McGill researchers discover it’s all in the timing
Daniel Levitin’s most recent study grew out of a disappointing concert performance.
Levitin, a renowned author, researcher and professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, was listening to one of his favourite pieces, a Mozart piano concerto, when he found his attention drifting.
‘I love the piece, he’s playing all the notes, but I found myself thinking, ‘why is it that some recordings and performances move us to tears of joy, and others to tears of boredom’? ?
Part of the answer, according to Dr. Anjali Bhatara, one of the authors of the study, lies in the physics of the piano. ‘All of the subtlety and expressive nuance in a performance ’ the parts of it that make you feel joy, sadness, or hope - can be reduced to just three factors: how long the pianist holds the notes, how loudly he or she plays them, and then there are the pedal positions. This is information that we can then actually measure and manipulate."
By using a Disklavier, a specially modified piano keyboard containing hundreds of sensors and miniature motors beneath the piano keys, researchers were able to use a computer to register the precise and nuanced movements made by a concert pianist while performing one of Chopin’s Nocturnes.
They then worked on the computer files to create a number of different versions of the performance. The timing, loudness and pedalling were manipulated to create a continuum of versions of the piece, ranging from 100-per-cent expressive (the original performance) to 0-per-cent expressive - a wooden, robotic version in which every note is played at exactly the same volume and for exactly the same length of time.
Subjects listened to the various versions of the Nocturnes played back to them in random order, without any indication as to the degree of expressivity in the performance, and were asked to rate - on a scale of 1 to 10 - how expressive they found each version.
The results were surprising. According to Levitin, the senior researcher on the study, even non-musicians both recognized and preferred the more expressive versions of the music. ’They might hear an 80-per-cent followed by a 20-per-cent followed by a 60-per- cent expressive and they were consistently able to recognize and choose the more expressive version. This tells us that even very subtle differences in performance are readily identified - even by average listeners. I found that astonishing.’
The study also discovered that variations in the timing of a performance have an even greater emotional impact than do variations in the loudness of playing.
‘The skilled pianist has learned to communicate musical emotion primarily by making some notes longer and some shorter, some louder and some softer ’ just like we do in normal conversation,? Levitin said. ’It stands to reason that one might be more important than the other, but I was surprised when it turned out that timing is more effective than the loudness in making you feel something.
‘One of the hopes of this kind of research is that it will help us to better understand the alchemy of what goes into a moving performance,’ says Levitin. ’It’s really a big step forward in capturing and quantifying why music is emotionally moving.’
Books by Daniel Levitin:
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, (Dutton/Penguin 2006; Atlantic [UK] 2007).
The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (Dutton/Penguin U.S. and Viking/Penguin Canada, 2008.
For an abstract of the article: psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=browsePA.ofp&jcode=xhp