To place this blog entry into context, I will first kindly ask you to watch two videos which features two highly accomplished pianists from two different centuries. The first one shows Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and the second one Lang Lang (1982 – ). Both will be playing the same piece: Chopin’s Polonaise op. 53 in A flat major. Please, watch Rubinstein’s video at least up to minute 2.14, and Lang Lang’s video up to minute 1.44.
Although they both play the same piece, it is possible to perceive differences among them in tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc. However, I would like to draw your attention to their body movements. Wanderley, Vines, Middleton, McKay and Hatch (2005) made a distinction between movements that are directly involved in producing sound in an instrument, and movements which are not. The first kind were called “instrumental gestures”, while the second kind were called “ancillary gestures”. In pianists, the most obvious instrumental gestures is the movement of the fingers on the keys. Meanwhile, the ancillary gestures is the movement of the shoulders and head and facial expressions.
Rubinstein performs the piece with just the minimal instrumental gestures. So, why is Lang Lang moving so much to play the same notes? Do ancillary gestures possess any relevant role in music perception, particularly in the musical expressive intention of the performer and the audience’s perceived quality of a performance?
The expressive intentions of the performer
Does ancillary gestures have any function? In order to answer this question, different researchers have set up a similar experimental paradigm: they used different kind of movements of varying expressive intensity, ranging from a flat, inexpressive and invariant performance up to a performance in which all dynamic, tempo indications and other musical features have to be overstated. Alternatively, players can be asked to perform following different instructions: focusing on technique, expression or emotion (Van Zijl, Toiviainen, Lartillot & Luck, 2014). For example, Thompson and Luck (2012) asked pianists to play a Chopin’s prelude in four possible movement conditions: deadpan, normal, exaggerated and immobile. In a similar fashion, Wanderley et al. (2005) also instructed their clarinetists’ participants to play under three conditions: standard, expressive and immobile.
Movements are usually recorded with some sort of motion capture system (the same kind of technology that allowed the creation of digital characters such as Gollum, from Lord of the Rings) which enables to register subtle changes in different movement parameters. Additionally, music is recorded with audio or MIDI technology. Both, movement and audio information, are then analyzed with impressive software designed by very clever people. So, what have we learned out of this technology about the expressive intentions of performers? Movements do affect sound properties.
Davidson’s (1993) seminal work showed that playing pieces in deadpan, projected and exaggerated manners generates clear audible differences which allow people to rate them as different in terms of expressiveness. Van Zijn et al. (2014) found that sad performances differed significantly from expressive ones in several musical features such as loudness, dynamic range, tempo, etc. These recent findings have been supported by previous ones. For instance, in terms of duration of the pieces, Wanderley et al. (2005) found that performances such as standard or expressive were significantly slower than immobile or non-expressive ones. This result was echoed by Thompson and Luck (2012) who reported that, on average, deadpan performances were the shortest, while exaggerated the longest.
But what about movements themselves? Do they change according to the performance manner? There is evidence that suggest so. Wanderley et al. (2005), Davidson (2007), and Thompson and Luck (2012) arrived to similar conclusions on different studies, with different instrument players and different pieces: regardless of the expressive manner, musicians show consistency in their ancillary movements, although they varied in their intensity according to the degree of expressiveness. What is more, movements coincided with highly musically tense sections and musical phrasing boundaries (although some recent evidence has posit alternative explanations. See Demos, Chaffin and Logan, 2017). Taken together, ancillary movements are a building part of a performer’s representation of the piece, pointing at relevant sections in it. But, is the audience perception of the performance affected by ancillary movements?
The audience’s perceived quality of a performance
Audience’s rating of expressiveness are predominantly influenced by the visual channel. Davidson (1993) showed that experienced audience can detect changes in expressivity with greater accuracy if they watch a performer than if they simply listen to an audio recording. Moreover, Tsay (2013) found that both novice and expert musical judges rely heavily on visual information to raise a judgment on a performance, and not on auditory means. Moreover, novice judges can accurately predict the winner of a music competition just by watching a silent performance, thus implying that visual information bias their decisions. Thus, ancillary movements are a source of information about expressiveness levels and even performance quality.
So… why is Lang Lang moving so much?
We can now partly try to answer that question. Playing an instrument involves both instrumental and ancillary gestures. According to the described studies, ancillary gestures are a rich source of interpretative and aesthetic information for both the player and the audience. Thus, Lang Lang might be a clever (conscious or unconscious) operator of our psychological functioning. Some of us, however, resist to play his game.
- Different performance manners have an influence in musician’s body movement.
- These movements are consistent across performing conditions and are closely related to structurally relevant musical sections.
- Audience are influenced on their judgment about a performance (in terms of expressivity and quality) based on the perceived body movements.
Davidson, J. W. (1993). Visual perception of performance manner in the movement of solo musicians. Psychology of Music, 21, 103-113. doi: 10.1177/030573569302100201
Davidson, J. W. (2007). Qualitative insights into the use of expressive body movement in solo piano performance: A case study approach. Psychology of Music, 35(3), 381-401. doi:10.1177/0305735607072652
Demos, A. P., Chaffin, R., & Logan, T. (2017). Musicians body sway embodies musical structure and expression: A recurrence-based approach. Musicae Scientiae, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864916685928
Thompson, M. R., & Luck, G. (2012). Exploring relationships between pianists’ body movements, their expressive intentions, and structural elements of the music. Musicae Scientiae, 16(1), 19-40. doi:10.1177/1029864911423457
Tsay, C. J. (2013). Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(36), 14580–14585. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221454110
Van Zijl, A. G., Toiviainen, P., Lartillot, O., & Luck, G. (2014). The sound of emotion. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 32(1), 33-50. doi:10.1525/mp.2014.32.1.33
Wanderley, M. M., Vines, B. W., Middleton, N., McKay, C., & Hatch, W. (2005). The musical significance of clarinetists’ ancillary gestures: An exploration of the field. Journal of New Music Research, 34(1), 97-113. doi:10.1080/09298210500124208