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You are here: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind > Publications > Seeing music: The percussionists' strategic use of gesture in live performance

Michael Schutz and Michael Kubovy (2006)

Seeing music: The percussionists' strategic use of gesture in live performance

Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Music and Gesture:148-150.

Percussionists have long disagreed whether it is possible to use gesture length to control note duration on the marimba when other factors (angle of attack, mallet placement, mallet speed, etc.) are held constant. Some percussionists such as Buster Bailey feel gesture length can control note length, whereas others, such as Leigh Howard Stevens, contend that gesture length ‘has no more to do with [note] duration than the sound of a car crashing is dependent on how long a road trip was taken before the accident’. To resolve this debate, stroke preparation and release of short and long notes performed by a world-renowned percussionist were videotaped, then presented to subjects under audio-visual (AV) and audio-alone (A) conditions. In AV, subjects were instructed to make duration ratings based on the auditory information alone. In the AV condition, ratings were significantly longer for notes produced using long rather than short gestures. However, there was no difference in ratings when presented under the A condition. An acoustic analysis revealed no difference in the length of notes produced using the different gestures. We conclude that while differences in gesture length offer no acoustic control over actual note duration, visual gestures allow the performer to control perceived note duration. In other words, while unable to change the sound of the note, our performer was adept at changing the way the note sounds. These results are intriguing given the unambiguous nature of note duration. Such a finding suggests visual information plays an important role in music perception. However, in addition to altering perceived duration, visual information lowered sensitivity to differences in note length, as measured by d’. While vision paradoxically allowed the performer to manipulate perception to better match his intent, this added control came with a hidden cost – the loss of listener sensitivity. Therefore while visual information plays a crucial yet previously undiscovered role in music perception, it remains unclear whether the perceptual benefits outweigh the costs. Implications of these findings for music performance and listening will be discussed, as well as further explorations into the nature of this startling and unusual finding. 

acoustic, music performance