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The Psychology of Music (Part 2)

Find out how your hands are motivated to play music.

In the last article we began to talk about performance variations, in particular, 'context-free' variations which apply to each note in the same way. There is another type of variation called 'context-sensitive'. This includes such techniques as rubato, attack, decay, sustain, fluctuation in pitch and timbre, and so on - what you could call "expressive" variations. In any ongoing performance they may be applied at the discretion of the player and are not related intrinsically to the instrument, except where the degree of influence is controlled by the action of mechanical, electromechanical and electronic devices. It is interesting to note that a performer practising a piece to improve his or her grasp of it will probably use considerably less 'context-sensitive' expression than in live concert, although it is more than likely that the 'context-free' variations of intensity and speed remain the same.

Figure 1. A schematic diagram showing the main processes involved in the translation of an abstract musical representation.

Models of Music Performance

It is common practice in science and psychology to try to form models which represent in some defined way some of the processes which we are interested in. They do not constitute exact representations of the real world, but are helpful in making abstract notions more approachable and understandable. With that cautionary note over let's try to sum up where we stand so far. Figure 1 summarises in schematic form a possible model of what we have discussed so far. Consider the performance plan as a 'memory' of a specific piece of music which contains specified values of pitch, duration and intensity. These values have been obtained from either the auditory system, the visual system, spontaneous creation from previous knowledge, or any combination of these. As the plan is probably quite large it has to be decoded in fragments by a set of action plans which 'move along' the performance plan as on a conveyor belt. These 'chunks' of information now have acquired further information about the action sequences necessary to bring about their physical realisation. This is a pre-requisite of the final stage in the processing of the original plan: the organisation and coordination of the muscles and joints which will bring about the desired physical response. This function is carried out by the 'motor programs', which, unlike the action plans, organise specific motor responses rather than sequences of such responses.

This system allows for the addition of more statements or lines in the programs that make up the processing stages. It is this modularisation which lends itself to the computer analogy, and also to the developmental way in which we learn to play instruments or indeed pieces of music. It is easy to see that as one becomes more practised at a piece or in an area of technique, the complexity of the programs increases, as does the complexity within as the programs become greater.

Finally it is possible to envisage a feedback system that would allow for both pre-note correction and decisions about future expression and so on. For instance, if there was a sensory feedback system that could keep the motor programs 'informed' of the coordinates in space of each finger, then it would be a relatively simple matter to adjust the ballistic movement of a misplaced finger so that it would hit the correct note instead of an incorrect one. Something closely resembling this must, in fact, operate through the action of the nervous system in conjunction with the coordination centres in the brain. The expressive feedback loop operates in a similar fashion but this time through the mediation of the eyes and/or ears. With sufficient experience, it is also possible to obtain information about the context-sensitive variation from muscular feedback and so carry out on-going systematic expression.

The Acquisition of Performance Plans

There are three main categories: i) Memorisation, ii) Transcription, and iii) Improvisation. The majority of experimental work in these areas has been conducted on transcription skills as they are more easily studied. This is simply because they are easier to study experimentally. However, as we shall see later, it is almost impossible to draw a definite line between Memorisation and Transcription.

For a musician to play a succession of notes at a reasonable pace and with fluency, it is essential that there is some lag between seeing the note (if it is on manuscript) and actually playing it. When playing from memory or when freely improvising, this does not happen. The fact that there needs to be a lag between 'input' and 'output' means, in practical terms, that the musician must look ahead of the note that he or she is currently playing. For instance, in Figure 2, if the player was experienced then he or she would be looking at one or more of the notes denoted 'L' whilst playing the note marked 'P'. This is a technique which has been well proven to work, and which many musicians use without realising it. The phenomenon is called 'The Eye-Hand Span', and refers to the time lag between input and output in any transcription task, from typewriting to reading from score, to simultaneously translating from one language into another i.e. from German to English.

Figure 2. In an on-going performance the performer chunks together sequences of notes in such a way that the notes being played are approximately 4 to 6 notes behind those being viewed. This enables the output response sequence to be fluent and controlled.

We will return to this topic in greater detail in a future article with some experimental work conducted by the author using an electronic keyboard and an Apple II Micro. The problem in deciding where memorisation is distinct from transcription is that any time lag implies memorisation on some level or another and where this begins and ends is impossible to determine experimentally.


Memorisation is more often a seemingly passive process: it is possible to hear a tune several times and then be able to reproduce it in a rough fashion. Practically everyone has had the familiar phenomenon of having a snatch of tune 'running around in the head'.

However, on many occasions the act of remembering something can be quite deliberate, particularly when strategies are used to commit music to memory. The major reason why extremely little experimentation has been done in this area is because it is infested with intractable difficulties.

The only significant light which has been shed on the possible processes at work in the memorisation of music has been from studies of errors and transformations that can occur in musical memory. Studies have shown that whilst it is possible for a person to commit a specific tune to memory, and later reproduce it in a mode convenient to them, there are often errors which are far from random and which are consistent between different people recalling the same tune. A famous liturgical example of this is the hymn tune St. Denio (I'm sure that you will recognise it as Figure 3!). Although it contains a line (a) notated the same in all standard hymn books, you will rarely hear it sung like this, unless drilled otherwise. What you are much more likely to hear is the line (b) with the passing note added.

Figure 3. Extract from 'St Denio'.

It seems, therefore, that people generally impose pre-conceived musical ideas or structures on new melodies, so that they remember them not as they physically sounded at the time, but as they expected them to sound. These pre-conceived structures are called 'schemas', and they can be thought of as exactly the same processes that result in you knowing how to react when you are in a restaurant that is unfamiliar to you. How you react depends largely on how you react in other familiar restaurants. You have a schema for what is likely to happen on entering restaurants, and so you merely impose this on the new situation in order to cope with it. Schemas are important for long-term memorisation.

Figure 4. Model for playing from memory.

How do we play music from memory? Figure 4 shows a simplified schematic model which might account for some of the main processes. Here the performance plan is the result of some constructive memorisation process which has specified the parameters of pitch, duration, and intensity. The action plans 'move along' this, decoding it in manageable chunks for the motor coordination programs. It is easy to see why these areas have been treated as 'black boxes', as they cannot be fathomed through any effort of will, either by introspecting or concentrating whilst playing an instrument.

Much of this sort of information processing goes on below our level of awareness, particularly the more automatic it becomes. This is typical of music performance; to study it requires sophisticated and sensitive equipment and a great deal of experimental control. This is just one way in which musicians and scientists are struggling to find answers to difficult questions which have plagued traditional music theory for centuries.

Next we'll look at improvisation and transcription.


Read the next part in this series:
The Psychology of Music (Part 3)

Previous Article in this issue

Ibanez HD1000 Harmonics/Delay

Next article in this issue

The Klone-Kit2

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Nov 1983

Donated & scanned by: Stewart Lawler


Music Theory


The Psychology of Music

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing) | Part 3

Feature by Andrew Morris

Previous article in this issue:

> Ibanez HD1000 Harmonics/Dela...

Next article in this issue:

> The Klone-Kit2

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