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Seminar: 2/26 - Dan Levitin

11:00 to 12:30 PM      at:  5101 Tolman Hall

Department of Psychology, McGill University
"Measuring musical expressivity (or at least the perception of it): A psychophysical study of piano performance."

  Expression in musical performance is largely communicated by the manner in which a piece is played - interpretive aspects during performance that go beyond the notes written on the page. In piano performance, timing and amplitude variation are the principal parameters a performer can vary. We examined the way in which such variation served to communicate expressive emotion by parametrically manipulating timing and amplitude variation in actual performances of piano pieces.  In five experiments, participants rated the emotional expressivity of short excerpts of classical pieces played by an expert pianist as well as the manipulated versions of these performances.  Listeners' judgments followed a sigmoid-shaped psychometric function, decreasing with reduced variability in amplitude and timing and suggesting greater discriminability in the middle part of the curve than at its edges. Results show that timing provides the majority of the expressive information in performance. In sum, all listeners demonstrated sensitivity to the expressive cues we manipulated, with musically experienced listeners being more sensitive than less experienced listeners; individuals with Autism showed relatively little sensitivity to these expressive cues and individuals with Williams Syndrome showed relatively normal sensitivity.