘Lasciate i monti’

Sherlock Holmes

“We must look for consistency. Where there is a want of it we must suspect deception.”


In a fine article, Dancing at a Wedding (Early Music magazine 2008 here) Virginia Christy Lamothe offers “some thoughts on performance issues in Monteverdi’s ‘Lasciate i monti’ (Orfeo, 1607) from her particular viewpoint as a musicologist and dancer. In a chapter for the multi-authored book edited by Timothy Watkins, Performance Practice: Issues and Approaches (Ann Arbor, 2009) she applies her expertise to Monteverdi’s Ballo delle Ingrate.

Lamothe examines these staged dances in the light of Roger Bowers’ theories of highly conservative, ‘medieval’ notation of Proportions (Bowers on Proportions in Orfeo here). Her own contribution is to place these dances in the context of period manuals for social dancing, Caroso Il Ballarino (1581) here  and Negri Le Gratie d’Amore (1600) and Nuovi Inventioni di Balli (1604) here.

There is certainly much to be learnt from Lamothe’s approach, to which we should add information specifically about theatrical dancing, in particular the Preface to Cavalieri Anima e Corpo (1600) here  and the anonymous c1630 treatise Il Corago (edited by Fabbri & Pompilio here). Both recommend that a ballo should be choreographed by an expert dancing-master, both mention specific dance-steps, continenze, gagliarda, canario that we see also in choregraphies for social dancing.

Il corago

Theatrical Dances

Cavalieri identifies slow steps such as riverenze, continenze and other passi gravi which are performed by the whole company con gravita. He suggests that singers might dance with instruments in their hands, and reminds us of his famous all-singing, all-dancing finale to the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, the Ballo del Gran Duca. But he distinguishes these slow, walking steps from the kind of ballo saltato (jumping steps) with gagliarda, canario, capriole (capers) etc, that would be performed by dance soloists (either two or four, depending on the size of the stage) without singing.

Listen to a duet version of Cavalieri’s Ballo del Gran Duca with Andrew Lawrence-King & Xavier Diaz Latorre here:


Monteverdi’s Balletto (Orfeo)


Lasciate i Monti scoring


The stage directions in the original print of Monteverdi’s Orfeo describe Lasciate i Monti as a balletto (diminuitive), and indeed it is small-scale compared to Cavalieri’s 1589 spectacular. It is shorter than many choregraphies for social dances. But nevertheless, the ensemble is larger than for Monteverdi’s Tirsi & Clori, designated a ballo.  Here, in Orfeo, we have 5 voices and 13 instruments. I will write about the instrumental ensemble in another post.

This balletto has three sections, in three time-signatures: C, 3/2, and 6/4.

Lasciate C

C: Lasciate i monti


Lasciate 3.2

3/2 Qui miri il Sole


Lasciate 6.4

6/4 Ritornello


Lamothe equates these with three movements commonly encountered in social dances: a opening section of riverenze, continenze and other passi gravi; a central gagliarda; a final salterello (jumping dance). The dotted rhythms of the final section of Lasciate i monti strongly suggest one particularly vigorous dance, the canario.


I agree with these identifications of the first and third sections. But I am not convinced that the central section is a gagliarda. It’s not a problem that the first phrase starts with an upbeat qui | miri il sole – Lamothe’s gagliarda example from Caroso does this.

Caroso gagliarda

Caroso gagliarda


But Monteverdi chose to make every phrase start this way, even when the word-accents suggest something different vos- | tre carole. In contrast, galliard phrases normally start on the first beat of the bar, even if the second note takes the word accent.

My thoughts are winged incipit

Dowland Galliard: My thoughts are winged with hopes, my hopes with love,


As Lamothe writes, “Specific types of dances followed particular rhythmic patterns.”. “Each galliard step requires six counts”, including gettati in aria, throwing yourself into the air, on the fourth count.

But the phrasing of qui miri il sole consistently contradicts the phrasing of the galliard step. If Monteverdi had wanted a galliard here, he could have written it like this.

Qui miri galliard

How ‘Qui miri il Sole’ could have been a galliard


Not everything in 3/2 is a galliard. Many of Negri and Caroso’s social dances include movements in 3/2 that are not galliards. Cavalieri tells us that theatrical galliards are danced without singing.  I conclude that Monteverdi’s sung 3/2 movement, Qui miri il sole, is not a galliard.

Monteverdi’s balletto and Cavalieri’s ballo

As we try to identify the three sections of Monteverdi’s 1607 balletto, there is an excellent match with Cavalieri’s 1600 ballo, the grand finale of Anima e Corpo, This is a larger-scale piece, with six strophes and many singers (Cavalieri asks the whole cast, whether on or off-stage, to sing). But the essential structure is the same: C (sung, major mode); 3/2 (sung, minor mode); jumping dance (major mode, instrumental). The texts of both link the movement of celestial bodies to earthly dancing. Cavalieri’s central movement also begins before the beat, in this case with two upbeats – it too, is not a galliard.

Cavalieri’s galliard comes as the jumping dance at the end of the first strophe, with perfectly regular phrases beginning on the beat, and obvious galliard rhythm. And – just as we read in his Preface – after the second strophe, the final dance is varied: now it’s a canario, with dotted rhythms in 6/4, and beginning (like Monteverdi’s canario) after the downbeat. The even-numbered strophes of Cavalieri’s ballo exactly match Monteverdi’s balletto:

  1. C (sung, major mode, could be danced by singers, riverenze, continenze etc) This section is con gravita.
  2. 3/2 (sung, minor mode, starts with upbeat, could be danced by singers but not with jumping steps, definitely not a galliard)
  3. 6/4 (instrumental, major mode, starts after the downbeat, canario, vigorous dance for the dancing-masters)

Cavalieri’s ballo has six strophes, so this particular sequence of three movements comes three times. Monteverdi’s balletto seems also to come three times: the sequence is two iterations of the balletto , some dialogue, and a final reprise of the balletto.


One of the challenges in reconstructing choreographies of this period is figuring out the precise repeat schemes. Lamothe problematises the repeats of the various sections of Monteverdi’s balletto. The music of the C section is written out twice, with a new text the second time;  the 3/2 has the music written out only once, with two strophes of text underlayed; the 6/4 is written out twice, but when the whole ballo is reprised a few minutes later, the repeat of the final section is indicated by repeat marks.

Whilst period choreographies show many different repeat schemes for different dances, the ABC ABC form usually adopted for modern performances of  Lasciate is not typical of Negri and Caroso’s social dances. However, we’ve seen that Monteverdi’s balletto is closer to Cavalieri’s staged ballo than to social dances.

I agree with Lamothe that the question of repeats is problematic. There is much to be said for her suggestion of ABB*C.   (B* means the B music with a new text). The effect for the listener is logical, since Monteverdi’s music has writtten-out repeats for A and C sections, but not for B. So the listener (unaware of how the music was notated) would hear an effect of AA*BB*CC. (The C section is untexted, of course). If one agrees with this logic, then the reprise of the ballo (a few minutes later) could be taken the same way.

I recommend this solution. But I do not rule out (as Lamothe does) the ABC AB*C …. ABC that we hear in many performances today. Her example of a social dance by Caroso is an arrangement of Cavalieri’s Ballo del Gran Duca (1589). Tellingly, the original theatrical ballo and the social dance arrangement have different repeat schemes. Theatrical and social dances were related, but not identical.

Galliard tempi

Lamothe draws attention to particular features of the Galliard movement in social dances, in particular that it is often specifically marked as gagliarda. She suggests that this implies the tempo of the galliard could be specific to that dance (i.e. not in proportion), or variable. Certainly it is true that the physical demands of this jumping dance require that the dancing master has just the tempo he needs. In The Harp Consort, our standard operating procedure for galliards (when performed as a single item, i.e. not as part of a larger ballo ) is to allow the dancer to set the tempo.

Contrary to what one might at first suppose, a slow galliard is physically more demanding than a fast one. At a slow tempo, the dancer must remain in the air longer – this allows more time for capriole, leg-beats in the air – which inevitably requires a higher jump. So slow galliards are more ornamented (just as with musical ornamentation in madrigali passegiati, where a slower Tactus may be taken). And slower, ornamental galliards with their extreme physicality were particularly for men.

Lamothe cites Yvonne Kendall, a scholar of early dance and music, who “reminds us that … the rhythm associated with a particular dance may not be tied to a particular metre signature.” Monteverdi notates galliard sometimes in 3/2 minims (which I take to be tripla, i.e.   three minims to one tactus at about MM60). This is a fast tempo, and we find it for example in Ballo delle Ingrate, which was danced not by singers, nor by the dancing-masters, but by the aristocratic ladies of the court.

Ballo delle Ingrate gagliarda

Ballo delle Ingrate gagliarda


But in the ballo ‘De la bellezza le dovute lodi’ the galliard is in 3/2 semibreves (which I take to be sesquialtera, i.e. three semibreves to two tactus beats). This is a slow tempo, and is set to the words Ben fallo Alcide il forte referring to that mythical strongman, Hercules.

De la bellezza galliard (bass)

De la bellezza galliard (bass)


The agreement of fast/slow tempi with the physicality of fast/slow galliards and with texts associated with women/men seems to support my interpretation of proportions, in which the note-values (minims or semibreves) give us the information we need, to choose between tripla and sesquialtera proportions.

De la bellezza galliard (cantus 1)

De la bellezza galliard (cantus 1)


By the way,  in the cantus primus part for ‘De la bellezza’, there is no time-signature for that same galliard at Ben fallo Alcide. According to Roger Bowers’ theory, this would be a fatal error, a singer would not be able to interpret the notation. According to my theory, the absence of a time-signature is a minor problem; the time signature doesn’t tell the singer anything they didn’t already know.

"What do you make of it, Holmes?" "It is obviously an attempt to convey secret information."

“What do you make of it, Holmes?” “It is obviously an attempt to convey secret information.” “But what is the use of a cipher message without the cipher?”


Since dance movements in 3/2 may or may not be galliards, I suggest that the marking gagliarda in Caroso and Negri indicates not so much the tempo of the movement but rather the particular rhythmic pattern, the characteristic  ‘groove’ of this specific dance. Lamothe again: “specific types of dances followed particular rhythmic patterns.”

We see the same idea with her example from Caroso’s social dance, where the final jumping dance is specifically identified as a salterello. The fast tempo and dotted rhythms might otherwise have suggested a canario (although there are other rhythmic clues in Caroso’s salterello that would contradict an initial diagnosis of canario). 

Caroso saltarello

Caroso saltarello

Who were the dancers?

We should move away from the conventions of Grand Opera in the Romantic period, away from the modern categories of soloists, chorus and corps de ballet. The first ‘operas’ were performed with small casts, who doubled several roles. Soloists often sang as the chorus, too. Chorus members, even soloists might dance.

Lamothe takes into account Tim Carter’s calculations of a company of 9 or 10 singers, a typical size for early ‘opera’, that could have performed Orfeo. But there is strong argument that the first performance in 1607 involved only 8 singers, SSATTBB plus Francesco Rasi as Orfeo. Either way, the singers for the balletto will be mostly, if not entirely, one-to-a-part.

It is possible that singers might sing one-to-a-part and simultaneously dance. This was done by the three female soloists in the 1589 Ballo del Gran Duca - they even played instruments too! But castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli, who sang three roles (plus chorus parts) in Orfeo, arrived in Mantua eight days before the performance, knowing only the Prologue, and much concerned about ‘so many notes’ that he had to learn. I find it implausible that he would have learnt a dance too, although period commentators report that he performed well when it came to the show.

Certainly, singers could not have sung Qui miri il Sole one-to-a-part and simultaneously danced a galliard, with its combination of three low jumps and one high jump every two seconds. (Try it for yourself!) At most, they could have done some passi gravi during this section. This supports my argument that this section is not a galliard. 

In Mantua in 1607, female courtiers were not allowed to appear on stage – that is why castrato Magli had to be brought in from Pisa. I assume that this prohibition would apply to dancing just as much as to singing. The courtly ladies who danced the Ballo delle Ingrate in 1608 (that year saw a change of policy, which also allowed La Florinda to sing the title role in Arianna), could not have represented the ninfe who are invited to leave the mountains and dance the balletto in 1607.

The most likely explanation is that the dancers were the court dancing-masters. On the model of social dances, they could have danced all three sections. Or ,on the model of Cavalieri’s theatrical ballo, the singers could have done simple movements (riverenze, continenze etc) in the slow C movement, and other passi gravi  in the sung 3/2 (but not a jumping galliard). The instrumental Ritornello then featured a jumping dance, almost certainly a canario, performed by the (male) court dancing masters. Maybe four, or perhaps just two of them, since the performing space for Orfeo was small, and there are already 13 musicians and 5 singers on stage.

One of the court castrati, Issachino Massarini, was also a dancing-master (though he was elderly by 1607). Lamothe speculates that this singer might have sung the role of Euridice, and also danced the balletto. In this interpretation, Rasi as Orfeo would also have to dance the balletto. I haven’t found anything about Rasi’s dancing skills (he was a singer, theorbo player and composer), but I’m sceptical that he would find dancing a vigorous canario the ideal preparation for his great song, Rosa del Ciel, which comes about half a minute afterwards, even if he was not needed for the chorus parts of the balletto. I also find it hard to believe that old Issachino would have managed the sequence of ballo choruses, galliard dancing, and Euridice’s recitative, followed by more chorus-singing, another galliard and the chorus Vieni Imeneo, all in the space of a few minutes.

Nevertheless, Lamothe’s suggestion reminds us that a male dancing master might have danced this balletto as a female character, just as the castrati singers sang female roles.

Another possibility is that some of the 13 on-stage instrumentalists could have danced and played – more plausibly in the passi gravi of the first two movements, than in the canario. But since Stephen Player of The Harp Consort has often played guitar whilst simultaneously dancing a canario, perhaps there was a dancing-master or two amongst Monteverdi’s players. Perhaps not the bass-violinist, harpsichordists or the harpist, but what about the three chitarrone-players? We do have period images of dancers with lutes and long-necked instruments.

Eighteenth-century Engraving of Commedia dell'arte Actors on Stage


Riciulina and Metzetin



Part of Lamothe’s argument is that Proportions might not apply to dancers. Dancers (and many conductors) are sometimes reluctant to struggle with the intellectual and practical challenges of Proportions, but period philosophy and historical musicology combine to emphasise that they are essential.

Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is / When time is broke and no proportion kept!

William Shakespeare Richard II (c1595) Act V scene v

To support the argument for inconsistency, Lamothe cites musicologist Jeffrey Kurtzman, who is certainly correct to draw attention to the complexity of evidence from period theorists. Working within the scholastic method, theorists had to reconcile the new practices of the 17th century – Monteverdi’s seconda prattica,  the novelty of continuo-notation and (I argue) a simplified use of proportional notation – with the conservative traditions of previous generations. As George Houle observes in Meter in Music 1600-1800, changing usages were fundamentally incompatible with older notation systems, and the theorists’ attempts to unite the irreconcilable were confused, confusing, and in vain.

I do not see that inconsistent realisations could work, in a period when there was often no rehearsal at all. And I do not agree with Bowers’ position, that musicians of Monteverdi’s generation were still putting into practice highly conservative, ‘medieval’ systems – Bowers’ theories are too complicated to work in real time, when sight-reading. Yes, something of the old ways was conserved in the notation, and period theorists struggled to make sense of this. But the actual Use had moved on, and (as just continuo notation replaced intabulated accompaniments) the practice (as opposed to the theory) of Proportions had been simplified, made more practical.

We can be sure that practising musicians found pragmatic solutions that worked, that provided consistent and unambiguous realisations of proportions for ensembles sight-reading together. For, unlike opera, most 17th-century ensemble performances had very little or no rehearsal. I argue:

Practical musicians must have found workable, consistent solutions.

You can examine my theory of proportions here.

Holmes theories

“The theories which I have expressed there, and which appear to you to be so chimerical, are really extremely practical — so practical that I depend upon them for my bread and cheese.”


In addition to arguing that period musicians realised Proportions consistently, I also reject the suggestion that 17th-century dancers had a different way of thinking. Such a divergence may happen today, but the familiar concept of the Renaissance Man reminds us that historically there was an aesthetic unity across many artistic disciplines, guided by high philosophy, i.e. period Science.

In Mantua, Massarini danced and sang; Rasi composed, sang and played theorbo; Monteverdi sang, composed and played the viol. Elsewhere we know of dancer/swordsmen, swordsman/vihuelists, and many dancing violinists, and continuo-playing singers.

It’s clear that there must have been a consistent approach across all these disciplines. We must therefore synthesise all the available information.

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”


I suggest that the missing links in Lamothe’s and Bowers’ arguments about Lasciate i Monti are the links: the link from the previous speech, the link to the next speech. Their suggested metronome mark of approximately 50/60 as  the Tactus Aequalis is certainly highly plausible. And Bowers agrees that the notation implies the same Tactus for the whole opera:

There thus appears to be every indication of the prevalence of a single tempo for the entirety of these pages, the fundamental durations of the unblackened semibreve, minim and semiminim remaining constant throughout.

Houle goes further, showing  considerable evidence of the same Tactus for the entire repertory, within this period.

But this ‘single tempo for the entirety’ must be minim = approx 60, not semibreve.

The confusion here is one that we find in period sources too, between Tactus (which strictly means the complete down-up movement) and Semi-Tactus (which is the proper name for the down-movement alone, or the up-movement alone). Many sources use the word Tactus for both, which leads to some theoretical confusion.

But in practice, there is no confusion. Just try the recitative Ma tu gentil cantor  that follows the first part of the balletto,  

Minim = 60? Maybe. Semibreve = 60? Impossible!

Minim = 60? Maybe.
Semibreve = 60? Impossible!


or Euridice’s speech Io non diro qual sia before the reprise,

Minim = 60? Maybe. Semibreve = 60? Impossible!

Minim = 60? Maybe.
Semibreve = 60? Impossible!


or the chorus afterwards, Vieni Imeneo.

Minim = 60? Maybe. Semibreve = 60? Impossible!

Minim = 60? Maybe.
Semibreve = 60? Impossible!


All work well at around minim = 60, none could be imagined at semibreve = 60!


Chain Missing Link Question

When considering Proportions, Tactus supplies the missing link


So, according to the well-agreed principle that the whole work has a unified Tactus, around MM 60,  I’m convinced that the C section of  Lasciate goes at approximately minim = 60. This is slower than many modern performances, but corresponds to the period description of this kind of movement as con gravita, with passi gravi.

Combining Tactus & Proportions

And here is perhaps the most powerful tool for the scholar of Proportions. If we combine the period principle of Proportions with the period principle of Tactus, we can eliminate many theoretical options as impossible. Starting with minim ~ 60 for Lasciate i monti (unfamiliar to our modern ears but certainly possible), the big question is what proportional relationship to apply at Qui miri il sole.

Eliminating the impossible I – Sesquialtera

If we follow Bowers’ theory and apply Sesquialtera to Qui miri il Sole, we would have dotted semibreve (three minims) = 30, i.e. minim = 90. I find this too slow for Qui miri, but not necessarily impossible.  (Bowers himself arrives at a faster tempo, by applying Sesquialtera, but starting impossibly fast in the previous C section). But what about the Ritornello after the balletto reprise?

Minim = 90? Impossible!

Minim = 90? Impossible!


Or (killer example) the final Moresca at minim = 90? Impossible!

Moresca from Orfeo

Minim = 90? Impossible!


Eliminating the impossible II – Sextupla

Alternatively, if we apply the very fast (Sextupla) proportion to 3/2 Qui miri il Sole, we would get dotted semibreve (three minims) = 120..  I find this too fast, but not necessarily impossible. But now the 6/4 canario would be dotted minim (three crotchets) = 240. Impossible!

Dotted minim = 240? Impossible!

Dotted minim = 240? Impossible!


What remains?

My practical theory of proportions (here again) indicates Tripla, dotted semibreve = 60 for Qui miri il Sole. (This would work as a fast galliard tempo, but I don’t think this is relevant, since the movement is not a galliard.) Then the canario comes out at dotted minim = 120 (i.e. the same dotted semibreve = 60 as in the previous movement). This (as Latrophe agrees) is a good canario tempo.

As Sherlock Holmes said:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

[Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890), page 111]

Livanov as Holmes

Holmes never said, “Elementary, my dear Watson”


I find this balletto an interesting and significant test-case, for which my theory of Proportions provides a plausible solution.

But I’m certainly not so arrogant as to insist that anyone else should accept my theory. And I’m just having some fun by quoting Conan Doyle, even if investigating period performance practice can be something like Holmes’ Detective Science. However, I do suggest that you might apply my methods to test your own theory of Proportions. A good theory should be consistent, unambiguous, and easily applied for quick decisions in the real world of practical music-making.

So, as Sherlock Holmes said on the next page of The Sign of the Four:

You know my methods, apply them!


Please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.











Flow (Accessing Super-Creativity): Making Connections


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow was enthusiastically taken up by musicians, sportsmen, businesswomen, creative types, indeed by anyone interested in learning, training and high-level performance. It’s that wonderful feeling when one is ‘in the zone’, simultaneously relaxed and concentrated, where one’s actions proceed effortlessly from a deep understanding of the situation. Whatever your particular application (arts, sports, business, creativity) Flow is the optimal state for efficient learning, effective training, and maximising one’s performance.

As part of my research (read more here) for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE, read more here), I’m investigating Flow in the context of various related disciplines. My approach is phenomenological, experiential, based on my personal experience and on observations reported to me by colleagues, teachers and students from their own individual experiences. My aim is to reach a deeper understanding of how Flow works on a pragmatic level, so that I can offer practical hints to anyone who wants to access Flow in their own activities.

In this Introduction, I will summarise the classic description of Flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, and set out various connections which I’ll explore one-by-one and in greater depth in later posts: Griffin’s Dream Theory, Ericksonian Hypnosis, Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice, Neuroplasticity & Myelination, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Feldenkrais Method, Positive Psychology, Historically Informed Performance.

Also in this post, I’ll identify one crucial element of Flow which has not so far received the attention it deserves. I’ll connect this to the background theory, and suggest why this might be the missing link between Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and the high-level, elite performance skills that so many coaches and performers are searching for.   

Chain Missing Link Question



In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Steps towards enhancing the quality of life (New York 1990, on Google Books here), Csikszentmihalyi identifies various elements that characterise Flow. If you experience several of these (not necessarily all of them), you are probably experiencing Flow. These elements can be present in any activity – sport, music, creative writing, business negotiations, public speaking etc.

  • Challenge

The activity is challenging, but not impossible. You are pushing the limit of your skills, but you are nevertheless confident in your abilities.

Csikszentmihalyi developed and gradually refined a diagram relating challenge and skill, with the flow-zone in the area of high-challenge, high-skill.

Flow diagram transit of Venus


  • Merging of Awareness & Action

Your intense awareness of crucial aspects of the activity leads immediately and effortlessly  to your actions, perhaps without any intervening conscious decision-process. You notice the situation, and your actions flow from that awareness.

  • Absorbtion

Your awareness is so intense that you are fully absorbed in the activity. Incoming information entirely fills the “bandwidth” of your attention.

  • Goals / feedback

The activity has clear goals, and you receive clear feedback on your progress towards those goals.

  • Concentration

You are fully concentrated so that nothing distracts you from the activity. Your focus does not shift here and there. Your concentration does not flicker off and on again. Potential distractions (e.g. background noises) do not disturb your focus and concentration.

This maintaining of a narrow focus is subtly different from the intensity of concentration described above as Absorbtion.

  • Control

You have a sufficient sense of control. As with Challenge, the optimal level of control presumably balances the thrill of unpredictability against the stability of control.

  • Lack of self-consciousness

Whilst the activity is in process, you are not aware of yourself, you are not concerned with how others see you, you are fully immersed in the activity itself. Typically, there is a strong feeling of pleasure after the activity is completed.

Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of a mountain climber, for whom the activity itself is physically demanding and requires total concentration. When the climber reaches the summit, only then do the feelings of elation kick in.

  • Time Distortion

You may not be aware of the passage of time, whilst you continue the activity in Flow. Only afterwards do you notice how late it is, that you might be hungry, thirsty, or need sleep.

As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun! I’ll return to this question of Time Distortion, which I consider to be highly significant.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


The Autotelic Personality

Csikszentmihalyi considers that having an Autotelic Personality makes it easier for one to enter Flow. Autotelic people (from the Greek words for Self and Purpose) are self-motivated, they can find a sense of purpose in doing an activity for it’s own sake. Here are Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of Autotelics, which he derives from the corresponding elements of Flow:

  • Taking charge of your own destiny

You believe that what you are doing makes a difference.

  • Outward focus

You are focussed on your activities, on the outside world, not introspecting about your own situation

  • Goal setting

You set goals and monitor your progress towards them.

  • Absorbed

You get absorbed by the activities you undertake

  • Ability to concentrate

You can maintain a sharp focus over time, without being distracted

  • Enjoyment

You enjoy the immediate experience of the activity at hand.

I would add these two further characteristics, corresponding to Challenge and Merging of Awareness & Action

  • Have a go!

You enjoy taking on (new) challenges

  • Go for it!

You don’t procrastinate.


Flow notes


My investigation into Learning, Training and Performance rests on the theoretical foundation of Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams and the REM state. In his later writings, together with Ivan Tyrrell, Griffin explores wide and deep implications of his theory, particularly in relation to mental health and creativity. (More here.)

The Expectation-Fulfilment Theory of Dreams offers a psychological, biological and evolutionary explanation that is consistent with neuroscientific data and has already led to measurable clinical success. It amounts to a new Organising Idea, a simple fundamental concept that underpins many observed complexities. In essence, Griffin claims that:
  •  Dreams are associated with the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) state during sleep


  • The biological function of Dreams is to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), generated whilst awake


  • Dreams re-present unfulfilled expectations in Metaphors, so that they can be resolved by pattern-matching to recalled memories.


  • Some 40,000 years ago, humans evolved the ability to access the REM-state whilst awake: this facilitated learning, language, tool-making and higher culture.

Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state is the Theatre of Dreams.

Waking access to the REM-state allows us to day-dream, to relive the past, to envision the future, to watch a play in the Theatre of Dreams.

In hypnosis, the hypnotist “hijacks” the theatre machinery, changing the scenery, producing special effects, sending on various characters, directing a play for you to watch (even to act in) within the Theatre of Dreams.

The Origin of Dreams


Milton H. Erickson is widely recognised as the founder of modern hypnotherapy. In contrast to the myth that hypnotism is ‘magic'; in contrast to the traditional view of the hypnotist as an authority figure who imposes his will on his client; in contrast to the cliche of watching as the hypnotist swings a pocket-watch and counts down from 10 to 1 whilst instructing you to sleep; in contrast to the Freudian concept of the unconscious as a dark cavern of negativity; in contrast to the caricature of the all-knowing therapist and the helpless client, the Milton method assumes:

  • Trance is a natural state that we all experience several times each day


  •  The hypnotist creates conditions in which the client can feel permitted and able to enter trance.


  • Different people enter trance in different ways and have different experiences within trance.


  • The unconscious mind can be a powerful and positive resource.


  • The client can be helped to access solutions from within their own unconscious resources.


One aspect of Ericksonian Hypnosis is that therapists don’t feel the need to rush through their Pre-Talk and Induction, in order to get the client into trance and ‘start doing something useful’. Rather, the Pre-Talk is seen as an essential and highly significant part of the therapeutic intervention, and there may be no formal Induction as such.

In the Ericksonian view, hypnosis is at work in many everyday situations, including conventional (supposedly non-hypnotic) talking therapies, and teaching/learning. I would also add the performer/audience interaction to this list.

Erickson made a particular study of Time Distortion effects in Hypnosis, where the client’s subjective experience of time, under trance, was either much slower, or much faster, than real time. I will return to this subject, which I consider highly significant for Flow.



Erickson at work. Notice the characteristic SOLER posture: S = Sit down with your client; O = Open, friendly posture; L = Lean forwards, be attentive; E = make Eye contact; R = Relax.


Accept & Utilise

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Erickson’s approach was his response to Client Resistance. Rather than struggling to overcome resistance or to ‘correct’ the client’s behaviour, his solution was to accept whatever the client presented, and utilise even the most difficult behaviour as part of the therapy. For example, when treating a delusional client who believed that he was Jesus Christ, Erickson’s approach was not to attack the delusion, but to accept it. “I understand that you have a background in carpentry, would you like to build some bookshelves for me?”. The occupational therapy of woodworking became a crucial component of a successful treatment.

There are many stories from Erickson’s cases, which have inspired succeeding generations of hypnotherapists. My favourite is one particularly difficult case, where Erickson himself was unable to find a successful angle from which to direct his therapeutic intervention. Finally, he put the client into trance, and progressed him into the future, to a time when his problem had been successfully treated. “How was it done?” Erickson asked. Having obtained the answer (under hypnosis, direct from the client’s unconscious), Erickson gave the instruction (by hypnotic suggestion of amnesia) for the client to forget about this exchange, and brought the client back to the present, and out of trance. He then began a successful line of treatment, from the angle that the client himself had described in trance.

For an easy-to-read practical introduction to Ericksonian Hypnosis, I recommend Bill O’Hanlon Guide to Tranceland (2009). Richard Nongard Speak Ericksonian (2014) draws on his rich experience as a stage and speed hypnotist, clinical therapist and religious minister, and introduces techniques of NLP (see below). Michael Yapko Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis (2012) is a thorough guide to essential theory and current practice, an excellently compiled textbook for serious students. Nash & Barnier (editors) The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis is for researchers.  




As part of my investigations, I have been studying the theory and training in the practice of Hypnosis. I am not qualified as a Hypnotherapist, but I am competent to use Hypnosis as part of my work on Flow, in consensual and informed interactions. This training also gives me a better understanding of how hypnosis is at work in many everyday (supposedly non-hypnotic) situations.




Psychologist Anders Ericsson researches the cognitive structures that underpin high-level training and expert performance. His work shows the importance of sustained, intensely concentrated practice that challenges one’s current skill-levels, deliberately and precisely pushing the envelope, always just outside the comfort zone. As the title of one of his editions – Towards a General Theory of Expertise (Cambridge University Press, 1991) – suggests, although expert skills are specific to a particular domain, the processes underlying the acquisition of those skills are common across a wide range of applications: music, sports, chess, business negotiations etc.

Ericsson’s work has led to a reassessment of the nature of Talent. The modern consensus places much less emphasis on ‘natural giftedness’, even on helpful genetic traits (runners born with long limbs), recognising the importance of environmental factors (in particular, access to training opportunities) and the decisive factor of many, many hours of Deliberate Practice.

These ideas have been popularised and extended in a number of books linking elite performance in sports to effective training regimes on the Ericsson model: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) presents the 10,000 rule (i.e. the need for about 10 years dedicated training to reach elite levels of performance); Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2008) looks at the acquisition of high-level skills in two apparently unrelated areas, chess and martial arts; Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009) examines a biological mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of skills training; Matthew Syad’s Bounce (2011) discounts genetic factors, even useful physical attributes, in favour of Deliberate Practice.

Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0 (2007) follows a similar line to Waitzkin in advocating a narrow focus during training – what Waitzkin calls ‘making smaller circles’. Harmenberg considers performance under intense stress, the ‘Olympic hit': in such circumstances, even highly trained performers are sometimes unable to access their elite skills. Waitzkin also considers high-stress performance, and draws attention to Time Distortion – ‘slowing down time’ within a particular state of consciousness that he calls ‘the soft zone’.  I’ll return to these ideas below and in later posts.


My focus is phenomenological and practical – what is the experience of Flow, and how can we access it? Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and illuminating to examine the findings of Neuroscientists, as they try to understand the biological processes that support the expert skills we wish to learn, train and perform. The metaphor of treating your brain as you would a muscle – use it well, train it deliberately, and it will strengthen and grow – is apt.

Deliberate Practice (targeting precise skill elements, pushing the envelope) carried out in a state of Flow (optimal transfer of information between conscious and unconscious mind) builds new pathways, activates neural networks inside the brain. Think of this as installing new software into your computer.

After a couple of days of Deliberate Practice, your brain starts to grow, physically. You are growing new hardware, bolted-on so as to increase your capacity for the specific skills you are training. The results will show in two to three weeks.

On a similar time-scale (2 or 3 days for activation, 2 or 3 weeks for measurable results), training switches on or off certain genes, optimising your inherited DNA according to the demands your training makes. (This is one reason why identical twins, who share the same DNA, show differences in genetic activity: genes are switched on or off according to the experiences you have.)



If neurons are like wires, transmitting and processing signals through the brain, you can connect them up better, and even add new circuits, with Deliberate Practice. Practising a particular skill under challenging conditions (pushing the envelope) also wraps layers of Myelin around the particular neurons that are working hardest. Myelin is like the insulation around a wire, it stops the charge leaking out and makes transmission more efficient. The more Deliberate Practice you do, the more Myelin you can wrap. You get better, sharper, faster.

And of course, to stay in Flow, as you continue to train, you must continually raise the bar, up the Challenge. As you continue to push the envelope, you assemble more neurons, connect up more neuro-circuits, and wrap them all in Myelin. The skill becomes effortless, awareness and action merge, and you might well start to have some serious fun!





Csikszentmihlayi’s concept Flow is part of a general trend to move away from researching only pathological conditions, mental illness, psychological trauma, and investigate well-being, happiness, positive psychology. Performance Studies can also benefit from a positive approach, with Solution Oriented interventions, learning to acquire confidence and access Flow,  rather than wallowing in the pathology of Performance Anxiety.

Nevertheless, musicians and sportsmen know all too well the phenomenon of ‘choking’. Just when it matters the most, the stress of the moment is too much, and one loses access to all those hard-won elite skills. In bad cases, one loses even basic competence, and reverts to crude bungling. This is what happened to the Brazil football team in the last World Cup: after they had Flowed through all the heats, in the semi-final they failed to Flow, and were not so much beaten as annihilated by Germany, 7-1. Brazil choked.


Brazil world cup defeat


How can we learn to use the stress of a highly significant moment as a spur towards our finest, most Flowing performance, rather than being knocked out of Flow into hopeless incompetence? I’ll explore some ideas in future posts.


NLP takes many ideas from Ericksonian Hypnosis, especially the subtle use of language to influence modes of thought, and distills them into their most concentrated form. Although NLP has become associated with covert hypnotism and unfair manipulation, its powerful techniques can be used beneficially, for teaching and even for self-improvement.


As well as subtleties of language, NLP examines directions of gaze and other outward indications of inner processes. I am interested to explore how this link might be reversed, to use deliberately directed gaze to re-order modes of thought and unconscious processes. Some work has already been done in this area by Feldenkrais practitioners and researchers into Performance Anxiety.



Moshe Feldenkrais was a martial arts expert and engineer who developed a method for learning and teaching efficient, effortless use of the body. Although its aim is similar to that of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method teaches by different means. An ‘Awareness Through Movement’ class invites participants to notice subtle feedback from the body, as they carry out simple, undemanding movements in a relaxed environment. The use of non-habitual positions (e.g. crossing your legs with the other leg on top), or the introduction of a twist into a movement (direct your eyes to the right, turn your head to the left) produces a kind of alienation effect, sharpening one’s proprioception.

Classes include frequent moments of rest, not because the exercises are physically demanding (on the contrary, teachers repeatedly warn not to use too much effort), but in order to let the unconscious and conscious mind exchange and assimilate information. Many elements of Feldenkrais teaching look very familiar to the Ericksonian Hypnotist.

The results of Feldenkrais teaching can be amazing. The Method manages to link up conscious/unconscious learning, mind and body. A good session engages the participants in Flow, and the body Flows beautifully afterwards.

Feldenkrais Method


Csikszentmihalyi, Milton Erickson and Anders Ericsson all considered that their findings were valid across a wide-range of cases – music, arts, sports, business, any creative and challenging activity.

My experiential approach inevitably draws on my personal experience as an elite musician and teacher (part of my work as a Historical Informed Performer has included acquiring and teaching the related, but distinct techniques for different types of historical harp, Italian, Irish, Spanish, French etc, and the study of such related skills as directing, continuo, and baroque gesture); as a professionally qualified sailor (sailing is  favourite example of Csikszentmihalyi’s); as a novice fencer (modern epée and historical rapier) and as a keen student of the Feldenkrais Method.

I’m also consulting colleagues, teachers and students in each of these disciplines.

I hypothesise that certain aspects of Historically Informed Performance of music may be particularly suited for facilitating access into Flow.


Csikszentmihalyi considers Flow on the time-scale of an entire life-time’s search for happiness. But the Flow many of us are looking for is a transitory state, a temporary heightened consciousness that allows us to perform at our very best, just when it matters most.

Csikszentmihalyi characterises the Time Distortion of Flow as the perception that one has worked only for a short period, whilst in the real world, a long time has passed. This is a useful Time Distortion for training.

But in performance, we are looking for the other type of Time Distortion. The tennis ball comes flying over the net, but for the skilled player time seems to slow down: there is plenty of time to assess the incoming ball, position one’s body and the tennis racquet, and execute a perfect return that will severely challenge one’s opponent. In the Time Distortion of Performance, subjective time seems to slow down so that Awareness and Action can merge, effortlessly.

Erickson wrote about various Time Distortion effects under hypnosis, and about how this relates to the phenomenon of people responding to emergencies with cool, effective action: such people report a Time Distortion of Performance in which subjective time seems to slow down. Waitzkin links ‘slowing down time’ to the extreme stress of what Harmenberg calls ‘Olympic hits’, the most crucial, decisive moments.

swinging watch




Having proposed many connections, I’d like to conclude this introduction by suggesting a separation. I consider that there are actually two kinds of Flow, crucially distinguished by two types of Time Distortion. In Flow-T (ideal for training), the subjective impression is that a short time passed, whereas in the real world many hours went by. In Flow-P (ideal for performance), the subjective impression is that time slows down, so that one can effortlessly observe the situation and merge that awareness into action at elite skill-levels.

The two types are distinct but related. I hypothesise that long-term use of Flow-T can prepare the way for short-term access to Flow-P.


In the fluid mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with different Flow characteristics.

In the fluid-mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with slower Flow characteristics.


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Flow connections

Proportions – in search of a practical theory



It’s well-known that in music from around the year 1600, changes of metre are associated with Proportional notation. But how does this work in practice?

Proportions are like gear wheels – whilst the Tactus turns at a steady, slow pace (about one beat per second, as we will see), Proportional changes create fast notes: three times as fast, six times as fast, one and half times as fast. But how does the original notation show us how to select the correct gear?

George Houle’s Meter in Music 1600-1800 (Indiana, 1987) brings together evidence from many primary sources. The 17th century is a period of change, and there are differences between different decades, different countries. There are also contradictions between different writers within the same period and country. Part of the difficulty is that musicians were trying to reconcile contemporary usage with older authorities.

Nowadays, there is considerable debate about proportions amongst musicologists, with Roger Bowers (Emeritus Professor of Music at Cambridge) leading the arguments for a very conservative (almost ‘medieval’) interpretation of Monteverdi’s proportional notation.  In Bowers’ view, Monteverdi’s “time-signatures” give detailed information which can be decoded to reveal the intended proportion, applying rules that go back at least into the previous century.

Given the lack of consensus, most musicologists would agree that we do not have a complete understanding of proportions today. But I suggest that the situation is comparable to that of high-energy physics. We do not have a complete understanding, a Grand Unified Theory that brings together quantum mechanics and general relativity, uniting the various fundamental forces. But we do have a good idea of what such a theory would look like.

Grand Unified Theory

In this post, I’ll suggest what a practical understanding of Proportions should look like, and propose some tests that you can use to examine your theories. And yes, I’ll set out my own theory and explain why, with great respect, I disagree with Professor Bowers. That disagreement probably reflects the difference between my practical approach and his theoretical viewpoint, a difference that we see also in period sources.

But, just as with basso continuo, Proportions are not only theory, they are crucially necessary for practical music-making. So let’s begin our search for a ‘practical theory’.




I suggest that a practical theory of proportions should satisfy certain principles.

  • Proportions should be consistent, so that the same input produces the same result in whatever circumstances.

Of course, there are limits: for one composer, or for a certain period/place, perhaps as narrow as “within this one piece”. But even that most limited version of the Consistency principle is broken in many modern editions and performances (e.g. Monteverdi Vespers or Orfeo).

  • Proportions should be unambiguous, so that different people can reach the same answer.

Remember that most music circa 1600 was performed from part-books (not score), without conductor, and with minimal (if any) rehearsal. Each performer had to reach their own decision about each proportional change, and would not know what other parts were doing, until they heard the result.

  • Proportions should be simple, so that performers can reach an instantaneous decision

Since most music circa 1600 had minimal (if any) rehearsal, sight-reading performers should be able to turn a page, see a proportional change, and make an instantaneous decision. This is a comparable situation to continuo-playing, where performers similarly have to make instantaneous decisions of which harmony to play.

  • Proportions should be consistent with dance-types

Monteverdi’s balli, including the ballo and moresca within Orfeo, provide good examples. It’s worth remembering that Monteverdi recommended just 30 minutes of rehearsal for the Ballo di Tirsi & Clori. It’s a difficult piece, as he admits – most pieces would not have even this much rehearsal, whatever proportional challenges they might contain.

  • Proportions should be consistent with Tactus

Here musicologists have additional information, not taken into account by many of today’s performers. There is a very strong historical argument for assuming a consistent Tactus, around one beat per second, throughout a large-scale work, and indeed, across the entire repertoire in this period. The model is the pendulum swing, the limit of precision is human memory. This Tactus beat corresponds to a minim in C time. (Read more about Tactus here.)

  • Proportions should be consistent with the affetto of the text.

Such large-scale pieces as Monteverdi’s Vespers and Orfeo are good testing-grounds for any theory, since they provide a large number of cases, in full score, partial score, and part-books. In particular, the Magnificat from the Vespers has one set of proportional signs in the voice partbooks and a different set in the basso continuo book – obviously the result has to match between the two sets of notations. This hard case can test many a promising theory to destruction! There are many Proportional changes to consider in the Sonata, including one very hard case of black notation, discussed by Bowers here (and yes, once again I have to disagree. I’ll present my arguments in a later post).

The large-scale madrigals Altri canti di Marte and Altri canti d’Amor also provide challenging examples to consider.

One warning: be aware of the notation that creates triple-metre rhythms under a C time-signature, as in the first aria of Orfeo Act II: Ecco pur a voi ritorno (see below for the original notation). The minims here go at the same speed as in the preceding madrigal, Ecco Orfeo. 

And another warning: even supposedly reputable editions sometimes change original time-signatures without informing you. If you are not looking at the original notation, you are liable to be misled.

So at this point, I encourage you to consider your own theory of Proportions, and to test it against the principles and examples I’ve listed.

Grand unified theory 2


For anyone interested, here is my personal theory, which I have applied successfully across a wide selection of repertoire around the year 1600. You are welcome to use this, all the more so if you are polite enough to credit me for it in your writings or program notes. And if you disagree, I’d love to hear your counter-arguments, and to examine your theory in the light of my principles and test-pieces!

In common time, minims go with the Tactus, approx minim = 60.

In triple metre under a common time sign, there is no proportion, no change of speed, crotchet = crotchet. Dotted minim works out as ~ 40, but you still count the regular tactus  of minim = 60, even though the word-accents will not always coincide with the Tactus count. (This is rather like modern dancers, who count a Waltz in eight: ONE two three FOUR five six SEVEN eight one TWO three four… etc)

For proportional changes, you don’t have to worry about the time-signatures, which I consider to be obsolete remnants of an ancient system, now lost, and soon (i.e. in the second half of the 17th century) to be abandoned altogether. (Here is the crux of my disagreement with Bowers, who interprets proportional signs according to medieval principles). My approach is simple: just look at the note-values, whether in white or black notation.

In triple time,

minims represent Tripla, three minims to the Tactus, i.e. dotted semibreve = 60.

semibreves represent Sesquialtera, three semibreves to two Tactus, i.e. dotted breve = 30. Notice that dotted semibreve = 60 again, and minims have the same value as in tripla.

semi-minims (looking like crotchets) go very quickly, six to the Tactus. The default grouping is three groups of two, i.e. Tripla. Under a 6/4 mark, or with 3 marked over small groups of notes, the grouping becomes two groups of three (i.e. compound duple). Notice that minims, dotted minims, semibreves and dotted semibreves have consistent in any triple time notation.

This simple consistency ensures that different voices fit together in all situations, as well as allowing quick and unambiguous solving of proportion puzzles.


In triple time, semibreves can be white  or black. In certain circumstances (beyond the scope of this post, but the wiki article on mensural notation here  is a good introduction), white semibreves get “perfected” to contain three minims. What we regard today as the dot of prolongation (a dotted semibreve is worth three minims), the 17th century saw as the dot of perfection. Black semibreves do not get perfected.

Similarly, breves can be white or black.

In practice, black notation either shows a switch to triple proportion (easily noticeable, since in common time all semibreves and breves are white) or draws attention to a syncopation within triple proportion. (e.g. the rhythm short-long, rather than the customary long-short).

Minims can also be white or black. The problem is that a black minim (triple proportion, black notation) looks identical to a crotchet (common time). It also looks like a semi-minim (triple proportion, white notation). A black semi-minim (triple proportion, black notation) looks like a quaver (common time). We also see white semi-minims (triple proportion, white notation), which look strange to us, like white quavers.

But don’t worry too much. In most situations, it’s abundantly clear whether or not you are in triple proportion, and if the notation is generally white or black.

Changes in colouration draw attention to changes of metre and/or of short-time rhythm.


We end up with these five possible speeds of triple time (three different proportions, and two non-proportional notations):

Non-proportional triple metre

Very Slow & Steady: Three beats in 3 seconds (not proportional, minims under common-time sign)



Slow proportion: three beats in 2 seconds (semibreves in proportional notation, Sesquialtera)



Non-proportional triple metre 2

Medium Steady:  Three beats in 1.5 seconds, crotchets under duple-time sign



Medium proportion: three beats in 1 second (minims in proportional notation, Tripla)


In principle, there could be a fast steady notation, with groups of three quavers under common-time sign (non-proportional). These would go at three beats in three-quarters of a second. But I can’t think of an example from this period. Can anyone provide an example?


6 4 proportion

Fast proportion: compound duple, counting six beats in 1 second This example from “Altri canti d’amor” sets the text “le battaglie audaci” (‘daring battles’, hence the very fast declamation)


In any triple proportion, a semibreve lasts about two-thirds of a second. A minim lasts one-third of a second. A semi-minim lasts one-sixth of a second.

But whilst the notation, the metre and the short-term rhythms change, the Tactus remains constant.

Whatever the notation says, you maintain the same Tactus beat (around MM 60, i.e. one beat per second). But before a change into Sesquialtera, it helps to focus only on the Down-stroke of the Tactus (i.e. thinking semibreve = 30 rather than minim = 60), so that you can mentally subdivide the Down-strokes into three as the change to slow triple proportion takes effect.

Some period sources discuss this in terms of Tactus (semibreve = 30) and Semitactus (minim = 60), but most use Tactus interchangeably for the full Down-Up, or just for the Down stroke.

Of course, you need to avoid anachronistic rallentando as you approach a proportional change. Don’t use the brake and accelerator, just use the gears!

In a later post, I’ll discuss the application of this theory to balli in operas, in particular Anima e Corpo and Orfeo.

But one last thought… My theory is that the “time signatures” don’t matter, you can see everything from the note values. Roger Bowers believes the opposite is true, i.e. that the vital information is conveyed by Proportional signs. So what about the moresca that ends Monteverdi’s Orfeo? It is printed under a “time signature” of C. But clearly it must be proportional notation, you couldn’t continue in common time with minim = 60.

Obviously, this was a printer’s error, and the proportional signs were omitted. But – and here’s my point – if this error were highly significant (as for Professor Bowers’ theory, it would be), surely the printers would have restored the missing signs, perhaps during the print run (other errors were fixed along the way, as can be seen by comparing different copies of the 1609 edition), and certainly for the second edition (which fixes many errors, and introduces many new readings, some erroneous) of 1615.

But they didn’t fix it, not in 1609, not in 1615. I suggest that no-one (then or now) is confused by the lack of proportional signs, and there is broad agreement today that this lively dance goes at three minims to the Tactus. QED.

Moresca from Orfeo


PS Don’t forget to add this last killer example to the challenge tests for your own alternative theory!

Robot wars

Competing Theories of Historical Performance Practice?


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.













Regina Cithararum – the Cloyne, or Dalway Harp



Ego sum Regina Cithararum (I am the Queen of Harps): so reads the inscription on the 1621 Cloyne Harp (also known as the Dalway fragments), which now belongs to the National Museum of Ireland, and is kept in store at Collins Barracks. In a seminar at Scoil na gCláirseach (the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, more about Scoil here) last August, Simon Chadwick skillfully reviewed the state of research into chromatic Irish Harps, and Thomas Zapf demonstrated a prototype reconstruction of the Cloyne Harp, with a fine performance of Dowland’s “Lacrime”‘ pavan.

Period descriptions – Vincenzo Galilei Dialogo della Musica (Florence, 1581 here), Praetorius De Organographia (Wolfenbuttel, 1619 here) and the Talbot MS (Cambridge 1690s here) – make it clear that chromatic Irish harps did exist, but do not give us all the details we would like to have. Nevertheless it seems plausible that the typical layout of the strings was more-or-less similar to an Italian ‘arpa doppia’, with two or perhaps three rows of strings in the centre of the compass, and with the lowest octave or so in the bass “diatonic only”. [Of course, those bass strings can be re-tuned for each piece, just as is done for the bass strings on lutes]

Galilei arpa doppia

The Cloyne harp survives only partially: we have the beautifully made neck and part of the fore-pillar (the Dalway fragments), but the soundbox is missing. The neck has a short extra row of pegs in the centre of the compass. This extra row and the total number of strings strongly suggest some kind of chromatic stringing. Simon described various experimental reconstructions including Tim Hobrough’s (used extensively for performances and recordings in the 1990s and still going strong), two harps developed as part of Tristram Robson’s researches (the surviving second model kindly donated to the HHSI), a copy made by Evans & Flockhart for the National Museum of Ireland, and the most recent attempt, David Kortier’s prototype (played during the seminar by Thomas Zapf). 

Dalway extra pegs

It was noted that many modern reproductions have exploded under the extreme tension of so many wire strings. Tristram’s first harp had to be rebuilt, Kortier’s prototype has a temporary repair to a deep split in the box, Evan’s & Flockhart’s also broke: otherwise Hobrough’s is the only reconstruction to have survived intact. Simon speculated that perhaps the soundbox of the original also exploded, which would explain why it is no longer with us today!

Early Music May 1987

Early Music Magazine May 1987 includes two articles about Chromatic Irish harps. Mike Billinge & Bonnie Shlajean showed how a multi-row layout (at the soundboard) can be achieved from a single-row line of pegs (at the neck). (I would add that the historical playing position (with the hands resting on the soundboard) implies that the string layout at the soundboard is all that matters for playability.)

Dalway-Hobrough layout



Peter Holman set out some of the evidence for the use of a chromatic Irish harp (rather than a gut-strung Italian or Spanish harp) in William Lawes’ music “for the Harp Consort.” Although some early harpists continue to promote gut-strung Italian triple harp for this repertoire, the academic consensus is that the case for Irish harp has been proven. ‘The triple harp idea does not hold up to scholarly scrutiny’, writes John Cunningham in ‘Some Consorts of Instruments are Sweeter than Others’: Further Light on the Harp of William Lawes’ Harp Consorts’, Galpin Society Journal,  41, April 2008, 147-76. See Cunningham’s book,  The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602-1645, (Woodbridge, 2010) for more about the Harp Consorts. The best edition is Jane Achtman’s 2002 diploma thesis, published by PRB productions here in 2007 , even if her preface is now out-of-date (in an attempt to be even-handed, she discusses triple harp at length). You can hear one of the Pavans performed with Irish Harp on the recording Exquisite Consorts by The Harp Consort (available from Amazon here).

Exquisite Consorts CD

Reinhard Thym’s painting of musicians at the court of Christian IV in Denmark shows an Irish harp (we see the player’s hands resting on the soundboard, but we cannot see the string layout), lute, viol and flute. A lot of consort music from this court survives, in particular music by William Brade. In England, Thomas Bedoes played Irish harp amongst a large consort of plucked and bowed strings in Shirley’s 1634 masque The Triumph of Peace. You can hear another Pavan by Lawes performed with the line-up of the Thym painting on the recording Exquisite Consorts (here again) and English masque music with Irish harp on the Tragicomedia CD Orpheus I am.

Darby Scott and friends

Simon drew attention to two contributions to this growing body of research, coming from his work together with David Kortier and Thomas Zapf. A change in the angle of the neck and the spacing between the tuning pins seems to indicate the point at which the Cloyne harp’s basses went “diatonic only”. And the geometry of the string layout can be improved by taking the strings from the upper row of tuning pegs via the pegs of the lower row (using the lower row pegs as bridge pins). Very useful practical tips!

I have performed and recorded on the Hobrough reconstruction, performed on Tristram’s harp (there is a video, somewhere in the HHSI archives) and briefly played Kortier’s prototype. I suggest that there are three questions to be addressed: sound-quality, playability, and fidelity to the Cloyne as a (partially) surviving original).


Kortier’s harp has the best sound I’ve heard so far from a chromatic Irish harp, but his first sound-box exploded. I’m now planning to ask Katerina Antonenko to re-string my Hobrough reconstruction (which has a massive box modelled on the O’Fogarty harp) according to the new ideas that emerged since the mid-1990s, and to do some acoustic work on the box, to improve the sound.


However, I consider Kortier’s prototype unplayable. Kudos to Thomas Zapf for getting through Lacrime, but he also admitted that the wild irregularity of the string-layout makes the instrument impractical for public performance. Tristam’s harp is a little better to play, but still very difficult to manage. After many experiments and repeated revisions of the string layout, my Hobrough is the most playable chromatic Irish harp I’ve seen. But it’s also not easy to play. I’m now planning to ask Katerina to make further adjustments to the layout, taking into account Simon’s ideas, and seeking to improve both sound and playability.

Dalway reconstruction by Hobrough 3


The fragments of the Cloyne harp are vital information. It’s wonderful that we have these two pieces, although it’s frustrating not to know what was happening at the soundboard: this is where the string-layout really matters! It’s important to study these artefacts in great detail, and to extract as much information as we can from them. However, I don’t believe that the Cloyne is necessarily the perfect model for a chromatic Irish harp that would be suitable for the complex polyphonic music of the Danish court and/or William Lawes’ consorts. In order to explore these historical repertoires, performers need instruments that sound good and are fully playable. So we need to study the Dalway fragments, and build the information from them into reconstructions that are imaginatively redesigned to suit the music.

After all, that music is also historical information.But it comes from a different milieu. We might expect the Cloyne harp, Galilei’s Irish harp in Florence, and Praetorius’ German/Irish harp to be similar, but not identical to the chromatic Irish harps that were played in Copenhagen and London. Perhaps Talbot’s information might be more closely related, even though he is writing at the other end of the century.

So I hope that this seminar and my report her will stimulate further interest and experiment in this fascinating topic. Certainly, I’ve been inspired to tune up my Hobrough/Dalway/O’Fogarty monster again, and see what we might do with it next. When Tim made it, he included a surprise for me, an inscription that reads CITHARARUM REX REGINAM TANGET – Of harps, the King plays the Queen! 

Dalway-Hobrough detail


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Flow 2014 – The Cambridge Talks

Cambridge bridge of sighs

Csikszentmihalyi defined Flow, being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’, you’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated, quietly confident, feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge in front of you. [Read ALK’s introduction to Flow, Accessing Super-Creativity: May the Flow be with you!  here.]

This posting summarises and comments on papers and discussions related to Flow at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge University. [More about the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice here.]


Marcus Araújó, who investigates Performance Studies and Psychology of Music & Education at the Department of Communication and Art at the University of Aveiro, is interested in Flow, the cognitive processes underlying performance and practice of music, musical expertise, and expert musicians’ preparation for performance.


The aim of his study is to explore self-regulatory practice behaviours and Flow in highly-skilled musicians. A sample of 212 musicians answered a developed questionnaire about practice behaviours and Flow state. Results show that the skilled musicians were highly self-regulated. Most of the Flow characteristics were experienced whilst practising, but ‘action-awareness merging’ and ‘sense of control’ were less reported. Self-regulated behaviours, ‘metacognitive awareness’ and ‘self-efficacy’ were correlated with Flow dimensions, suggesting that these may contribute to the Flow experience whilst practising. ‘Goal setting’ negatively correlated with the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension of Flow. No positive associations were found between the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension and any or the self-regulated behaviours.

ALK summary 

Marcus is looking at the relationship between Flow and efficient practising. In particular, he has devised a questionnaire to measure various aspects of musicians’ experience. He has taken well-agreed indicators of Flow (from Csikszentmihalyi  and others):

  • a good balance between challenge/skills
  • clear goals
  • clear feedback
  • intense concentration
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • merging of action and awareness
  • sense of control and agency
  • losing track of the passing of time
  • a sense of deep satisfaction

Flow improves creativity and combats performance anxiety. But there is a lack of research on positive experiences whilst practising. This is why Marcus is looking at positive experiences, and at experiences during practising (as opposed to performance).

The experience of the ‘Merging of action and awareness’ is the Flow-indicator that is most beneficial for musicians.

Self-regulation and the optimal use of one’s own personal resources is the key to finding Flow and practising efficiently.

Marcus’ results show a negative correlation between Practice Organisation and Merging. Practice Organisation may inhibit Flow.

ALK comments

Marcus’ advance title was more ambitious “Entering into Flow-state through self-regulated behaviour: an explanatory study”. This is of course what we are all looking for, reliable ways to enter Flow  that we can use for ourselves, that don’t require the presence of a teacher. I can understand that with his revised title, Marcus wanted to avoid claiming more than he could deliver, but his study is already on a good path towards identifying possible gateways into Flow. And he has also noticed along the way some potential blocks to be avoided.  

The particular importance of Marcus’ work is that he is measuring experience. It is very useful to have data on, as well as descriptions of, Flow. Of course, there are limitations inherent in his methodology. Participants are reporting their own experiences, after the practice-session is over. There might perhaps be a tendency for self-reporting to be over-optimistic, but the strength of Marcus’ questionnaire is that it asks about many different aspects of experience. We don’t have to make any judgement about how successful or not these musicians were at entering Flow, rather (as Marcus has done) we can examine correlations between those different elements.

There might well be differences between how a practice-session feels whilst it is going on, and how one feels about it just afterwards – obviously, questionnaires cannot give real-time data on the on-going experience. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi has already shown that the satisfaction associated with Flow is not felt during the process (which may require hard work,    Csikszentmihalyi  gives the example of rock-climbers making a difficult ascent), but afterwards, when one looks back on the completed task. And it seems to me that, since Flow is associated with an absence of self-consciousness, real-time testing carries a strong risk of Observer Effect (the process of measuring will change the activity that is being measured), even of disrupting Flow entirely. It is very difficult to devise real-time testing that would be ‘invisible’ to the participant.

Marcus is measuring subjective experience. This positions him somewhere in-between those of us who are investigating experience qualitatively (i.e. phenomenology) , and the ‘hard science’ approach of measuring objective variables. Such an in-between position might be particularly advantageous for establishing connections between subjective experience and more objective measurements from neuroscience and other disciplines.

Questionnaires are low-tech, low-budget and easy to administer. Collating the data is also straightforward. These are all significant advantages.

For all these reasons, I think Marcus’ approach has much to commend it. Other studies are producing descriptive material, but lack measured data. It would be very useful if other researchers could take up Marcus’ questionnaire and apply it to their own studies, so that large data-sets could be built up for comparative studies and meta-analysis.

From his data, Marcus pulls out some interesting ideas. I agree that the Merging of Action and Awareness is a key benefit of being in Flow, not only for musicians but also for sportsmen. It’s not the only such benefit, and in a future posting I will argue that it is not the most important one for elite performance. However, Marcus is looking at practising, and my next post will present my hypothesis that performance-Flow and practice-Flow are significantly different.

Marcus observed that goal-setting and practice organisation correlated negatively with Flow.  Can this be explained as conscious, Left-Brain processes interfering with subconscious Right-Brain Flow?  Or does referring back (during the practice session) to goals and practice-plans (established before the session started) disrupt the focus on the present moment, the Mindfulness that is needed for Flow? These are important questions, because Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice suggests that conscious organisation of practice-sessions is highly beneficial. How can we organise practice efficiently without disrupting Flow?

My own investigation examines Flow within the Griffin model of the REM-state, and in connection with Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice and Ericksonian Hypnosis. [Read more here] Learning (in lessons or in self-regulated practising) is regarded as a Post-Hypnotic process, guided by Suggestions which can come from the teacher or from one’s own self-regulation. In a future posting, I’ll discuss how established knowledge from Hypnosis might contribute to our understanding of gateways into Flow and of how to manage blocks that prevent or disrupt Flow. Marcus observes that Self-Regulation is a key factor: I will propose that Self-Hypnosis could be a highly effective gateway into Flow.


Cambridge river flowing


László Stachó is a musicologist, psychologist and musician working as senior lecturer at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest ad at the University of Szeged. He is a CMPCP Visiting Fellow. His research focuses on Bartok analysis, 20th-century performance practice, emotional communication in musical performance and enhancement of attention skills involved in music performance.


Laszlo argues that a true sign of musical giftedness is the ability to uncover meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – and to position into them in the act of performing with full concentration. Full concentration is fostered through the ability to navigate cognitively in the musical Flow, i.e. the ability to ‘be’ in  (i.e. to position into) the future, in the past and in the present – phenomenologically very often at the same moment.

In a forthcoming book, he presents the outline of a new, detailed pedagogical methodology for enhancing in musicians (regardless of their instrument and including singers) the ability of real-time navigating in the musical Flow, including the sub-abilities to imagine the upcoming structural units (i.e. to estimate by feeling their durations through forming a mental image of them), to form a clear mental image of the past musical units to which the upcoming ones are to be measured, and to feel deeply the present moment.

ALK summary 

Laszlo contrasted two viewpoints: technical, logical, looking for the end-result and content-centred, emotional,  focussed on the on-going process. In Music, these viewpoints can be contrasted as  Mathesis (i.e. science/learning/mathematics) versus Emotions. Today’s conservatoire methodologies are strongly rooted in 19th-century attitudes to technique. However, Emotion and Mathesis need not be mutually exclusive.

What is missing in theories of musical ability is the consideration of Affekt, and Time. What is missing in pedagogy is teaching how or what to feel, teaching how music happens in real time (as opposed to detached analysis).

Laszlo showed videos of master-classes with elite performer-teachers. Teaching how to play Chopin in 1961, Alfred Cortot said that the performers interpretation “should be transposed to the plan of a kind of intimate reverie”. “You need to dream the piece, not play”. Flow is compared to dreaming.  In another master-class, Maria Peres said “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often”.

Lazlo argues that imagery is strongly connected to feeling. Mindfulness is also important: Laszlo sees it as a short-term phenomenon, linked to particularly significant musical moments.

Laszlo drew attention to the performer-teacher’s Gaze. A certain characteristic direction and focus of the eyes reveals the cognitive process of reflection.

Another video showed high-tech analysis of Gaze, contrasting two footballers, an elite international (Ronaldo, popularly dubbed “the phenomenon”, and considered by experts and fans to be one of the greatest football players of all time) and a competent amateur. Analysis showed Ronaldo’s very precise direction of his eyes, switching very rapidly and precisely from the ball to opponent’s feet, hips (for predicting the opponent’s next movement), looking for empty space to move into.

For musicians, Laszlo recommends that the mental image should appear in your mind just before you play. This ability is a core ability, appearing in sports as well.

Three skills must be operated simultaneously:

  • Goal setting – being in the future
  • Mindfulness – being in the present
  • Reflection – being in the past

The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.

Real-time navigation of musical flow requires learning “how to let go”. We learn this by visualisation exercises involving imagined movement (e.g. the trajectory of a thrown ball).

ALK comments

This was a fascinating paper, even if Laszlo’s detailed methodology for entering into Flow was not presented here. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming book (in Hungarian!).

It could be very productive for Laszlo and Marcus to collaborate, since Laszlo has methods for helping musicians enter Flow, and Marcus can measure the experience they have as a result.

Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice argues against the idea of inherited talent. I would re-phrase Laszlo’s opening claim to avoid the notion of “giftedness” and re-prioritise for the audience rather than for the performer: a true sign of musical success is the ability to reveal meanings to the audience. The performer must extract those meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – concentrate on them fully during the act of performing.

Laszlo is grappling with a difficult but vital concept as he tries to help performers ‘be in’ the Past, Present and Future, all at once. Perhaps this happens in different ways on different time-scales. As we speak (whether formally or in casual conversation) we are able to link the words we just said, the word we are pronouncing now, and the words that will follow immediately afterwards, in order to create a sentence. Whilst we remain more-or-less aware of our previous sentences, and of the sentence we are saying now, we might or might not have a conscious intention concerning the next sentence. Only an experienced speaker can maintain a coherent structure for an entire speech or lecture, navigating sentence by sentence through the current paragraph, whilst keeping in mind what was said in previous paragraphs and what must be said in subsequent paragraphs. Most people would memorise or write down some kind of plan (an outline, or an entire script) for such a speech. All of these examples are shorter-term than and different from Laszlo’s triad of Goal Setting, Mindfulness, and Reflection.

In Early Music, we can side-step these complications by equating Music with Rhetorical Speech. Past-Present-Future relationships in Music can then be linked to similar progressions through Time in prose or poetry (as I just did, above). I’m strongly convinced that such a Metaphorical understanding of the Past-Present-Future relationships is more useful in the practical situation than abstract theorising. Other Metaphors are also valid (walking, dancing, visual imagery) and indeed Laszlo recommends visual imaging as a practical way to manage Past-Present-Future awareness.

In Early Music, we can think about Passions (affetti) that change across measured Time. Time is measured with a slower beat (Tactus, read more here), affetti change more frequently, than in later music.  This results in a different experience of passions/time, that may be more effective in facilitating Flow. My own research into Enargeia links changing affetti to the emotional power of detailed visual imagery. (More about Enargeia: Visions in Performance here).  Positive imaging is frequently used in sports training and in Hypnotherapy.

Early Musicians are very aware of the bias of Conservatoires towards 19th-century models of performance and pedagogy. One aspect of this bias is the conventional divide between Technique and Interpretation. Historically Informed Performance (HIP) does not accept this binary, but follows earlier models in which technical means are more closely interconnected with musical ends (e.g. keyboard fingering and phrasing). Nevertheless, the most recent research relates HIP to Emotions Studies, so that performance, passion and the audience’s perception are also all interconnected. [Read more about How did it feel? here.]

I suggest that Laszlo is seeing from his pedagogical and Flow-oriented viewpoint similar limitations of the standard Conservatoire approach that we see also from the HIP viewpoint. Certainly most Conservatoires are uncertain how to teach Emotions in music, whether in standard repertoire or in HIP. There are programs that address the problem of performance anxiety, but (as Marcus observed in the context of practising) there is less teaching of precisely how to work positively with emotions.

Laszlo’s plea for a holistic approach that unifies interpretation, technique, and emotions should be heeded. This is the same triad that we see in the historical concept of Music as Musica Mondana (the Music of the Spheres, that Otherworld of magic, myth and mystery that makes a musical interpretation deeply meaningful, somehow spiritual), Musica Humana (the harmonious nature of humanity, unifying body, mind, spirit and emotions) and Musica Instrumentalis (actual music, i.e. techique, whether instrumental or vocal).

My first reaction to the videos of master-classes was to remind myself that a master-class is a very asymmetric situation, in which everything favours the teacher. The student is not only processing new information & new instructions, and changing their whole performance, but they are doing all this in full view of the audience. It is highly likely that the student will not be in Flow. At worst, a master-class can become a vehicle for the teacher to demonstrate their own superiority, their own Flow, at the expense of the student. But these problems for the student in a master-class are advantages for the researcher studying Flow, since we can expect to observe crucial differences between the master in Flow and the student not in Flow.

Cortot’s idea of a performance with Flow as similar to dreaming relates to the theoretical underpinning of my own research into Flow within Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams. (more about Griffin’s theory, such stuff as Dreams are made on: Representing Emotions in Metaphor here).

As soon as I saw Cortot’s face, with the characteristic Gaze to which Laszlo drew attention, I recognised a look that can be found in many historical paintings of musicians. The eyes are directed forwards, upwards and into the remote distance.

Zampieri eyes

This Gaze is associated in Neuro-Linguistic Programming with inner focus (accessing visual memory or invented imagery). In Hypnosis this eye movement is part of a standard test, and is considered to be a reliable sole indicator of a hypnotic trance. In Historical Action, it is associated with the hand gestures for Awe or Wonder: the complete set of Awe/Wonder indicators are seen in many religious paintings (saints receiving visions, calling forth or witnessing a miracle).




In 2013, I made a case-study of John Bulwer’s 17th-century gesture of awe-struck worship for performances of the earliest surviving Spanish Oratorio, which tells the Christmas story of the Shepherds witnessing the appearance of the Angel and worshipping the Christ-child in the Bethlehem stable. Another, highly detailed case-study of medieval Awe by Javier Diaz-Vera of the University of Castille La Mancha was reported at the recent CHE conference on “Languages of Emotion”. I observed a startling strong connection between this Gaze and Flow in a class at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, in August 2014.

The Feldenkrais Method advises re-setting ones habitual Gaze by placing the head lower, and lifting the eyes. This releases neck vertebrae, with beneficial effects for wellbeing, confidence and voice-production. Similar adjustments are recommended in Alexander Technique.  I am experimenting with Gaze and Self-Hypnosis in my own investigations of Flow.

Gaze and historical performance are related in the study of Enargeia and baroque gesture – you point at what you see, which can be far off in the distance, within your imagined vision of the words you are singing. 17th-century texts frequently evoke distant mountains or the heavens.

Laszlo identifies Gaze as an indicator of Flow. I hypothesise that control of Gaze can facilitate access into Flow. In discussions at Cambridge, some delegates were concerned that such a Gaze might just be created deliberately: I don’t think this is a problem. “Fake it till you make it” applies – imitating the outward appearance of the Flow-Gaze can be expected to produce the genuine Flow-state within.

Peres’ comment “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often” can be appreciated in the context of Hypnotic Suggestion for confidence, suggesting that the ‘miracle’ of Flow happens more frequently as one gains confidence in it. The comment also makes sense in the context of Deliberate Practice: the harder you practice, the luckier you get. Flow can lift you to the very peak of your ability, but it cannot create abilities you do not have.

The Gaze analysis of footballers supports a finding in Matthew Syed’s Bounce [here] that elite sports performance is not necessarily associated with fast physical reactions, but rather with very fast subconscious processing of information coming in from visual observation. That visual observation is facilitated by rapid, accurate, but subconsciously directed eye movements. All this fits perfectly within the Griffin model of dreaming and the REM-state (Rapid Eye Movement). Eye Movement is another route into hypnotic trance (see Richard Nongard’s “butterfly” rapid induction here). I hypothesise that REM is not only an indicator of Flow in elite performance, but could be a gateway into such Flow 

Laszlo talks about “letting go” in order to enter the Flow-state for performance. I think this is a crucial building block for a better understanding of how Flow differs between training/practice and performance. At Scoil 2014 I deliberately asked students to ‘change gear’, to ‘let go’ as they transitioned from establishing technical skills with detailed slow practice into full-speed trials of the new skill. I combined this with deliberate re-direction of Gaze, in order to enter a particular Flow-state for the full-speed trial. I used the imagery of a young bird learning to fly: flap the wings slowly, learn how they work; then jump off and fly. In this context, Yoda’s advice also holds good:

Yoda do or do not

Conscious doubt of whether or not one can succeed is a strong inhibitor of the subconscious Flow needed for that success.

I like Laszlo’s formulation that “The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.” When I was a student at the London Early Music Centre, tenor Edgar Fleet taught me that “Early Music is transparent. The audience can see through to what you are thinking about. If you are thinking about fish-and-chips, that’s what they’ll get. If you are thinking of something more meaningful, they’ll get that instead”. If we think about technique, audiences may appreciate our skill, but their passions will not be moved.

As Laszlo said in his opening remarks, we need to focus on Content and Meaning. I would add that such focus does not ‘distract us from our technique’, rather it helps us ‘let go’, and enter Flow. Let your subconscious handle technique, give your conscious mind something more interesting to think about, communicate better with your audience and also enter Flow. Win-win-win-win!

In private conversations, conference delegates reported to me that Laszlo’s coaching musicians to enter Flow has wonderful effects. I’m sure this is true, and I’m looking forward to reading his book (yep, it’s time to study Hungarian!) And what is the significance of Hungary’s position as a world-leader in pedagogy for Music (Kodaly method) and Fencing?

Other conversations dwelt on Laszlo’s personal conviction that discussion of Flow should include the language of magic. This was resisted by scientifically-minded delegates at the Cambridge conference, and it might not play well for Laszlo in academia generally. But here are my reasons for supporting Laszlo’s position. Flow is not a modern phenomenon, even though it has been named only recently. Our ancestors, right back to the first cave-painters experienced Flow, even if they did not name or analyse what they were experiencing. [More on the REM-state and evolution here] Flow and Hypnotism are clearly related to ancient traditions of folk-magic and shamanism.

Meanwhile, modern practitioners of Hypnosis recognise that different clients require different types of language. The word ‘sleep’ is used less today in Clinical Hypnosis, though it is still highly effective in Rapid Inductions. ‘Hypnosis’ or ‘Trance’ can be used with clients who are confident and comfortable with the idea of being hypnotised. For other clients, it’s better to invite them to a ‘resource state’ or ‘your own special state’. When I work with students on Flow, I take my cue from Ericksonian Hypnosis and adapt my vocabulary to match the student’s preferred language.  For an Early Music fan, I’ll talk about musica mondana and musica humana; for a new-age enthusiast, I’ll rephrase this in terms of Cosmic Harmony. For the nerd (yes, there are some Early Music nerds!), the Star Wars ‘Force’ may be the best metaphor. The Celtic Otherworld or Shamanism could be very powerful metaphors for someone who responds to such imagery. For someone with a science background, the metaphor of a computer, with its memory banks, operating system, keyboard inputs and background functions can be helpful.

From an Ericksonian perspective, it is the client/student, not the therapist/teacher, who chooses the vocabulary. From a historical perspective, ancient beliefs in music and magic are indeed related to the modern experience of music and Flow.  From my own, practical point of view, I’d recommend widening the vocabulary as much as possible, so as to offer Flow to students from all kinds of backgrounds. “Accept and utilise” is the Ericksonian mantra.

Thinking of the Historical priority that privileges the audience over the performer (in contrast to the 19th-century glorification of the ‘artistic genius’ and ‘expressive performer’), I raised the question at the Cambridge conference: is there any correlation between the Performer being in Flow, and audience members having a Strong Experience (shivers down your spine, the tingle factor, those powerfully emotional reactions to music)? The research project I’ve now begun on The Theatre of Dreams: Operatic Performance as an Early-Modern REM-state Activator assumes that around the year 1600 there was such a correlation, and draws on Ericksonian Hypnotism as an explanation. [More here]


Cambridge Mathematicians Bridge


Andrew Goldman is a PhD student at the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge. In addition to his scholarly research, he is a pianist and composer. Recently, his musical entitled Science! The Musical was premiered in Cambridge.


Andrew Goldman reviewed trends in ethnomusicological and critical research on improvisation, showing how they challenge cognitive-scientific approaches and also how they share certain motivations (such as exploring performers’ creative processes). With specific reference to his own experimental research paradigms working with jazz musicians, he shows how such sensitivity can be an important check on the universalising tendency of scientific theorising, but also a way to demonstrate the broader validity of such scientific theories. This is accomplished through exploring modes of performance in terms of cognitive-scientific theoretical frameworks – such as motor theories of perception – in order to expand the explanatory scope of scientific conclusions beyond a particular musical tradition.

ALK summary

Andrew Goldman showed how daunting a task the serious, cognitive-scientific researcher faces, in attempting to establish solid,  reliable data for such richly complex activities as music-making and improvisation. His carefully designed and executed experiment established that time-delayed Feedback disrupted the performance of jazz pianists significantly more when they were improvising. From this, we can deduce that improvising (whatever that means: for this experiment the pianists were just instructed to improvise, and the results were accepted) is indeed different, and that the difference is somehow related to Feedback and to Time.

ALK comments

I admired this paper precisely because Andrew G’s conclusion was so carefully limited, precise in what it did not attempt to claim. Painstaking and sustained effort was needed to reach even this modest conclusion. This encourages great respect for those who are investigating complex phenomenon within the ‘hard’ scientific disciplines. We do need this check and balance on the tendency to universalise individual experience to general theory. Even if we can discover more, more quickly, through an experiential, phenomenological approach, we must constantly test the assumption that such experiences have any more general significance. A rounded view of complex phenomenon is likely to come about from a multi-disciplinary combination of various approaches, both “hard” and “soft”. [Andrew G tells me that he doesn’t like these labels, but I use them as a convenient shorthand, and with proper respect for both sides].

This paper was not about Flow. But I was interested in the topic of Improvisation anyway. I improvise a lot (in HIP styles) in performance; I direct The Harp Consort, an ensemble renowned for its HIP-improvisation; I’m a teacher of HIP-improvisation and I’m personally convinced that Improvisation is a valuable skill for any musician. Andrew Goldman gives us solid evidence that “improvising” [whatever that means] is “different”.

I suspect that scientific investigation of precisely how Improvisation is “different” will run into similar difficulties as scientific investigation of  Hypnosis, which has a much longer history. Neuroscientific observations of Hypnosis identify the characteristics of the activity happening (hallucinated or suggested under Hypnosis, or actually happening in a normal conscious state) rather than particular characteristics of Hypnosis itself. I suspect we will find the same is true for Flow. But in the face of this serious difficulty, Andrew G has established one clear difference, relating Improvisation [whatever that means] to Feedback. And we know from Csikszentmihalyi that Feedback is related to Flow. I have hypothesised that Improvisation may be related to Flow, and that Improvisation may be a gateway into Flow.

One possible explanation could be that Improvisation requires an Altered State of Consciousness, an inner focus that facilitates the calling up of material either from the memory, or from the imagination, or from the imaginative re-combination of memorised and imagined fragments. In ensemble improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of external information, the material improvised by other musicians. In any improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of the sound of the music one is creating, i.e. with Feedback. Improvising may self-induce a trance. In trance states, Suggestions can have particularly powerful effect. When improvising, it is the sound of this note that Suggests what note might follow. If that Feedback/Suggestion process is disrupted, the effect would be stronger in trance than in normal consciousness.

In one way, that explanation of mine is useless. It replaces one word we can’t define, Improvisation, with another word we can’t define, Hypnosis. In spite of all the years of investigation, there is still no accepted definition of Hypnosis, and no accepted scientific indicator of trance. Just as with Flow, there is a list of typical indicators: if someone experiences enough of these indicators, they are probably in that state. But the benefit of linking Improvisation, Flow and Hypnosis (no doubt there are distinctions to be made, alongside those links) would be that we could take the knowledge of Hypnosis acquired through many decades of practical investigation and scientific study, and quickly apply that knowledge (mutatis  mutandis) to Flow and/or Improvisation.  

Certainly, we should not be ashamed that we don’t really know what Improvisation or Flow is, in the strict scientific sense. In that sense, we don’t yet know what Hypnosis is, but we do know that it works, and that in certain circumstances, it can work magic, wreak miracles. An phenomenological approach might open up ways to extend good experiences of Hypnosis, Improvisation and Flow to the benefit of more people, more often. A ‘hard’ scientific approach can provide necessary balance by searching out chinks in the links, establishing how these related phenomena differ from each other. Ericksonian Hypnosis emphasises how one person’s experience can differ from another’s, and searches for ways to accept and utilise those differences. Can hard science establish what is universal, beyond such individual differences?

water drops

In the meantime, my own experiential investigations into the phenomenology of Flow and the Theatre of Dreams continue. More posts on these subjects soon. In particular, I will propose that Time Distortion effects (much studied in Hypnosis) are crucial to the understanding of two different kinds of Flow, in practice and in performance.

May the FLOW be with you

Please join me on Facebook and visit our website .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

In Memoriam Pat O’Brien: Introduction to Italian Baroque harp

 In Memoriam

Pat O’Brien, lute and guitar guru, was also a charismatic influence on the revival of historical harps. In 1986 he contributed to the pioneering Early Harp conference in Basel, and over the next few years taught at the influential Bremen Harps & Lutes events. He was a founder member of The Harp Consort, appearing in many concerts and on the CDs Luz y Norte, Carolan’s Harp and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. With the New York Continuo Collective he facilitated a creative dialogue between harpists, lutenists and singers. He also taught at the Julliard School.

Most of today’s leading early harpists and lutenists benefitted from Pat’s insightful and authoritative teaching. Many of us are privileged to have known him as a friend, a larger-than-life character whose powerful presence we sadly miss, even whilst the inspiration of his work lives on.

Pat thought a lot about Historical harp technique, and he and I discussed the subject at length over many years. This article owes much to his ideas, and is dedicated to his memory.

Pat O'Brien


Part I: History

This instrument is called in Italian arpa doppia, because it is very large [twice the size of the renaissance ‘gothic’ harps that preceded it], and because it has a low bass compass [as we also say ‘double-bass’, ‘double-bassoon’ for instruments with low bass notes]. It has more than one row of strings, providing strings for chromatic and diatonic notes.

Jacopo Peri

Jacopo Peri with a renaissance harp (1589)


The Barberini harp  (17th century)

The Barberini harp


We see medium-size double-harps in Italy, with two rows of strings, around 1580. The ‘Este’ harp is typical, with the shape of a gothic harp, but rather larger size, and with two rows of strings.

Este harp


In the early 1600s, we see much larger harps with three rows of strings [two diatonic rows, chromatics in the middle row]. These are still called arpa doppia, or sometimes arpa a tre ordini [with three rows].


We do not know the details of the transformation from medium-size & 2 rows to large-size & 3 rows. There is comparable situation with our lack of detailed knowledge of the similar transformation of the renaissance lute to the baroque theorbo, which took place around the same time.

theorbo Confortini

The large 3-row harp was a highly successful design. It, was exported to France, Germany and England. It later interacted with Welsh harps to produce the Anglo-Welsh baroque triple harp [around 1700, more on Welsh harps here].

The primary function of the arpa doppia around 1600 was to accompany, in the new style of continuo. [More on continuo here.] The instrument is designed to play bass, with extreme low bass-notes easily available; and to play harmonies in the tenor/alto register. The playing position is optimised for this function.

In the painting,  Allegory of Music (above), the very large Barberini harp is shown leaning forwards (in contrast to the modern position with the instrument leant backwards). I’ve tried the Barberini position, and I find it plausible. I sometimes use a less extreme version of this position, with the harp leaning forwards just a little: the harp will not fall, because your hands are resting on the soundboard. Most 17th-century paintings show that harp was positioned approximately upright [where it balances], with the player on a chair of normal height.

The player is thus rather low, with the harp high above. If you turn to look at the strings, you will be looking at the “tuning A” [eg A 460/440/415, whatever]. Without turning, your normal focus is on the strings corresponding to the range of the bass-clef – the normal range of baroque bass-lines.

It is easy to reach forward and down with the left hand, to play the extreme bass notes close to the soundboard. It is more difficult to reach up and back with the right hand to play the high treble. This is consistent with the main role of the instrument, to play continuo.

Of course, players did take advantage of the solo possibilities of the arpa doppia. Monteverdi and Trabaci write solos that dramatically exploit the entire compass from d” to GGG, 4½ octaves, sometimes in a single phrase. But the normal 17th-century soprano range remains within the C1 soprano clef [a third below treble clef].

In 18th-century instrumental music, composers often write an octave higher than this. Thus some German 18th-century harps, known as Davidsharfe,  were medium-size with 2 rows [allowing easier access to the high notes]. Italianate triple harps were also played in Germany, and it is not known whether CPE Bach’s Sonata was intended for triple harp, single-action pedal harp, or perhaps even for 2 instruments (one plays the solo, the other realises the continuo). [You can read Mary Oleskiewicz’s article on CPE Bach’s sonatas here Mary Oleskiewicz on CPE Bach. See the first page of her edition here, and consult the complete edition here.]


The 18th-century Anglo-Welsh triple harp is very large, but has a different shape, with very long bass strings, but not extending above the player’s head and shoulders in the treble. Again, this allows easier access to the high notes. [More on Welsh triple harps here.]


Our Italian baroque harp, the 17th-century arpa doppia, is optimised for 17th-century music. It can play very chromatically, but within a narrow range of basic tonalities [a simple piece in a ‘bad’ key is very difficult]. The instrument is designed to play continuo accompaniments, and is also very suitable for 17th-century polyphonic music or for dramatic solos. This is precisely how it was used at the time: this is also the kind of published repertoire that survives.

Agazzari frontispiece

Part II: Technique

The modern binary of Technique/Interpretation is not the best way to consider how to play Early Music. Many teaching books from the baroque period [most famously the three great treatises: Quantz for flute (1752) here, CPE Bach for keyboard (1753 & 1762) here, , Leopold Mozart for violin (1787) here] share a common structure with three or four main sections.

18th-century teaching books

Much of what we would now describe as elementary technique is dealt with very quickly. Hold the instrument like this, play in time (read more about rhythm for Early Music here), and play in tune (for the period of the arpa doppia the default temperament is quarter-comma meantone).

After this short introduction, the first subject to be dealt with at length is Articulation. This means tonguing-syllables for wind instruments, bowing for violin, and fingering for keyboards and harps.  This section therefore links phrasing (especially short-term phrasing) to the basic technique of each instrument.

The second section teaches how to play ornaments (technique), and how to use them (intepretation). Often, certain ornaments are required for the sake of musical ‘grammar’, just as certain words require diacritical marks. What might seem to be a tiny mark, an optional extra, is an essential requirement if you ‘speak the language’ of a particular musical style.

The third section teaches Good Delivery. This is not quite the same as modern Interpretation. There is less emphasis on the performer’s Expression, or on translating the composition into some new form. Rather, the idea is to get the music across to the audience, clearly and effectively. The desired effect is muovere gli affetti to move [the audience’s] passions.

[Read more about How does it feel? A history of heaven, hearts and harps here.]

In this Introduction, I’ll follow the example of those historical teaching books, dealing quickly with the basic playing position, and spending more time considering Articulation, i.e. how musical phrasing (in period style) connects to historical technique (fingering).

2.1 Position

Find the balance-point of the harp, and bring yourself towards the instrument. You will need to sit well forward on the chair. Put your right leg forward, alongside the instrument. Draw your left foot back, so you have easy access to the extreme basses, playing the strings close to the soundboard.

Keep some weight on your feet. You can test this, by seeing if you can stand up without first adjusting your position. Stand up and sit down a few times, until you have found a seated position that still has your feet firmly on the ground.


Charles II, seated in typical 17th century manner. But I have flipped this image horizontally, in order to show the right leg extended, as needed for baroque harp.

Charles II, seated in typical 17th century manner. Note that I have flipped this image horizontally, in order to show the right leg extended, as needed for baroque harp.


For those interested in radical authenticity, you could experiment with having the instrument leaning forwards, held from falling by your hands resting on the soundboard (as we see with the Barberini harp, above.

For anyone coming from modern harp, you might need to remind yourself frequently to re-set the harp upright, since you’ll be used to its leaning backwards.

Your nose will be around the “tuning-A” string. You can easily see the bass-clef register. You can easily reach the extreme low strings. Don’t worry about the high trebles, you won’t need them yet.

It might feel strange to have the instrument ‘so high’: don’t worry! You might find it difficult to focus your eyes on so many strings: don’t look!


You can watch the video here.

Introduction to Italian Baroque harp 1 Position

2.2 Hands – relaxed for delicate control

With the low-tension strings of an early harp, your fingers don’t need strength, as much as smooth relaxation and delicate control. Excess strength will tend to morph into unwanted tension in the hand. So it’s a useful exercise to re-calibrate the strength in your hands, especially if you are coming from higher-tension pedal harp.

gentle hands

You can do the following exercise with real water-bottles, but it’s even more effective if you just imagine the bottles, and let the learning go direct into your subconscious.



water bottles


1. Hold you hands out, palm upwards, and imagine that you are holding two large, 1-litre, plastic bottles, full of water. As the bottles lie horizontally in your hands, wrap your fingers gently around the bottles. Feel the cool touch of the plastic… are there drops of water on it? Use just enough strength to support the bottles.

2. Now pour out half of the water, and then hold the bottles again. Notice how much less effort is needed, now.

3. Now pour out the rest of the water, and hold just the empty bottles. Notice how your hands feel, now.

4. Turn your right hand so that the thumb is uppermost. Let your index finger wrap inwards a little more, and your little finger ease outwards a bit. Bring the middle and ring fingers close to each other.

Your hand will look like this:

Baroque hand

Default hand position from Burnett: The Art of Gesture

This position, with the fingers delicately curved, is the typical shape of a renaissance/baroque hand, that you will see in thousands of period paintings.

Charles II hands

The historical ideal of graceful posture was to have just enough strength in the hand to maintain an elegantly curved shape, but no excess tension. That’s an ideal starting point for historical harp-playing, too.

renaissance hands

Holding you hands out again, palm-up as before, bring your thumb into the palm, aiming towards the base of the little finger. (It varies from person to person how far the thumb wants to go. Just move it as much as is easy and comfortable for you). Then wrap your fingers around your thumb.

This is a basic human movement that we learn as tiny babies. Don’t think of it as a sophisticated “harp technique”, just keep the movement as easy and smooth as possible.

baby hands

As the last stage of this preparatory exercise, try bringing your thumb into your palm, and then wrapping the fingers around it, one by one: index, middle, ring, little. Gently, smoothly. Imagine your hands are moving through honey, not air, so that the movement is slow and sweet, like a slow-motion film.


1… 2… 3… 4… 5

Keep it simple!

2.3 Hands on harp

Place your hands on the harp, with the weight taken on the soundboard. Hold your fingers in a relaxed curve. As you move your fingers, let your hand remain still.

Hands on baroque harp

Place your hands on the harp, close to (but not touching) the strings. Repeat the wrap-around exercise.

This is especially valuable for modern harpists. Your long experience with the modern instrument has taught your hands an automatic response to being placed on a harp, i.e. to use your modern technique. So you have to give yourself time to learn another, different technique. At first, away from the harp; then on the harp, but not yet on the strings.

When you are comfortable with the wrap-around exercise, not touching the strings, take a short break. During a break like this, the learning you have done consciously is transferred to your unconscious mind.

Locking Attention


Now place your hands on the harp again, with your thumb and fingers on adjacent strings. Push gently on the strings, feel the contact. Rest your hand firmly on the soundboard, really take some weight down into the harp.

Now do the wrap-around exercise again, and let some sounds emerge from the strings. Move your fingers slowly. Focus on the smooth, easy movement, not on the resulting sound.

Most likely, the sound will be pleasant, but rather soft. To get more sound, apply more pressure on the strings, but keep the finger-movement slow.

To improve your sound, apply even more pressure, but keep the finger-movement slow. Let your fingers move through the complete range of movement, slowly. Don’t explode off the string: let your finger (or thumb) move slowly and smoothly.

More pressure. And slower. 

2.4 On the strings

It’s important to position your fingers accurately on the strings. The position is different from that for modern harp.

Place your fingers on the strings, not behind the strings. Your fingers are on the strings, and as you play, they slide across the strings. They slide slowly, with smooth pressure. The secret is to find this controlled sliding, like a violin bow sliding across the strings with enough pressure to make a sound, and with slow speed to sustain the sound.

Your fingers are on the strings applying pressure, not behind the strings and pulling. Here is an easy test for the correct finger-position:

1. Place your fingers on the strings in your best historical-harp position.

2. Push on the strings. Push firmly, and observe what happens.

If your fingers are correctly placed on the strings, you will be able to push the entire harp sideways.

If your fingers are behind the strings, when you push strongly, your fingers will slip between the strings. Whoops! Use this feedback to adjust your finger-position, and try again.

To begin with, you will need to remind yourself frequently of the basics:

  1. Rest your hands on the harp.
  2. Keep your hands still whilst your fingers move.
  3. Fingers on the strings, not behind.
  4. Slow, and with pressure.

Where does all this come from? It’s a mixture of historical information, information from historical keyboard & lute-playing (many ideas from Pat O’ Brien), and my personal experience. Period paintings and study of historical gesture shows us basic positions; lute-playing shows how to be on the string (it’s the only way to play both strings of a double course simultaneously); period violin technique shows the importance of slow, smooth pressure; keyboard, harp and lute techniques show us how to relate finger-movements to the period principle of Good and Bad notes.

2.5 Fingering

Now that you can move the fingers well, which finger should you use for which note? Period fingering systems copy the patterns of speech, so that you can play your Italian harp with an Italian accent.

Around the year 1600, Italian texts have mostly two- or three-syllable words, with a characteristic pattern of accented/unaccented syllables. The historical terms for these syllables are Good and Bad (or sometimes, Long and Short). When composers set such texts, they put a Good note on each Good syllable.

Articulation Good & Bad syllables

[You can read more about historical articulation, The Good, the Bad & the Early Music Phrase here.]

For Italian harp, thumb and middle finger are good. Index finger is bad. Patterns of two or three fingers are usually sufficient for melodies, corresponding to the two or three syllables of the most frequently encountered words.

Period melodies often move stepwise (a jump might indicate the separation between one phrase and the next). So it’s useful to practise the basic fingering for scales:

Upwards: 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 ….. and 1 at the top.

Downwards: 1 2 1 2 1 2 ….. and 3 at the bottom. Pass the thumb underneath the fingers.

A good exercise is to play a scale up and down across and octave and one note. Listen for the characteristic sound of Good & Bad notes, like Frank Sinatra’s dooby-dooby-doo.

Helpful Hints:

On the upward scale, place two fingers (3 & 2), play two notes (with your hand still), now slide your hand, and only then replace your fingers on the next two strings. Don’t let your fingers “look for the strings”. Rather, let your hand slide up the harp just the correct distance, so that when you put your fingers onto the strings again, they are in exactly the right place.

On the downward scale, let your thumb move directly from playing one string to resting on its next string (i.e. thumb jumps down a third). The index plays after your thumb has already crossed underneath. This disadvantages the index finger, helping to produce the Bad effect that we want. To keep your hand in contact with the soundboard, you need to slide your index finger down the string (towards the soundboard) as you go along.

When you come to a chromatic note, you might need to adjust the fingering. Often 2, or thumb, will be needed, regardless of the good/bad rule. Get back to good/bad as soon as you can.

E.g. D major ascending: 32 2(f#)2 32 2(c#)2

Period Principles

The principles of historic fingering are very simple.

  1. Put a Good finger on a Good note, a Bad finger on a Bad note. (If you are not sure about the notes, sing the melody Frank Sinatra-style, to dooby-dooby-doo. The doo is Good, the by is Bad. If you are still uncertain, try to reverse the Sinatra syllables: you’ll quickly convince yourself which way round is best.)
  2. Obey this principle, even when it makes the fingering complicated or awkward. Difficult fingering is better than bad phrasing!
  3. If you have a piece of stepwise movement, go up with 3 2 and down with 1 2. 
  4. When choosing between 1 or 3, put any movement of the hand where you logically want a jump or break in the music. Fingering and phrasing are totally united.

Chromatic notes

To reach a chromatic note in the inner row with the thumb, push the lower adjacent diatonic note aside and lean your thumb on this string whilst you play the chromatic. The thumb ends up hooked around this diatonic string.


E.g. to play F# with the thumb, push aside and lean on the F-natural, play F#, end up hooked around F-natural.


To reach a chromatic note in the inner row with a finger, push the upper adjacent diatonic note aside and lean your finger on this string whilst you play the chromatic. The finger ends up hooked around this diatonic string.


E.g. to play F# with a finger, push aside and lean on the G, play F#, end up hooked around G.


You cannot lift your hands up and away from the harp at the end of the note: your thumb or finger is still hooked around a string! This necessity confirms the ‘hands on the harp’ position we notice in period paintings, and which we studied earlier.

The secret to playing the chromatic notes confidently, accurately, without extraneous noises, and with a good sound, is that you leave the finger or thumb hooked into the middle row, after sounding the string.

And of course, Slow. With smooth Pressure. And your hands stay still, resting on the harp.

It’s a useful exercise to practise scales in difficult keys, and also chromatic scales.


It is difficult at first to coordinate the finger-movements when some notes of the chord are chromatic, others diatonic. Practise each note in turn to perfect the movement, before trying to synchronise the whole chord.

Try all the major and minor triads, in both friendly and un-friendly tonalities!

See the video on basic technique – fingering, chromatics, chords – here.

Introduction to Italian Baroque harp 2 Basic Technique

For a normal “good-note” chord, arpeggiate in both hands approximately simultaneously. Play “bad-note” chords unarpeggiated.

For a long arpeggio, play a low-octave bass note alone, then arpeggiate left hand then right. Play the bass-note on the beat (not before).

Continuo-playing requires sophisticated use of chord and arpeggios – this is just a beginning.


The first step is to learn good positions for the basic major and minor chords. Here are some guide-lines:


  • Third at the top, and/or doubled sounds good
  • Compact position (hands not separated, perhaps even overlapping) is good
  • Treat “tuning-A” as the upper limit for chords
  • Don’t use thirds in the bass below tenor-C, they are too ‘growly’
  • Try for big chords, at least 3 or 4 notes in each hand.


Introduction to continuo for Italian harp 1 Good & Bad

More about Continuo in a later posting, and forthcoming video series.



Two tunings were in general use in the 17th-century: with Bb in the diatonic row [historically more common] and with B-natural [my own usual tuning]. Scordatura was frequently used.

ALK with Rainer Thurau's "Zampieri" Italian baroque harp

ALK with Rainer Thurau’s “Zampieri” Italian baroque harp


On my harp, the ‘extra black notes’ between E & F and between B & C are used for enharmonics. This is typical of 17th-century practice: in the 16th century, these strings were tuned to important notes like D and A, for additional resonance.


The standard tuning of my harp is (from the bass upwards):


Left hand row:

FFF GGG AAA BBBb CC DD EE FF GG AA BB          etc       to g’


Middle row:

CC# EEb DD# FF# GG# BBb AA# C# Eb D# F# G# Bb A# c#     etc       to c”#


Right hand row:

FF GG AA BB C D E F G A B c d e f g a                                               etc       to c” d” eb

I keep my harp in quarter-comma meantone (details in another posting)

Pat O'Brien, ALK & other founder-members of The Harp Consort, at the recording sessions of Luz y Norte in 1994.

Pat O’Brien, ALK & other founder-members of The Harp Consort, at the recording sessions of Luz y Norte in 1994.


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Historical technique for Early Irish Harps

As interest in and knowledge about Historical Irish Harps (aka Early Gaelic Harps) grows, as well-made and fine-sounding instruments become increasingly available, as insights into historical styles and period aesthetics are sharpened and shared, it’s high time to consider how we might recover historical playing techniques. We have a good model of how to do this work of re-discovery in the revival of period techniques for other historical instruments: harpsichord, viola da gamba, recorder, baroque violin and European Early Harps. The modern revival of those early instruments has many decades more experience than we have with Early Irish harps, so we would be wise to take whatever we can from the hard work they already put in. As Isaac Newton wrote in 1676, we can see further “by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Where to look?

So what sources of information are available to us?

  1. Period information specifically related to the Early Irish Harp (music including technical instructions, treatises with technical information, iconography etc)
  2. Other sources of period information (other harps, similar instruments, other instruments and voice, literature etc)
  3. Personal experience of modern experts

We need to synthesise all the available information, examining each source for its merits, and weighing one piece of evidence against another. Apparent contradictions should alert us to the need for further investigation, and/or reconsideration. And – most importantly – our approach should prioritise those various sources of information in the order I’ve given.

For example, whatever opinions you might read in my blog are less significant than hard information you find in historical sources. Doh! Of course! And the same goes for any modern writer’s (or musician’s) opinions. So the challenge goes out to everyone, anyone with any interest in the subject, to find pieces of evidence that might challenge the accepted view. After all, knowledge only advances when someone dares to challenge what the previous authorities declared as indubitable fact!

Galileo and the Philosophers

Galileo and the Philosophers

What can we expect to see?

So as we put this evidence-based approach to work, what can we expect to see? The revival of other early instruments shows us that

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence


That last point is especially important. Within the same period, we do see significant differences in techniques from one place to another. These differences do not respect national boundaries, but are associated with shared aesthetics, cultural communication. So in the late 17th century, the musical aesthetics of the French style influenced many other countries: in Ireland, Carolan wrote Minuets. Technical methods followed the same routes as the aesthetic styles – if you want to play in French style, you’ll need French technique. Thus Muffat’s comments (in Florilegium, 1698, available, but not free, here) on the violin style of Lully made French violin technique available to musicians in the German-speaking countries who wanted to play in the French style.

Meanwhile Italian musicians brought Italian violin technique to Germany, too. By the mid-18th century, violin technique in Germany was a complex mix of French and Italian influences, described in detail in Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1787) here.

Similarly, Carolan’s contemporaries noticed how he brought the fashionable early 18th-century Italian style into his music. We can clearly trace in 18th-century Scots and Irish music three schools of influence: an ancient layer of Gaelic tradition (most visible in the gapped scales and characteristic ornaments); a 17th-century layer of French style (especially dance rhythms); a surface layer of Italian fashion (virtuosity and drama).

Available Evidence

So keeping in mind the principles of Where to Look and the guide of What we can Expect to See, what can we observe about period techniques for Early Irish Harps?

1a Music

There is very little (if any) music, let alone music annotated with technical instructions, for historical Irish Harp, that survives as a reliable indication of how the old harpers actually played.. Much of the repertoire remained in the aural tradition for centuries, and most of the publications of harp music were intended (and therefore, we may presume, adapted) for other instruments. Around 1800, Bunting includes some technical instructions in his published arrangements, but the technical information has to be assessed carefully since the music itself is heavily adapted. Luckily, we also have Bunting’s MS notebooks, which record the various stages of his work from field recording (noting down a tune as sung, played on fiddle, or played on the harp) through the process of adaptation and arrangement to the final published version. These notebooks include a few hints on technique, but fall way short of what we might wish for (detailed fingerings for an entire tune, for example). 18th-century prints are also one step removed from the harp itself, and do not include technical information. We find harp music in 17th-century lute tablatures, but these supply very little technical information.

1b Treatises

We don’t have Carolan’s Recipe for the Harp, more’s the pity! In fact, we have almost no period technical information for historical Irish Harp. Bunting’s publications and note-books give us some information on treble-hand ornaments and bass-hand chords.

What we do have is an 18th-century tradition of the first tunes that were taught to students of the Irish harp. Simon Chadwick discusses three such tunes and gives his suggestions for a technical approach in his book Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, read more here.

Chadwick Progressive Lessons

You can see Bunting’s manuscript sketch of the Second Tune Burns March here  (The crossing out is Bunting’s mark that he has transferred the material to the next stage of adaptation and arrangement).

Burns March Bunting MS


The final arrangement for pianoforte is in his 1809 publication.



Burns March Bunting 1809

Comparing these two versions, there is plenty of room for speculation and debate as to which elements of detail seen in the final publication are genuine memories of Denis O’Hampsey’s performance on Irish harp, and which are Bunting’s own adaptations for a pianoforte publication. For example, the published version suggests how the notes might be divided between the two hands, and gives a lot of information about sustained and damped notes, all of which is consistent with other information this period. But the pianoforte arrangement also features extreme dynamics and rallentando, which contradict the information Bunting himself provides, that the old harpers played “briskly” and avoided the “sentimentality” of the 19th-century pianoforte style. However, the publication’s over-dotting of the long notes in bars one and two, and the slur indication, both serve to emphasise the difference between long/resonant and short/damped. This  is consistent with the principle of Good and Bad notes that we find throughout European music in the three centuries or more before 1800 (see below).

But we don’t know what kind of fingering system was used. Simon Chadwick’s realisation has something of medieval Ap Huw, something of 20th-century Crossed Hands. It does not look like the Good/Bad fingerings we see for many European instruments in the 16th/17th centuries, nor like the 18th-century approach we see in European treatises (German Essays and French Methods). With Simon’s book, as with Bunting’s output, the reader must decide for themselves how to separate historical information from editorial adaptation. With all due academic propriety, Simon makes your task easier, by giving you access to Bunting’s versions so that you can make your own comparison.

The fact that we know what were the First Tunes to be learnt in the early 18th century is a wonderful piece of information. Unfortunately, any modern interpretation of that information is working at several removes from what the old harpists actually played. We should synthesise the information hinted at in these First Tunes with what we know more surely from other sources.

1c Iconography

There are lots of period images, which give us plenty of suggestions for the basic posture, position of the hands etc. Surviving instruments also preserve signs of wear and tear, indicating how they were used by historical players.



Carolan with small harp

2a Other Early Harps

We have a lot of period information and modern expertise to draw on. The ‘schools of influence’ concept can help us apply French and Italian techniques to Irish harp.

2b Related Early Instruments

We have a huge amount of period information and modern expertise to draw on. We can learn from historical Irish pipers and fiddlers. And we can learn from all the European instruments and voice treatises. If we look for the common ground, we can see strong consistent messages from all these sources, that we can confidently apply to Irish harp.

2c Other period sources

We have Irish texts to show us the characteristic phrasing of Irish song melodies. We can learn from any musical instrument, and from period literature and philosophy. There is a bottomless well of period information from Ireland and the rest of Europe, all of which we might usefully examine for possible relevance to Irish harp technique.

3 Modern expertise

If there is a current consensus, it is based largely on modern expertise. This is a valuable source of shared knowledge, but we must bear in mind that 20th-century wire-strung techniques were developed to play the repertoire as it was understood in the 20th century, in the way it was played in the 20th century, with the instruments that were available in the 20th century. Modern wire-strung technique therefore focuses on how to play the jigs and reels of modern tradition; how to play fast and loud in the modern manner; how to play evenly and smoothly in the modern style; how to control the excessive treble resonance of 20th-century steel-strung harps.

Coupled hands Heymann

Ann Heymann’s (2001) Coupled Hands technique makes it easier to play wide-ranging fast tunes by using both hands for the melody. It is available here.


Intro to wire-strung harp

This modern tutor, edited by Bill Taylor and Barnaby Brown, features contributions from Ann Heymann, Javier Sanz and Bill Taylor, and is available here.

Weighing the evidence

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

20th-century techniques evolved to deal with particular challenges. Historical techniques evolved to deal with different challenges: how to play the historical repertoire of a particular period; with the slow steady beat of historical Tactus; with the short-term phrasing contrasts of period style; how to create the rich bass resonance that was so admired from the middle ages onwards, on thick brass strings.

Therefore, we can confidently expect that period techniques for historical Irish Harps will be quite different from 20th-century wire-strung methods.

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

This makes our task with the Irish Harp even more complex. We have so little information, and the information we do have is from around 1800. When we look at the music itself, we see that music from Carolan’s time changed considerably as it was passed around by aural transmission during the 18th century. During the 1840s, William Forde collected many variants of older tunes, and some of these variants show extreme differences. More about the Forde MS here. During the 18th century, the old nail-technique was almost entirely abandoned.

We must assume that period techniques changed, in line with the music itself. Parallel changes in techniques for other harps, for other instruments, and the changing demands of the music can suggest what changes might have happened when.

Nevertheless, there are certain fundamental principles that are common to a wide range of early techniques (various instruments across a wide chronological period). It is reasonable to apply these fundamental principles of early techniques to Irish harp. And frankly, given the lack of other evidence, we have no alternative!

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

This encourages us to seek out those fundamental principles, and apply them.

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence

So we can look for help for the Irish harp from 15th/16th-century Welsh traditions (e.g. Ap Huw MS, read more here); from 17th-century French sources; from mid-18th-century German sources that describe the ‘international’ mix of Italian and French styles, from late 18th-century French sources that describe the harp techniques brought to England and Ireland around 1800.

These patterns of influence suggest strong parallels between the chronological development of Irish harp techniques and the big story of technical changes in Europe for all kinds of instruments.

All this encourages us to examine the fundamental principles of historical techniques (for any instrument, anywhere in Europe), and experiment with how to apply them to historical Irish harps, playing historical repertoire in a historical style.

Here are some provisional pointers.


Period images show us that

  • The player sits with one leg more extended than the other
  • The harp is positioned with the top of the box more-or-less under the player’s chin.
  • The hands rest on the soundbox

All this is consistent with period posture when sitting in any situation, and with the wear-marks from the player’s hands resting on the soundbox of the 15th-century Trinity harp.

My personal experience is that it helps to rest the hands on the soundbox firmly: this allows the fingers to be relaxed and move freely. I counterbalance the pressure of a finger on a string with increased pressure of the hand on the soundbox. This passes the physical sensation of playing down through the body in a chain of actions/reactions, finger on string, hand on harp, harp on shoulder, shoulders supported by spine, sitting well-balanced on the chair, sensing the connection to the floor in your feet. This proprioceptive chain creates the sensation that you play a note with your entire body, and that you are simultaneously balanced, centred and connected to the earth.


Which hand to use?

  • One hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass.
  • The hands are usually widely separated.
  • The left hand plays the treble.

Images and surviving music support the historical division of roles between the hands – one hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass. This is consistent from Ap Huw to Bunting. Bunting mentions hand-crossing as a special effect, used very sparingly. This is consistent with techniques for other harps and keyboards in this period.

There is no historical support for, and considerable period evidence to contradict, the 20th-century technique of  Crossed (Linked or Coupled) hands. That is a modern technique, evolved to deal with the modern challenge of playing the modern repertoire in the modern style.

For the Irish harp, period sources show a strong preference for left hand in the treble, right hand in the bass. Modern players may have good reasons for preferring right hand in the treble. This is a matter of personal choice, it makes no difference to the sound (if you set up your instrument in accordance with your choice of treble hand). The days are long past, when we thought it was acceptable to force people to change their natural handedness.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

See my video lesson 1: Position here.

Introduction to Early Irish harp 1 Position

How to move your fingers

Accumulated experience and period evidence for other early instruments teaches us

  • The hand is relaxed, with the fingers and thumb gently curved
  • The fingers rest on the strings and ‘slide’ across the strings, rather than ‘pulling’ or ‘plucking’ from behind the strings
  • The finger-stroke is slow
  • There is a wide range of movement for a long note, a small movement for a short note
  • Increased volume comes from pressure on the string, not from speed of movement.
  • The movement is similar to giving a shoulder rub, to massaging the scalp when washing your hair, to kneading dough for bread-making

These fundamentals are common to any instrument with low tension strings. There is no significant difference whether one plays with fingertips or with nails. However, there is a historical change around 1800, as string tension increases greatly and the period aesthetic moves away from Rhetoric to 19th-century Romanticism.

These fundamentals are very different from the technique of modern classical (or modern ‘Celtic’) harp. 20th-century instruments are different, 20th-century aesthetics are different: it is to be expected that 20th-century techniques will also be different.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 2 Finger-movement

Which finger to use

This is the element of technique that changed the most, as we see from parallel developments in European harps and related instruments.

Across a wide period, and across many different instruments, teaching books have a consistent structure. More about period teaching books, here. There is a short introduction, which could be summarised as “hold the instrument this way up, this is where the notes are, play in tune, play in time”. Then the book considers three main topics:

  1. Short-term phrasing (what early musicians call Articulation). This is created by  tonguing patterns for flutes, bowing rules for violins, and fingerings for harps, keyboards etc. More about phrasing here.
  2.  Ornamentation (more about Irish harp ornaments here)
  3. Good Delivery (period style, what modern musicians would call Interpretation)

Some books have a fourth section, about Accompaniment. (Continuo, in the baroque period).

The short-term phrasing patterns of Articulation change, and the fingering/tonguing/bowing techniques change accordingly, during the period of the Early Irish harp.


If medieval Irish harp-playing was similar to the Welsh styles we see in the Ap Huw MS (more about Ap Huw here), then the music was ornamental, rather than melodic/syllabic. Finger patterns were evolved to produce crisp ornaments, that could be played fast and with certain notes damped for the sake of clarity. The hand is fairly static. We see the remnants of this technical approach in the ornament fingerings given by Bunting.

Just as “classical” early Irish poetry is not constructed according to the accentual metres of European poetry (and Carolan’s easy-listening song lyrics), so the medieval technique of the Ap Huw style does not correspond to the Good/Bad notes principle of later music.

Renaissance & Early Baroque

16th and 17th music has melodies that relate closely to song-melodies. The tunes are therefore syllabic (you can set a text to the tune, with one, two or more notes to each syllable). Just as period poetry has accented and unaccented syllables, so early music has Good and Bad notes, which are played with Good and Bad fingers.  The rule is simple, a Good finger for a Good note, a Bad finger for a Bad note.

The question, which finger is which? Different techniques (various instruments, various periods, various places) make different choices: we may conclude that it doesn’t so much matter which choice you make, but it does matter to make some choice). I speculate that earlier Irish harp techniques might have concentrated on three fingers (index Good, middle Bad, ring Good) with the thumb kept for ornaments. Later Irish harp techniques were probably similar to European harps (thumb Good, index Bad, middle Good).

European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard cross the thumb under the fingers. Irish harps were played with the hands close to the soundboard.

Melodies in this period tend to move step-wise, with little fragments of scales upwards and downwards. European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard go upwards 32 32 32 and downwards 12 12 12. This works well on Irish harps, remembering that many intervals of a third are not true “jumps” but rather Gaelic gapped scales.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 3 Good & Bad

Late Baroque and Classical

There is a significant change in aesthetic and techniques during the 18th century, which is clearly established by the time of the three great mid-century treatises: Quantz for flute (1752) here, CPE Bach for keyboard (1753 & 1762) here, , Leopold Mozart for violin (1787) here. The same approach is seen in late 18th-century French harp treatises, read more here.

European 18th-century harp technique works very well for 18th-century Irish music on historical Irish harp.

This was the period during which Irish harpists abandoned use of fingernails. Playing with nails in the older tradition, I find it easier to play thumb-under. If you play with the finger pads as was the incoming fashion, you might well use the thumb-over position described in the late-century French sources.

My advice to students about thumb-under/thumb-over is that it doesn’t really matter much which you use. But you really need to choose: if your thumb can’t decide whether to go over or under, and ends up striking against the index finger, the result is disastrous! Just choose.

Late 18th-century fingerings stretch out the hand to help cover wide-ranging tunes and bigger leaps. The fourth, even fifth, finger comes into use. These fingerings respond to the challenges of the 18th-century repertoire, and I find that they work even for the jigs and reels of the later tradition.

These fingering are convenient to use, they make difficult melodies possible. But they do not create the Good/Bad phrasing, that is still part of the style even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you use this kind of technique, you have to create the Good and Bad notes for yourself. The three great treatises make it clear that the concept of Good & Bad notes still applies, even during the later 18th century when the technical methods have moved on.

Meyer title page001


ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 4 18th-century fingerings


Which technique shall I learn?

My advice would be:

  • If you have the time and patience, learn the appropriate technique for the period of the music you are playing.
  • The best way to sensitise your ears to the sound of Good/Bad phrasing is to experiment with the 16th/17th century Good/Bad fingerings.
  • If you are going to learn just one technique for Historical Irish Harps, learn the late-18th century French technique, here.


ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 5 Comparing fingerings circa 1700


Helpful Hints

Don’t worry about left-hand treble or right-hand treble. Just choose.

Don’t worry about thumb-under or thumb-over. Just choose.

Don’t worry too much about damping. Play Good and Bad notes, and listen. Damp anything that continues to annoy you!

20th-century wire-strung methods have instilled a terror of resonance, and an instinct to damp everything. This results in a negative mind-set, where the rich resonance of the historical Irish harp is choked, and players are inhibited from creating any sound at all. Learn to love that wonderful deep bass, thick brass, resonance. Make your melodies as clear as they need to be with selective damping, but let your harp’s voice be heard.

Thinking too much about damping is like driving with one foot on the accelerator, the other foot on the brake. You won’t get anywhere. The resultant sound is rather like John Major’s infamous locked throat voice-production (have a good laugh, here)

More about selective damping, in a later post.

Meanwhile, if you have some historical evidence to add to this, or contradict my suggestions, I would love to hear your comments!



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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Accessing Super-Creativity: May the FLOW be with you!


May the FLOW be with you

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as Flow. It’s being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; somehow, Time seems to slow down, so that you can effortlessly take in all the incoming information, calmly make an elegant decision, and execute your response perfectly; your artistic intentions and your physical actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated, yet somehow also calm.

Flow notes

It’s a great feeling, and it is the ability to find Flow just when it matters most that makes the crucial difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman, and one who is merely average. But when Flow is blocked by performance anxiety, ‘stage-fright’ for actors or musicians, ‘choking’ for sportsmen, the effect can be devastating. Under the blocking conditions of high pressure and no Flow, elite performers find themselves unable to carry out basic techniques, experienced airline pilots make elementary, disastrous errors; international sportsmen’s competence plunges to rock-bottom. Just think of the Brazil football team in the World Cup semifinal: something happened to disrupt the Flow of their previous performances, and they crashed into incompetence and embarrassing defeat.

Brazil world cup defeat

But Flow is not only for elite perfomers. Accessing Flow can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities, so that we perform at our very best, ‘better than we know’. Flow is the ideal state not only for high performance, but also for the most effective learning. Flow seems to access something beyond the ‘here and now’, and may also be communicable between members of a team, between performers and audience. Perhaps the Star Wars metaphor of a mysterious Force uniting us all is not so far-fetched.

Access Flow you can

I suggest that in many disciplines we could teach Flow from the very first lessons, allowing students to make faster, deeper and more satisfying progress. Not just (for classical musicians) Technique and Interpretation or (for sportsmen) techniques and tactics, but (for anyone) how to get into Flow at whatever level of technical competence and interpretative insight.


There is exciting work already in progress about teaching Flow to musicians, some of which was discussed in a flurry of papers at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge Univeristy. Lazlo Stacho (Liszt Academy, Budapest) is developing exercises to help classical musicians enter Flow. Marcus Araujo (University of Aveiro) is measuring whether or not musicians are indeed experiencing Flow, according to criteria based on Csikszentmihalyi’s work. In a properly cautious initial study, Andrew Goldman (Centre for Music & Science, Cambridge) has established measurable differences in cognitive processes when musicians are instructed to ‘improvise’.  Henrice Vonk is looking at Flow and Mindfulness.  I’ll summarise and comment on these CMPCP papers in a future post.

Zampieri eyes

 Elsewhere, Frank Heckman is working with Flow with both elite sportsmen and music students in the Netherlands. In Bremen, violinist and psychotherapist Andreas Burzik works on Flow for orchestral musicians, drawing parallels for businessmen. I’ll comment on Burzik’s approach in another future post.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My own research for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions investigates Flow as an Altered State of Consciousness, within Joe Griffin’s model of the REM-state. Read more about Griffin’s Dream Theory here.


My aim is to build on existing work, and on my own personal experience of Flow as an elite performer (music), competent practitioner (sailing, a favourite example of Czikszentmihalyi’s) and elementary student (fencing), in order to develop exercises, teaching techniques, training conditions and rehearsal methodologies that facilitate entry into Flow.

My approach is therefore experiential, phenomenological and practical. Ethical considerations dictate that my first experiments are personal: observing, tweaking and testing my own experiences of Flow. When I’m teaching Flow to students, concern for their progress must outweigh the demands of pure research. My practical purpose is to help them access Flow. I can observe and monitor their work, and/or ask them to self-report on their personal experience, only in so far as this does not negatively impact their learning.

How far might that be? Lack of (negative) self-consciousness is one of the characteristics of the Flow state. This should serve to warn us that awareness of being observed will tend to work against Flow. We should expect to find the Observer Effect (familiar from quantum physics) at work: attempts to observe and measure sensitive processes will certainly effect the process itself, and that effect will probably be negative. In the worst case, trying to observe Flow (perhaps with an elementary student), might disrupt the Flow state we are trying to access and observe.

Schrodingers Cat

Neuroscience offers some fascinating data, and some understandings that can be applied to this search for Flow. But in the search for descriptions, explanations and recommendations that can be meaningful for students, metaphors and physical processes are likely to be more useful than neuroscience. It is more effective to ask a student to “focus inward” (a metaphor) or to “notice whether you have more weight on the right foot, or on the left” (directing attention to a physical process), than to “de-activate the anterior cingulate”, even if all three instructions are in some way equivalent, associated with switching conscious awareness away from externals.


Another difficulty with a ‘hard science’ approach is that playing music, let alone finding Flow whilst playing music, is a complex activity full of rich detail. Reducing the experience to one variable may not be possible, or may be so distorting that any observations are invalid. It must be assumed that the music, one’s emotions and Flow itself will be affected by the intrusion of measuring equipment and the implied presence of an Observer.

Observer Effect

Looking for pathways into Flow, we first need to explore the territory, see the forest not the trees. Putting individual leaves under the microscope can come later, when we have learnt by experience and practice how to navigate the zone confidently.

A good parallel might be the scientific investigation of Hypnosis in the last half-century, where the phenomenological approach has led the way. Clinicians have discovered what works – experientially and practically – for them and for their clients, blazing a trail along which empirical verification and neuroscientific measurement can follow. Indeed the experience of Flow seems to have much in common with (self) hypnosis, and this will be one of the main lines of my enquiry.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My idea is to unite Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow with Ericksonian Hypnosis and Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice (the importance of many hours of effective practice, rather than innate talent, in creating elite performance), all within the framework of Griffin’s work on the REM-state. I am confident that this will offer a better understanding of the experience of Flow, improved success in accessing Flow, and greater efficacy in practice and performance. Watch out for more posts on Flow, soon.

Locking Attention

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.