The Perceptual Effects of Performers’ Interpretations

Led by: , The MARCS Institute, University of Western Sydney

Project running from April 2011 to April 2013

Keywords: , .

Despite the wide number of performance-analysis studies conducted on a vast array of instruments and musical genres, we are still unclear about how particular human performances affect the way we hear a certain piece. Why do some renditions of a piece feel as if we are hearing this music for the first time in a completely new way? Studies on the effect of pitch and rhythm in composed pieces have demonstrated a certain amount of knowledge in how we perceive a piece of music, but within different renditions of the same music, how is it possible for us to “hear” it differently? This study aims to answer these questions by exploring the nature of perceptual cues in expressive performance, in an effort to determine their causal effects.


This study aims to examine this perceptual issue from both the source (the performance) and the result (the perception of the same performance). By looking at both sides of this communication, we may be able to make links between certain performance choices and how they affect the audience's general perception of the music.


Musically-trained audience judges at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana were presented with three performances each of Chopin’s B Flat Minor Sonata, final movement, and of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, which had been recorded live from performances used for previous projects at the University of Glasgow.Participants were asked to listen to these performances and to indicate phrasing continuously using a mouse slider, where moving the mouse up meant the performer was entering a phrase, and moving the mouse down meant the performer was exiting a phrase.By looking at the musical analyses of the scores of each piece, the audio variations in tempo and dynamics of the performances, and the perceptual results from the slider task, we can compare how different performances may have an effect on the audience's sense of phrasing. The attached videos show the audience responses to each performance through time.Perception of Prelude E minor Op.28 No.4 (Performance A)Perception of Prelude E minor Op.28 No.4 (Performance B)Perception of Fourth Mvt Chopin's B Flat minor Sonata Op.35 (Performance A)Perception of Fourth Mvt Chopin's B Flat minor Sonata Op.35 (Performance B) 


The effects across participants were examined for the one performance (how much do the audience agree on phrasing of this one performance?) and also across performances (to what extent to the audience agree on the phrasing structure of all the performances?). These results were then compared with the measured aural features such as tempo and dynamics. Results across all participants show a range of responses indicating that there is not an ‘agreed’ perceived phrasing interpretation for each performance, however, the more familiar the collective audience is with a piece, the more they will agree on a certain structure of it.In examining the audience responses for particular phrasing boundaries, it appears that the strength of agreement in responses at particular points in the score vary slightly across performances of the same piece, suggesting that performers can control the extent to which a structural boundary is emphasised or indeed de-emphasised.