York Music Psychology Group

Research to explain and understand musical behaviour and experience.

YMPG research presented at ESCOM ’17

Anna Czepiel & Hauke Egermann: Conscious and subconscious body movement: an exploratory study into expressive and technical gestures in piano playing. 

Background: The embodied cognition theory in music suggests that the body is a vehicle for understanding and representing musical meaning. Previous studies into pianists’ gestures have demonstrated an embodiment of expressive intentions. However, to our knowledge, the consciousness of this musical embodiment has not been explored in depth.

Aims: The purpose of this study was to conjointly engage musical embodiment and consciousness in the observation of piano playing. The aims of the study were to see if musical expression is embodied through gestures and to what extent this was conscious or subconscious for the performer. A further aim was to explore whether prior experiences that simultaneously engage both mind and body, influence consciousness of certain gestures. In this study, these experiences were defined as musical-bodily experiences (MBEs) and were categorized as follows: Technical (e.g., amount and type of practice), Focusing Techniques (e.g., Alexander Technique), Mimetics (e.g., observing other pianists) and Extra-Musical (e.g., dancing).

Method: Nineteen pianists took part in this study. They each completed an online questionnaire about his/her own MBEs. Pianists were then filmed playing a piece of their own choice, followed immediately by a second questionnaire to report their thoughts, as well as gestures they thought they had made, at specific points in the music that were previously identified by the researcher as relevant and outstanding. These specific points were chosen based on their emotional content and/or their technical difficulty. From the film recordings, gestures the pianists had actually made at these specific points were thoroughly analysed by the researcher. Using a ‘Gestures Checklist’ (created for this study to provide consistency), gestures were categorized into either technical (sound-producing, e.g. preparing hands on keyboard, pressing piano keys slowly) or expressive (ancillary gestures, e.g. circular body movements, jerky shoulder movements). At each specific point in the music, gestures made by the head, trunk, arms, and hands were each coded in the following pattern: E0 (no expressive gesture), E1 (one expressive gesture), T1 (one technical gesture), or E1T1 (a combination of an expressive and technical gesture). ‘Consciousness scores’ (CS) were calculated by subtracting the number of gestures observed by the researcher from the number of gestures the pianists thought they had made. To see if MBEs influenced consciousness, CS were correlated with MBE scores. The pianists’ responses (from the second questionnaire) were also qualitatively investigated using content analysis to see if any concepts or themes emerged.

Results: Pianists seemed to be conscious of general body movements, but less aware of more detailed gestures, such as wrist and shoulder movements. Although written prose from the second questionnaire indicated that the pianists were conscious of the emotional content of the music, they were not always conscious of the fact they were portraying their expressive intentions through their own gestures. In other words, their thoughts at specific points in the piece would consider expressivity of the music, whereas their thoughts of their movement would concern their technical (i.e. sound-producing) gestures. Some significant correlations were obtained for CS and MBEs. The more practical MBEs correlated consciousness of technical gestures, for example Alexander Technique positively correlated with technical CS (rs = .50, p < .05). Prior engagement with more creative MBEs correlated with expressive CS, for example dancing (rs = .46, p < .05).

Conclusions: This study provides an insight into cognitions of pianists whilst performing. The findings suggest that expressivity is subconsciously embodied regarding more detailed gestures. Results also suggest that prior engagement of the body in varying musical contexts can shape the consciousness of gestures when performing music. The findings have practical implications as they promote engagement in musical experiences that can positively affect musical development. This information can also be helpful for those who struggle with performance anxiety. Individuals may find that incorporating MBEs highlighted in this study could help regulate self-consciousness and awareness, allowing them to immerse themselves in the pleasure of music making.


Katherine O’Neill & Hauke Egermann: Does practise make perfect? An investigation on the effect of the presence of other people on eliciting the dominant response in musical performance. 


Background: The theory of social influence states that the presence of others affects the performance of an individual (Brehm et al., 1999). There are two main ways this can manifest itself, the first is social facilitation in which the presence of other people improves the performance of the individual, the second is social inhibition which has the opposite effect. The type of influence elicited (facilitation or inhibition) is thought to depend on an individual’s dominant response to the task conducted (Cottrell et al., 1968). The most-likely dominant response for a well-practiced piece could be an improvement of performance, whereas for a poorly practiced piece this could be a decrease in performance accuracy. While these effects have been frequently studied through research in various performance areas, there is a general lack of research of social influence on musical performance. However, as the presence of other people is almost always indicated in music performance this study was designed to test the phenomenon.

Aims: The aim of this study was to test the effect of the presence of other people on the accuracy and experience of musical performance. We hypothesized, 1) that the presence of other people during performance will change the performers’ subjective experience of the performance; that 2) there is a difference in accuracy of performance between the well-practiced and poorly-practiced participants groups of participants, and 3) that when participants are performing in a room where others are present, this difference in accuracy of performance between well-practiced and poorly-practiced groups will be larger due to the dominant response being elicited.

Method; These hypotheses were tested in a study in which 23 music students (aged between 18 and 22 years, 15 female) repeatedly performed Christmas carols in three different social influence conditions (mere presence of other people, evaluated by others and playing in co-action) and a control condition (alone).  Before the experiment, participants were divided into two groups: one well-practiced and poorly-practiced group. Therefore, before performances, participants could practice the carols either six times (well-practiced) or two times (poorly-practiced). The accuracy of the performance was measured by listening to the recording of the participant and computing the percentage of how many notes from one verse and chorus of the randomly allocated piece was played correctly, both rhythmically and melodically.

Results: The analysis of results shows that the evaluation co-presence condition significantly decreased the positivity of experience in both participant groups. However, while poorly-practiced performances generally lead to an increase in performance errors, this difference did not significantly change in the social influence conditions. This finding was indicated by several non-significant interaction terms between the ANOVA factors presence of person and practice condition.

Conclusions: While experiments with higher test power might lead to different test outcomes, we conclude that the results of this study suggest that the accuracy of music performance is not affected in the same way as other behaviors that do show a significant response to social influence.


Hauke Egermann, Federico Reuben & Cade McCall: Interaction between aesthetic judgement and emotional processing: Studying a concert audience listening to contemporary music.

Background: Musicologists, practitioners, and critics have recognized that contemporary music is often challenging to audiences used to traditional western music structures. There are several theories of emotional processing of music, including emotional contagion, musical expectation, or brain stem reflexes that might explain why music that is complex, dissonant, or loud induce negative emotional responses. However, such music can be also enjoyable to some listeners. This could be because aesthetic value judgement on dimensions such as originality, tastefulness, skillfulness, or expressiveness interacts with the way we respond emotionally to music (Juslin, 2013). In our view, this form of aesthetic judgement could be similar to general cognitive appraisal and reappraisal, which have been discussed to function in emotion regulation in general. Therefore, studying aesthetic value judgement and emotional responses to music might allow to show insights to the interaction of cognitive and affective systems involved in music listening.

Aims: The aim of the presented study is to test for the impact of aesthetic judgement on various psychophysiological response measures of emotion that were assessed in parallel from an entire audience listening to contemporary music. Conducting this study in a naturalistic concert setting allowed to present the music in an artistic frame that is likely to trigger aesthetic judgement processes. In order to induce different levels of aesthetic judgments in participants, we assigned them randomly to one of two groups in a between-subjects design: one group received a lecture on the music presented, illustrating its aesthetic value, and the other group received a lecture on an unrelated non-musical topic. We hypothesized that receiving the lecture on aesthetic value will increase corresponding ratings of subsequently presented music. Furthermore, we hypothesize that high aesthetic value judgments lead to different psychophysiological responses to the music compared to lower value ratings.

Method: During the concert, we assessed three different emotional response components of from 41 participants (18 music students, 23 non-music students; 10 males; mean age 23 years, range 18-42 years): a) retrospective rating of the 25-item version of the Geneva Emotion Music Scales; b) activation of the peripheral nervous system through skin conductance and heart rate; c) the activity of two facial muscles associated with emotional valence (corrugator = negative valence; zygomaticus major = positive valence). Participants listened to four contemporary pieces of which three were live performed. After each performance, participants completed an online questionnaire and assessed here the music presented according to a list of commonly discussed aesthetic judgment criteria, all thought to contribute to the perceived aesthetic value of a piece of art.

Results: Data analyses show that the lecture on the aesthetic and artistic value of the music significantly increased the aesthetic judgment ratings compared to attending the lecture on a different non-related subject. This effect was stronger for non-music students than music students. Furthermore, aesthetic judgment was shown to be related to the subjective and physiological responses to music.

Conclusions: The findings reported in this study help to understand the contribution of aesthetic judgment processes in emotional responding to music. Those results exemplify the role of cognitive-affective interactions in processing music stimuli. Furthermore, understanding if and how providing additional background information on music informs aesthetic judgment processes of music that in turn can modify our emotional responses to music, will help those that try to support music that might be emotionally problematic to some.