Imaginary bodies in piano performance


Anna Ramstedt

Anna Ramstedt has an MA from musicology (University of Helsinki) and is also a pianist (M.Mus. from the University of Arts in Helsinki). This essay is based on her master’s thesis (University of Helsinki) written in 2018. The thesis is available online (in Finnish).


“Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, we are historical beings whose language, stock of images and social practices constitute an unconscious dimension of our social heritage.” (Moira Gatens, 1996/2003: xi)

The journey to become a professional pianist in the field of Western classical music is long and laborious. The practice usually starts before the age of ten, and unlike many other hobbies the student receives individual tuition – which provides the teacher the opportunity to focus on the student’s own strengths and challenges. The goal in the beginning is to motivate the child to be creative via music and experiment with the limits of their mind and body in a safe environment. In addition, the aim is to acquire the skills required to produce the written music as sound. Along with technical skill development, years of musical education encourages the pianist to seek freedom of expression through music, though within the limits of the performance practice of the musical style in question.

The western classical pianist’s repertoire consists predominantly of works composed in the period from the early 18th century to the mid-20th century. As a result, the pianist spends years acquiring skills and knowledge in order to express herself through music that has been composed in societies under very different social structures than those of today. One such aspect is related to gender; it is actually noteworthy that the established repertoire consists virtually solely of works composed by (white) male composers. Moreover, from the feminist viewpoint piano performance has a troubled past, as performance ideals and repertoire were largely divided by (binary) gender ideals. As Lucy Green points out, the keyboard instruments played “a major part in the image of the accomplished young lady in the eighteenth and nineteenth century” (1993: 59).

Even though the keyboard instruments’ seated position of playing per se contributed to the feminine decorum, it was not until the nineteenth century that the pianists’ repertoire began to do so (DeNora 2002: 28–32). Tia DeNora (2002: 31–32) argues that it was the development of the instrument technology that caused the piano repertoire to be divided by gendered aesthetics. Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the first composers taking advantage of the instrument’s new possibilities. Consequently Beethoven’s music’s extreme contrasts in dynamics, tempo and mood became progressively difficult for a pianist to perform without breaking the aristocratic corporeality and the existing notions of feminine decorum. (DeNora 2002: 29–32.) Moreover, his works opposed the quiet, unobtrusive performing body that was associated with the pianistic femininity. (DeNora, 2002: 29). Subsequently DeNora (2002: 30) states that “’forceful’ compositions and virtuosic flamboyance came to be associated with male musical workers”. Furthermore, DeNora (2002: 31–32) argues that the circumstances and surroundings of the musical performances became to both reflect and construct (gendered) structures of social life in the nineteenth century.

The notion of unconscious dimensions of social heritage is central to philosopher and feminist theorist Moira Gatens’s work. She describes this notion as “the (often unconscious) imaginaries of a specific culture: those ready-made images and symbols through which we make sense of social bodies and which determine, in part, their value, their status and what will be deemed their appropriate treatment” (Gatens 2003: 43). This intersection between history, present and that of gender has troubled me as a musicologist and a pianist. Bearing in mind Gatens’s (2003) notion of unconscious dimensions of social heritage, I want to explore in this article how gender is constructed and reflected through piano performance considering – as I will later discuss – that the performance ideals of piano are from the historical perspective deeply gendered.

Gatens (2003: 4) argues that the body in fact is not a tabula rasa, that there is no neutral body. “[T]here are at least two kinds of bodies: the male body and the female body” (2003: 8). Furthermore, Gatens (2003: 9) states that “the male body and the female body have quite a different social value and significantly cannot help but have a marked effect on male and female consciousness”. It seems plausible that this marked effect might be also traced in our body image; the reflection and image of ourselves. Gatens highlights the “otherness” in the bodily experience. In other words experiencing the body as an object for ourselves and to ourselves. (2003: 35) How does the piano performance ideals construct experiences of “otherness”? Moreover, how do the unconscious cultural imaginaries actually influence the experience of pianists?

In this article I will discuss two different understandings of performance; that of gender and that of the instrument itself. Research scrutinizing the intersection between gender and music performances have been done since the early 1990’s (Cusick 1994, 1999; Väätäinen 2003; Tiainen 2012; Moisala 2015; Wahlfors 2013). However, in this paper I will seek to make a modest contribution to performance studies by exploring it through the experience of the musicians. I will address the questions posed above through the interviews I have made with three Finnish female professional pianists concerning their experience about gender in piano performance.

Three aspects of piano performance are especially in focus. First, I will look at what kind of meanings the interviewees associate with certain composers and musical works, as well as how gender is perceived to be performed through the bodily dispositions in piano performance. I will focus strongly on the pianists’ educational background and the repertoire they have played. I will also draw upon a secondary research material to discuss how these meanings can be mapped onto more general ideas concerning pianism and gender. To do this I will use an article about the pianist Yuja Wang with its online comment section. Second, I will focus on how these associations of gender impact the pianists’ own experience and performance. By addressing these questions, I will discuss how the piano’s historical background (social heritage, if you will) can be found in the pianists’ narratives and experiences. Third, I will seek to understand how pianists are emancipated. Related to emancipation, I will explore the aspect of sexuality in piano performance, as defined by Suzanne G. Cusick (1994). Finally, I will discuss how the imagined bodies intersect with the need for liberation from limiting gendered norms of piano performance.


The methodological approach taken in this paper includes individual thematic interviews with three female professional pianists under the age of 30. The pianists were asked to recount their educational history, as well as to describe how they associated gender with piano performance. The pianists were asked to compare their playing experiences between works by the 18th and 19th century composers to those of the contemporary composers. The current repertoire of the pianists consisted of music by J.S. Bach, L. van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Clara Schumann. All of the interviewed pianists happened to have played music by the contemporary composer Magnus Lindberg, to which they compared their playing experiences of the composers mentioned above.

The interviews took place in spring 2018. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The interviews were done in Finnish, and I have made the translations of the quotations used in this paper. I will refer to the quotes by mentioning only the year during which the interviews were conducted. To assure the anonymity of the interviewees in the small social circle of classical pianists in Finland, the following pseudonyms Laura, Mari, and Sanna are used to identify the pianists.

It is also relevant to briefly consider my own position as a researcher. Just like the pianists interviewed, I am also a professionally trained female pianist under 30 years of age. Thus as a researcher inside the same circles, I have in-depth knowledge about the challenges and problems faced especially by female classical pianists. Having said that, it is imperative to acknowledge that my position can also lead to potential loss of objectivity (Taylor 2011: 6). However, as Wolcott (2008: 144) states, “[e]very view is a way of seeing, not the way”. Therefore, in this article, I shall discuss the phenomenon of female pianists as a female pianist myself – however based not on my personal experiences but on research literature.

Some of the most influential feminist theories of recent decades suggests that gender is socially constructed through performance, discourse and language. Accordingly, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler states; “[t]here is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expression’ of it” (1990/2002: 33). Elaborating on this idea, I seek to understand the interviewee’s perception of gender and sexuality. Using thematic interview as a methodology allowed me to understand the pianists’ beliefs and experiences, and thereby comparing them to the chosen feminist theoretical framework (Hirsjärvi & Hurme 2001: 11).

As the feminist scholar Salla Peltonen (2012: 245–246) states, the difficulty lies in discussing about female and male gender without concurrently establishing these as foundations in a binary system. For example, discussing about womanhood is paradoxical in the sense that it inherently discloses identities and maintains categories (Peltonen 2012: 246). Peltonen (2012: 249) suggests, that one should critically explore how and to what end gender identities are used. At the conclusion of this study I will subsequently critically discuss the construction of gender and sexuality in the interviews. I will compare the gender narratives to each other and use the chosen theoretical framework to explore the underlying systems if meanings and categorization in the interviewees. This methodology can be regarded as a systemic analysis, which aims to arrive at an in-depth understanding of the text and its causal connections.

Constructing the gender of the pianist  

Laura, one of the interviewees, is a 29-year-old pianist who, at the time of the interview, is studying her second master’s degree at the University of Arts in Helsinki. She began her piano studies in Finnish music schools and then continued to professional studies taking place in both Finland and Germany. Laura (2018) explains that in her youth she wanted to play “like a man … [s]omehow masculine … [t]hen [the music] would be genuine”. She says that in the male piano performance the music becomes “philosophical” and “pure”. Furthermore, by trying to play in a more “masculine” way, she wanted to hide aspects of her own playing, which she described as “too airy and too flexible”. She further elaborates, that as a child she was encouraged to express herself softly and lyrically. The concept of linking piano performance ideals with gender can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. Eva Öhrström (1987) has analyzed female musicians in 19th century Sweden. The study shows that women were advised to develop only necessary technical skills. Too virtuosic playing would have threatened the female demeanor (Öhrström 1987: 188).

Moreover, researcher Taava Koskinen (2006) has, among many others, explored the history of the notion “genius” as well as attributes related to it. Koskinen (2006: 18) states that already in ancient Rome intelligence was linked to masculine sexuality and authority. Later in the Renaissance, genius and profoundness were in greater extent associated with talented male artists (2006: 21). According to the prevailing gender notions of that time women could not be naturally talented therefore could not be genius’ (Koskinen, 2006: 21).

Also Laura associates the male gender with the attributes related to the notion of genius. In her mind the piano performance of a man inherently differs from her own. She describes her own playing with attributes associated with bodily movement. By associating her own playing with corporeally flexible and light playing, and the (white) male piano playing with profoundness and philosophy, she is also making the distinction between her own body as corporeal and the male piano performance as more cerebral. The piano performance is also a performance and construction of gendered bodies, and in Laura’s case the “neutral” male body is transparent, while the female body is emphasized and regarded as a distraction to music. These mental images can be viewed as the imaginary bodies associated to piano performance. Laura experiences that her own body image is in relation to these imagined bodies. Laura wanted to play pure and philosophical music even though she felt that it was impossible for her, due to not having a male body. It left Laura feeling miniscule and powerless. As the feminist theorist Iris Young (2005: 44) states, “the woman lives her body as object as well as subject”. This, she argues, is because of the patriarchal society, where women are generally regarded as mere bodies (2005: 44). Gatens (2003: 35) moreover argues, that this objectification is caused by reflecting on our body image, and thus reflecting on ourselves as “other”.

Likewise, in Sanna’s interview talent and intelligence are associated with male piano playing. Sanna is a 28-year-old freelance pianist who has studied in many countries in Europe, though mainly in Finland. She recalls the following from her youth: “[a]t some point I actually thought that they [male pianists] in fact are somehow better [than female pianists]” (2018). Moreover, she feels that female pianists need to prove their skills more as they face gender related preconceptions and even prejudices.

In comparison, the 23-year-old interview, Mari, says that she was never taught to play “womanly” (2018). Mari began her piano studies in a Finnish music school, from which she then proceeded to professional studies at the University of Arts in Helsinki. She describes womanly piano playing as fragile and delicate. Mari has always had female teachers, and at the time of the interview she was contemplating whether to change to a male piano teacher or not, because she “would like to know if there is a masculine point of view [to playing the piano]”. Contrary to feminine piano playing, she considers manly playing as professional and something worth learning. Through associating more positive attributes to masculine playing than to feminine playing, Mari in a way maintains the gendered hierarchy of the piano playing ideals.

However, both of the interviewees associate gender to either certain expectations or a way of playing. Sanna furthermore elaborates that she felt that girls were expected to aim toward piano exams with the appropriate program, whereas boys were allowed to test their limits and play more difficult works. The gender related preconceptions are thereby also traced in the repertoire that the interviewees were encouraged to play. Sanna further told me that she stubbornly played whatever that she wanted, despite her teacher’s wishes. The music that she wished to play were difficult and challenging works composed by Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel.

Mari links (what she considers to be) masculine attributes to the music she wanted to play, explicitly she wanted to play music that had “balls” (2018). According to her, “music with balls” has an “intense” and “dark” timbre. With these adjectives, she later describes Magnus Lindberg’s piano suite Jubilée. Similarly to Laura, she associates these kind of mentally intense, profound music with masculinity. Mari explained that the repertoire that she played in her youth in music schools was unvaried: “It consisted of Bach, Mozart, maybe Chopin” (2018). Also, Laura states “I was encouraged to play Mozart and Chopin” (2018). This is understandable since the mentioned composers are the main part of the musical canon that all pianists are expected to play, and they have a plethora of works, especially suitable for younger pianists. However, all pianists in the study wanted to play also different repertoire, which they associated with masculine notions. In the early 19th century the suitable repertoire for female pianists consisted of music by Mozart, Chopin, Haydn, and Bach (Ellis 1997: 363). Based on the interviews I conducted, it seems that these ideals still apply to a certain extent.

As a reaction to the performance ideals, Sanna feels uncomfortable playing especially Beethoven: “I am both a woman and I move a lot while playing” (2018). Sanna stresses that “the Beethoven pianist is a man” (2018). She elaborates that the quintessential Beethoven (male) pianist plays with a tense facial expression, while leaning back, distancing himself slightly from the music and the instrument. “[A]nd then it is very godlike” (2018). Sanna became aware of her gender and how it collided with the performance ideals. Equally to Laura, she feels that her gendered body is in the way of a credible performance. She adds that male pianists with the bodily demeanor described above can, and should, play lyrically – which she in turn associates with femininity. The combination of the lyrical playing and the stern, masculine body can heighten the performance to an apotheosis. This reminds the ideal of the great artist from the romantic era: a feminine male artist (Battersby 1987: 7). Battersby states, that the male benefits from the emotions and the moodiness, that are in turn associated with femininity. (Battersby 1987: 8). According to Koskinen (2006: 30), the femininity in this case is recognized as a positive other. Although in the pianists’ case, it seems as if the feminine other is in fact the music itself. As musicologist Pirkko Moisala (2006: 322) suggests, in truth-seeking music, the male composer dominates the (feminine) music. This appears to be a valid statement also by changing the word “composer” to “pianist”.

Sanna mentions that she does not remember many female pianists whose interpretation of Beethoven’s music has been considered to stand out. The same, she says, goes for J.S. Bach’s music. It is noteworthy that J.S. Bach appears also in the so-called feminine repertoire, in other words a musical repertoire considered suitable for female pianists. (Ellis 1997: 363, 380). As Ellis (1997: 380) points out in her study of female concert pianists and their male critics in the 19th century Paris, the critics of that time believed all baroque music was “subprofessional”. Nowadays, however, Bach’s works are a staple of the canon of piano repertoire. Furthermore, Sanna discusses that there are fewer female pianists in general that appear to be praised. Sanna feels that the “visuality”, in other words perhaps the ideals related to the corporeal aspects of the performance, has not yet been broken. Moreover, the ideal bodies associated with the performance prevail. This phenomenon can be seen also in the Classic FM -radio (2018) listing “The 25 best players of all time”. Out of these 25 pianists, only 5 were women. Although this should by no means be considered a valid listing, there is verisimilitude and it does indicate an underlying common narrative in the ideals of piano performance.

Media representations of female pianists – the case of Yuja Wang

The Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is widely recognized as one of the most prominent pianists of her generation. However, her credibility as a pianist has been questioned on numerous occasions. The Guardian (2017) interviewed Wang; discussing, among other things, her performance of Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 106 in Carnegie Hall. The article points out that Wang has seemingly two identities. One being the virtuous and intelligent pianist, the other being the elfin-like fashionista. Even though the comment section of the online publication does by no means stand for a universal truth, it does reflect some existing constructions of gender. Moreover it pertinently confirms that the mentioned two identities cannot coexist: “when I’m listening to Beethoven or Schubert, and especially Brahms in recital, I don’t want to stare at someone’s thighs and be all too aware they’re showing off their body”. Another comment states “any pianist who does Russian music and does not mention Richter is not worth her salt … sexy dress does not compensate for an empty head”.

The critique toward the credibility of Wang’s performance lies both in her bodily demeanor and her putative lack of intelligence. However, as both the article’s writer and the commentators show, the problem lies in merging the female body with attributes which are culturally seen as masculine. Gatens (2003: 41) states that “[t]he female body, in our culture, is seen as and no doubt ‘lived’ as an envelope, vessel or receptacle”. She (2003: 41) continues that female bodies are socially constructed to be seen as lacking something, which in psychoanalytical terms would be phallus. This supposed lack is also the key in psychoanalytical concepts to understand why the female body then is seen as an object. Gatens (2003: 34) draws upon Freud, elaborating that the missing phallus is then displaced on a piece of clothing or a part of the female body. Furthermore, “[t]he ‘fetish’, in fact protects the ‘the fetishist’ from seeing, specifically, from seeing that ‘there is nothing to see’” (Gatens 2003: 34).

Contrary to psychoanalytic tradition, Moira Gatens (2003: 34) states: “[e]ven in Lacanian terms, lack can only ever appear at the level of Symbolic–the Real lacks nothing”. Accordingly, the female body only lacks something in the symbolic register, which is always tied to particular historical times and societies. The comments on the article also points out an important aspect of the gendered piano performance phenomena, namely most of the respected recordings of western classical music’s canonized composers were recorded in the mid-20th century by male pianists, such as Sviatoslav Richter. The recordings immortalized male composers like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert, as the quintessential western classical composers, while establishing the male pianists as the most eminent of interpreters, capable of elevating the music to godly dimensions.


Video 1. Yuja Wang performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1.

Social heritage within piano performance ideals

According to the presented interview material, it seems that for a body to be unobtrusive to the western classical piano music, it needs to be that of a (white) male. However, this appears to be a paradox. As the body obviously cannot be invisible, it is tempting to suggest that a certain imagined body is being attached to the performing male body. This imagined body can be traced long back in the history of piano performance, indicating that it in fact can be seen as a part of the social heritage within the western classical music culture. As DeNora (2002: 27) states “[p]rior to Beethoven (and thus existing as intellectual resources that Beethoven could draw upon), philosophers such as Kant and, before him, Rousseau, were concerned with the notion of the ‘sublime’ in art, which they conceptualised as that capable of inciting awe”. Furthermore as Battersby (1989: 76) discusses, the sublime was considered especially evoked in the art by the male “genius”.

Consequently the historical basis of the social heritage within western classical music culture can be considered as part of the remaining heritage of this ideal. In relation to this imagined body, the (non-white) male pianist becomes a spectator of her/his body–experiencing herself as ‘other’. This happened in the case of Laura and Sanna, as they both became fully aware of their bodies and how it collides with the gendered performance ideals. These experiences were emphasized through the repertoire, which disclosed works with masculine attributes, which were mainly played by male pianists. This kind of binary division of the repertoire encouraged the pianists to mainly express themselves through music with supposedly feminine attributes. As Laura discusses, on many occasions it was imposed on her that her forte was to play lyrically and softly. However, she later experienced that she indeed was also capable of playing music with other characteristics and moreover, equally good at interpreting those characters.

In the following section I will examine further how the pianists strove for a mental and bodily freedom from gendered ideals of classical pianism. I will also discuss how this freedom intersect with the experience of sexuality.

Breaking the performance ideals

Compared to her younger self, Laura’s position has changed. When she was younger, she associated strength and power especially with masculinity but now, as Laura explains, she leans on her gender to find strength in her playing: “I play as a strong woman – obviously” (2018). Moreover, she explains that in her graduate studies she has wanted to especially play contemporary music in order to seek bodily and mental freedom.

“I started to especially long for some darker nuances, something different. Different power, completely different sounds. And, contemporary music has in that sense – liberated a lot. It has helped me with that, freed me. So that everything is not only ethereal.” (Laura 2018.)

Laura feels that breaking the image of the “delicate female pianist” and showing “also nasty sides [of being a female pianist]” is liberating. Moreover, she says that “the darkest, and most disgusting sides [of me] are feminine” (2018). Laura experiences that in contemporary music she can explore these darker shades, which she feels she was deprived of in her piano playing earlier in her life. She has experienced this especially with Magnus Lindberg’s suite Jubilée (2000). Laura explains that the work requires both physical and mental strength. These are strengths that she during the time of the interview associated with femininity. “The fiercest power is, I think, feminine. Because I am a woman. And I do experience it as liberating – just to be a woman” (2018). Laura discusses that the reason she wants to play “dark” music might also be related to her own voice. “I have begun to associate it with the fact that I have a quite dark voice myself. I crave somehow a dark bass sound.” (Laura 2018). Feminist musicologist Suzanne G. Cusick (1999) has problematized the intersection of voice, sex and gender. She argues that because the voice is regarded as originating from inside the body, it is consequently also seen as predetermined by sex. Moreover, the voice is culturally believed to actually be the body itself. However Cusick discusses that this is not the case, as voices, not only Song but also Speech, are only performances of gender and/or sex. (Cusick, 1999: 29.)

Laura associates femininity with music with a dark timbre, which she consequently links with her own voice. Through music she gets to experience also her dark voice as a part of her gender identity. Referring to her body as her instrument, she states that “I feel like I have finally an instrument ([the body]) that cannot be taken away”. This statement also reveals her previous relationship with her body as an instrument of self-expression. Her body has felt as something that has been unreliable, prone to be taken away.

Could that have been the result of the objectification of her body, resulting in experiencing “otherness”? In short, the “otherness” she felt in relation to the previously described body image has now changed to something more tangible, closer to her experience of herself. Rejecting the thought that she needed to play “somehow masculine”, she discovered that she can use her body, as it is, to produce music that has “masculine” characters. Moreover, Laura rejected the idea that she lacked something to perform music meaningfully. In other words, she has found ownership of her body by exploring aspects of herself in music with dark, intense and powerful characteristics. These qualities have now become a part of her tools of self-expression. Furthermore, through gaining this kind of ownership of her body, she feels freer to play any style of music. I argue that Laura’s view of the (male) piano performance ideals as transcendental have changed toward an immanent view of the body. Her body as well as her mind are in tune: as Gatens (2003: 111) suggests, an increase of power in the body correlates with an increase in the power of the mind, and vice versa.

Similarly to Laura, Mari also told me that she found it liberating to play contemporary music. “[Playing] feels easier somewhere where tonality starts to waver” (2018). Mari explains that even playing Ravel feels more liberating than for example Chopin or Liszt. Contrary to Laura, Mari further discloses; “[i]n contemporary music I feel maybe more masculine”. She also says that playing contemporary music makes her feel “very confident”. She elaborates that through playing contemporary music she gets to explore her personality and express sides of herself that she otherwise would not. (Mari 2018.) Furthermore, Mari says that Lindberg’s music requires a “masculine touch” because it in fact is composed by a male composer. When I asked her to describe how it feels to play music composed by female composers, Mari could not answer: she had not played any work by a female composer! The fact that Mari has not played music by a female composer further underlines the gender issues within the canon of classical piano music.

Even though Mari and Laura associate opposite gendered experiences with Lindberg and even contemporary music in general, they seem to describe a similar experience. In Mari’s case this however makes her feel confident in experiencing masculine modes while in Laura’s experience she feels confident associating these modes stereotypically associated to masculinity into her own experience of femininity. Furthermore, Sanna experiences the following when playing Lindberg’s music: “[s]omehow I also feel more androgynous” (2018). Even though Sanna does not experience Lindberg’s music as particularly personal, she feels rebellious and powerful playing it.

I would argue that in contemporary music the musical metaphors for binary gender constructions are wavering, as it gave the pianists the opportunity to feel confident in expressing sides of themselves that are usually being linked to masculinity, such as darkness and power. However they seemed to incorporate notions associated stereotypically with masculinity into their self-expression in their own unique way. This in turn shows how difficult it is to discuss notions typically related to gender without confirming binary gender systems. One reason for contemporary music to give opportunities for liberating experiences might be that the more recently composed the music is, the less it has a historical performance practice heritage. Therefore, the image of the ideal performance also weighs less in contemporary music. Furthermore even if one could describe the music with gendered notions they are in turn not strongly associated with certain imaginaries of gendered performance ideals.

Furthermore Sanna tells me that she gets “kicks” out of playing contemporary music. She associates it with the ability, or rather the liberty, to move as her instincts tell her. This, in turn, she associates with rebelling against the normative ways of playing. Magnus Lindberg’s compositions are not the only music that Sanna gets her “kicks” from. She differs from the other interviewees in the sense that she also experiences especially Johannes Brahms’ and Clara Schumann’s music as emancipating, describing her performance experience even as sexual. Sexuality in this context should be understood outside the realm of reproduction. Sanna’s description of sexuality is close to the definition by Suzanne G. Cusick (1994). Cusick (1994: 70) defines sexuality as “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given”. Furthermore, Cusick (1994: 70) states that because musical activity can be experienced as highly intense and physically pleasurable, it can be also viewed as sexual. Sanna describes sexuality in piano playing as follows:

“I think it has to do with feeling like an animal. … And somehow with the feelings of being in control as well as surrendering, which especially happens when you are in a concentrated flow-state of mind. … And then things just happen on their own accord.” (Sanna, 2018)

In Sanna’s embodied mind the feeling of sexuality coincides with that of bestial feelings. Thus, the balancing of control and letting go are guided by instinct. Because Sanna associates sexuality with animal instinct, it is tempting to suggest that she is experiencing herself as pre-discursive, without the boundaries of socially constructed gender. In music, she enacts and expresses her sexuality on her own terms. Sanna tells me that the power relation between controlling and letting go depends on the music. Even though she feels “raw and animal-like” playing Brahms, she also states that in that music she feels very comfortable with being a woman. She elaborates that Brahms’ music is so romantic “and I like men. So somehow I connect it with that” (2018). The musical characteristics in Brahms then symbolizes masculinity to her, which in turn makes her feel womanly. Additionally, she feels she can experience her femininity and sexuality in her own terms.

In Clara Schumann’s music, Sanna feels a different kind of empowerment and a different way of in control. She associates these emancipating experiences with rebellion. Sanna explains furthermore than “I can’t stand the way of thinking that there is so much of it in this field, that there is a ‘right’ way to do things … thinking ‘this is how it has to be done’ and not ‘what can I get out of this’” (2018). Sanna tells me that especially when playing Clara Schumann’s music, she gets “kicks” out of feeling mutiny. When playing Schumann, she feels the emancipation and revolt, which she believes that Schumann must have felt in the 19th century as a female composer. “Well, maybe it is some kind of rebellion, that I can be whatever I want to be. … [Schumann] is in many ways very progressive”. Furthermore, Sanna feels that the empowering experience of sexuality in piano performance is also a mutiny against the norms of society.

“Maybe that the rebellious feeling is coming from is that … we are put into boxes in very nasty and restrictive ways. And then music is something extraordinary … And maybe that is why [the experience of revolt] is always present.” (2018.)

Though the feelings of sexuality vary depending on the music being played (in Lindberg she feels even androgynous), the common attribute in these experiences is the feeling of rebellion and being in the present. What then contributes to Sanna finding this experience in piano performance?

It seems that contrary to the works of Beethoven and Bach, Sanna does not associate certain long-term performance ideals to with works of Brahms, Lindberg and Schumann. Even though especially Brahms works are considered to be part of the musical canon, she feels liberated when playing them. She described that whether playing the Preludes and Fugues by Bach or the sonatas by Beethoven, she experiences herself as an outsider, as if in relation to the imagined body. Moreover, in the works she feels comfortable with, she does not experience ‘otherness’ but embodies herself in the music, which in turn allows her to experience pleasure and joy. These experiences are so powerful that they contribute to the feeling of rebelliousness. It is as if when rejecting the imaginary body, she actually rejects societal norms, and perhaps even patriarchy.


In this paper I have examined how performance ideals from the past and present intersect in piano performance and how they are associated with gender. Moreover, I have discussed what kind of cultural imaginaries and social heritage can be found within the western classical piano culture, and how these affect the pianists’ own experience of body and gender. I have argued, that by rejecting these generally accepted imaginaries associated to piano culture the pianists in this research experienced emancipation, empowerment and (even sexual) pleasure.

Certain qualities, such as profoundness and intensity, were especially associated with masculinity. These qualities were successively achieved especially by a male pianist. Although the performance was associated with the male body, it seems that more significantly it became linked to an imaginary body. This in turn could be considered as a part of the social heritage within the classical music culture. By contrast, the associations and attributes linked to a female pianist, and even “womanly playing”, included amateurishness, flexibility and softness. These were qualities that the pianists experienced when comparing themselves to the imaginary male body. How did these assumptions then come to be? The material shows that the assumptions were constructed in two ways. First, the repertoire that the pianists played in their adolescence was restricted to only certain composers and excluded music described as masculine. Furthermore, the repertoire resembles performance ideals of the female pianists in the 19th century. Second, it seems that repeatedly in performances (or recordings) connecting the male pianist to certain composers, constructed an ideal of the quintessential pianist. Nevertheless, these are only partial explanations and leave unanswered how the gendered ideals repeat themselves for example in the very beginning of piano studies.

However, these imaginaries influenced the experiences of the pianists I interviewed to a great extent. The pianists to experience their bodies as lacking something, inadequate to perform music in a profound and meaningful way. In other words, they experienced also their own body as “other”. Especially by playing music that was strongly associated with the imagined male body steered them to experience themselves as alienated from their own performance and body, from the view of the outsider. Gatens (2003: 9) suggests that the different social values that attributed to different bodies have also affect individuals’ consciousness. In the case of the pianists, it seems that both restricting, or attempting to restrict, the played music as well as comparing their own performance to gendered ideals furthermore contributed to experiencing alienation in relation to their bodies. Moreover, they experienced themselves in comparison to these imaginaries.

However, it seems that these constructions are so persistent that they are linked to the music even to this day. In other words, even though the music played by the pianists was composed nearly 200 years ago, the gendered social constructs of that time still seem to haunt the performances of today. Researchers Dean, Mearzon and Prince explore historical influence in performance studies as follows:

“[T]he notion of ‘embodying the past’ becomes central; by embodiment we refer especially to the ways in which bodies moving through space and time both enact and re-enact the past, thus closing the distance between the past that is represented and the present in which it is performed. It is through repetition that we actualize the real past.” (2014: 6)

This leads to the question whether it is inevitable to enact, to embody, the past. Are pianists bound to the gendered social structures of the 19th century? And moreover, are new modes of performance only possible in contemporary music? Considering the previous quote together with DeNora’s statement, it seems that by repeating these representations the meanings associated with certain music has lived on to this day. In the research material this was particularly the case with J.S. Bach’s canonized work as well as L. van Beethoven’s piano works. However, as the pianist actualizes the social heritage embedded in the musical works, it means also that it has to go the other way; “our performances give back to the past its own present” (Dean, Mearzon, Prince; 2014: 6). Moreover, the performer can also re-enact past conventions. Gatens’ notion of the unconscious dimensions of the social heritage was, at least in some parts, re-enacted upon and altered.

On the other hand, it could be argued that this is exactly what Yuja Wang has done. Although even if she defied the performance ideals, the comments suggest that the audience did not accept it. Lucy Green argues that:

“Whatever their intentions and whatever the performance situation, male and female musical performers are both thrown into a world of display. But for the male performer, this contradicts his discursive position as masculine; whereas for the female performer, it affirms her discursive position as feminine.” (1997: 26)

Green sees the performer as merely an enactor of historical construction, embodying the music and putting it on display. Even though this certainly is partly true, obviously the performer is on display and cannot control the mind of the audience. However, the statement declares the performer as passive, giving the audience the power to put the performer into gender performance realm, giving no hope for change to once declared gendered meanings of gendered practices. Challenging this view, my research material shows that even though the pianists initially succumbed to the (historical) imaginaries of the works, reacting upon the imaginaries of western classical music culture they all actively sought to reject this mental image and strived for emancipation and empowerment. All interviewed pianists experienced this differently, even though the common factor was to merge modes described as masculine in to self-expression. Laura’s view changed, from thinking that a male body is required in order to play profound music, to thinking that her own femininity is the greatest and most empowering force. Meanwhile, Mari said that she feels masculine while playing contemporary music. Like Laura, Sanna finds it wonderful to be a woman and liberating to allow herself to move in the ways most comfortable for her. Laura furthermore discloses that she finally has a body that could not be taken away.

Contemporary music, particularly Lindberg, offered an opportunity to experience free self-expression for the pianists interviewed for my study. This can be because contemporary music has not yet established certain gendered and widespread performance practices. On the other hand, Mari explained that playing feels instantly easier where tonality starts to fluctuate. Perhaps tonality then can be perceived as symbolizing binary notions of gender. It might also be that Mari unconsciously connected classical tonal piano music with the burden of social heritage, as most of the canonized music associated with performance ideals is in fact tonal music from the 18th and 19th century.

However, we cannot presume that social heritage is connected only to older music. Even though the Finnish composer Lindberg’s social life significantly differs from the 19th century ideals, he is not composing in a vacuum out of socio-cultural reach. At the same time, we cannot assume that his music inherently reflects the structures of social life. Yet though the structures might not be detectable in the music per se, the composer is either consciously or unconsciously affected by his social surroundings – and in a way thus is the music that he created also affected by the social life of today. Music, then appears to be in-between, as both a construction of social life and as indeed social life itself, while being performed. As DeNora (2002: 21) points out, it is the way we enact upon the music that becomes a form of social life. However, it seems that the latter is heavily affected by the meanings that the musicians attach to the music. In other words, there are many factors that make contemporary music easier to approach, not merely the lack of performance practice ideal. Nonetheless, the interviewees reshaped and reconstructed their pianistic skills, identities and even their experience on gender through contemporary music. Only time will tell how, for example, the music by Magnus Lindberg will be perceived and experienced in the future.

The research material at hand furthermore shows that it was not only contemporary music which offered opportunities for liberating piano performance experiences. Sanna experienced especially Johannes Brahms’s and Clara Schumann’s music as liberating. These are both composers who lived in the 19th century. Therefore, to fully understand the ways in which the interviewees experienced music, we have to emphasize how the pianist’s subjective experiences and preferences affect the performance and playing. And even more importantly, as the research material suggests, the imaginaries constructed (memories if you will) affects the way we enact upon the music. These memories, in a way, could then be understood as the social heritage that is passed on, as they influence how the music is acted upon. The subjective social heritage that we have of the music influences the experience of playing it. This experience is not only constructed by performance practice traditions, but also on how we have been educated and learned to associate certain meanings to music and composers. In this sense, the pianist is like a kaleidoscope: she embodies both musical works of the past, her own experience of performance practice, and social imaginaries; and acts upon them, also in a way constructing new performance practices for the audience and for herself. These intersect in a myriad of ways within the mind and body of the performer.

This essay relies on interviews of only three Finnish female pianists under the age of 30 and therefore offers only a limited opportunities to understand gender and social heritage within classical piano culture. Moreover, this essay only scratches the surface of the complicated aspect of gender performance within classical piano culture thus inviting further scrutiny of the topic. However, based on the material at hand, it seems that actually by embodying the social heritage and other social constructions that of today in the musical works, the interviewed pianists became conscious of them and consequently sought to alter them. The experiences of lacking something changed to experiencing wholeness and self-sufficiency. Moreover, as all the ideal mental images were – in one way or another – connected to the white male body, I would suggest that the emancipation was not only about regaining ownership of the body, but even about rejecting patriarchal norms. In other words, by embodying patriarchal norms embedded in piano performance, the interviewed pianists became conscious of the contradictions that were created between the norms and the experience of gender in their embodied mind. This, in turn, led the pianists in question them and to seek liberation from them.

All things considered, the concept of imaginary bodies within social heritage proposed by Gatens is not a rigid, stable notion. Instead, I suggest that imaginary bodies can be changed and altered, and are in fact not always unconscious. Besides giving positive experiences to the interviewed pianists, why is this rejection of mental imaginaries otherwise beneficial? And why should these topics be further scrutinized? Drawing upon the interviews it becomes evident that all pianists were eager to play music outside of the musical canon, such as contemporary music and music by female composers. This, in turn, may lead to vicissitudes in the current classical piano culture, and can perhaps create modes of piano performance that are specifically feminine or more multi-faceted in terms of gendered expression. This might even indicate an upcoming change in the musical canon



Laura, 22.2.2018. Via Skype. The recording and its transcription is in the possession of Anna Ramstedt.

Mari, 23.2.2018. Helsinki. The recording and its transcription is in the possession of Anna Ramstedt.

Sanna, 3.3.2018. Via Skype. The recording and its transcription is in the possession of Anna Ramstedt


Classic FM 2018. “25 best piano players of all time”. (Visited 7.1.2019).

The Guardian 2017 “Interview: Yuja Wang: ’If the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit?’” (Visited 7.1.2019).

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Cover picture of the article: Adele aus der Ohe, Gravure, 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons.