Music performance

Performing music under stress

Hello Dear Reader

And happy February! I hope that like me you are starting to notice the initial signs of spring. I have seen my first snowdrops and have definitely witnessed a gradual improvement in light levels when I walk home from work through the streets of Luzern.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere, things are gearing up to carnival which begins on 27th February, the day known locally as “Schmutziger Donnerstag” ( or “Dirty Thursday”). According to a local website ‘Strange characters with fantastic masks and costumes parade along the narrow streets while groups of carnival musicians (“Guggenmusigen”) blow their instruments in joyful cacophony and thousands of bizarrely clad people dance away the spirits of winter’. Sounds like fun!

While I wait for the sights and sounds of carnival, I have been reading about more traditional musical performances, and in particular the factors that may impact on musical expressiveness. A new article out online only in the Psychology of Music has, for the first time, investigated the impact of cognitive load on music performance.

The new paper is called ‘The consequences of additional cognitive load on performing musicians’ and is by Muzaffer Çorlu and colleagues at Ghent University in Belgium.

DSC00964.edit-thumbNot surprisingly the overall conclusion is that an occupied mind is associated with less expressive performance compared to when a musician is attentive and focused.

However, you might be surprised about what exactly can go wrong with musical expression when a musician has too much on their mind.

The researchers asked 21 musicians (9 singers and 12 instrumental players) to perform a piece that they knew by heart. They performed their chosen piece twice, Baseline first followed by a dual-task condition.

In Baseline the performers watched a screen that showed visual symbols (squares) – just to watch. In the dual-task condition the performers again watched a screen but this time they saw alternating images of squares, triangles and circles. Their job in this second condition was to count up the number of circles and triangles, ignoring the squares.

medical-158177_640The protocol involved a 2 minute rest at the start. The researchers measured heart rate activity throughout the study so they needed to establish a resting heart rate.

The musician then performed 2 minutes of Baseline performance (as above) and then stopped for a 2 minute end rest, before beginning the same 3 part protocol for the dual task condition.

Performances were evaluated using both subjective and objective set of measurements.

First (subjective) three judges (expert music scholars) watched a video of all the performances, unaware of the conditions. They rated both performances by each musician for mistakes in phrasing, tempo, rhythm, and finally judged which performance was less expressive overall.

Secondly, the authors measured two general acoustic features of the two performances by each musician. These had to be quite general since everyone was playing/singing different pieces. Different software programs were used to compute a measure of sound energy (dynamics) and phrase duration (timing)


First, there were no effects of the condition (Baseline vs. dual-task) on heart rate. That result might lead you to question whether this study reflects the experience of genuine performance anxiety/stress. Post-experiment questionnaires indicated that the musicians found the dual-task condition more stressful but I would understand if you, dear reader, were thinking “counting triangles does not really reflect something that could actually happen in music performance” – and you are probably right but keep reading, there are useful insights to come …

Next there was clear agreement across the judges: 89% of the time they rated the dual-task condition as less expressive. That means that in real terms, increasing unrelated mental activity impairs performance expression. We could try this with a more realistic task (e.g. when people worry about a personal problem) but I am pretty sure the result would be similar.

Finally, the fundamental question – what might be behind those poorer judgments? How is the music less expressive in the dual-task condition?

Not in dynamics. The researchers found no differences in the general way people used sound energy across their two performances.



The answer lay in timing. Interestingly, the only effect in this study was found when the authors looked at the timing of phrase pauses. People did not play or sing their notes any faster or slower under cognitive load – but they cut short their pause durations.



Why would cognitive load mess with timing? This is not really a surprise as we are all aware that stress can mess with our judgement of time’s passage. There are numerous theories as to why a cognitive load would extend our perception of time, meaning that musicians might mistakenly believe that their expressive pauses are long enough when in fact they are cutting them short.

But why would a cognitive load interfere with just the pauses? Why not timing in general?

This is where a new theory is developed. The researchers argue that when musicians practice a piece they lay down embodied (body based) markers for timing: internal, implicit, well rehearsed motoric patterns for how to play or sing the notes according to a timing schemata. This process is automatized and therefore not so vulnerable to additional cognitive load at the time of performance.



By their argument, pauses between phrases are vulnerable to failures in on the spot timing judgment because musicians don’t have as strong an embodied sense of pauses in performance, as they do for sound-generating gestures.


This is an interesting theory that links motor understanding and music performance with relation to expression, and one that may have consequences for music education. Of course it is only a theory, and a new one, so it needs a few tests.

In a final note, the authors suggest that the dual-task technique may be a good tool for performance preparation as the musicians in this study reported that it helped them to focus in on parts of the piece that were less ‘stable’ and assured. So, if you are a musician, then why not try a mental task while performing and see whether it throws new light on your reflections of your performance.

Featured paper: Muzaffer Çorlu et al.The consequences of additional cognitive load on performing musicians: Published online before print February 6, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0305735613519841

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