Music is full of gestures: an action or sound that is going somewhere.

We will explore and learn how we can use them in our own compositions.

What Is a Gesture?

Gestures go from point A to point B. These might be up, down, left, right, quiet, loud, around in a loop, etc. or any combination of these.

The basic point is that they begin somewhere and end somewhere else.

Defining a Gesture

Gesture in sound is difficult to define because it comes from all aspects of sound (a bit like timbre/sound quality). It can be found within traditional pitch-based music, or even in individual sounds themselves.

A single sound might be a gesture.


This is a single gestural sound.

OR it might be made up of a number of sounds.

Glug, glug, glug.

This glugging sound contains a number of individual ‘glug’ gestures, but each glug is also part of a larger ‘glugging’ gesture.

Gestures might also occur within a single sound, for example, as a swell.

Swell (Granular) Sound

This sound is made up of many small grains, but the gesture is in the overall shape of the sound, as it fades in and then back out again.

Gesture and Dance

It might be useful to think about gesture in terms of movement, such as within dance. When people dance they react to the music, physically moving their body. When they move, they are responding to the sound gestures within the music. Often this will be the pulsating gestural rhythm of the bass or drums, but might also be the melody.

Gesture in the Voice

We also use gestures within our voice to communicate. If we listen to a language that we don’t understand, we can sometimes still work out how the speaker is feeling (and perhaps even some of their message) by listening out for the gestures in their voice.

Take a simple statement: ‘I love puppies’.

Everyone will read this out loud in a different way; it is even possible for the same person to read it in many different ways. The way in which the statement is spoken might even change the meaning.

Activity One

Experiment with saying the above statement (‘I love puppies’) in as many different ways as you can. Try to identify what particular properties of the spoken statement affect the way that it sounds, and whether these affect how the phrase is understood.

You can change the pitch, speed and phrasing to create new gestures. Try starting at a high pitch and ending low, OR starting at a low pitch and ending high.

Need Help?

For example, if the statement is read fast and in a high pitched voice it is likely to be interpreted positively, as someone who really does love puppies.

But, if it is read slowly and at a low pitch it is likely to be interpreted negatively, as if by someone who sounds strange and scary and perhapsdoesn’t like dogs at all!

If the statement ends at a higher pitch than it begins, it can sound more like a question. While if it drops in pitch it can sound more like a statement of fact.

If you have not done so already, try these out.

Gestures in Sounds

Sounds themselves can be gestural. Often, the gesture within the sound is related directly to the way in which it is performed. For example, hitting a cymbal hard will produce a different sound compared to lightly tapping it.

Practice with creating sounds can help us to listen out for, and recognise, gestures within sounds.

Activity Two

Select actions from the following list which you can perform. Experiment with the way that you are able to perform the actions, and listen to the sound gestures that are created. Which are the most impressive gestures? Are some sounds more textural than gestural?

How can you change the way that you create the sounds in order to modify the gesture? Think about trying different speeds, different sizes and changing the volume.

Present your selection of actions to others, and explain to them how the sound gestures that you created are connected to the way in which you perform them.

Full List of Actions

  • Shake
  • Tear off
  • Brush
  • Caress
  • Crack
  • Rip
  • Fall down
  • Touch lightly
  • Hit
  • Crumple
  • Rub
  • Slide
  • Scratch
  • Hammer
  • Oscillate
  • Strike
  • Bounce
  • Stir
  • Reverberate
  • Roll
  • Blow
  • Drum fingers
  • Turn
  • Vibrate

Composition Tip

Gestures might be thought of as the opposite of textures.

Denis Smalley described how gestures enhance the impression of time passing.

So, if you want to give the impression of forward motion within a composition, then you could try to use many gestural sounds.


DENIS SMALLEY (1997). Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes. Organised Sound, 2, pp. 107-126.