How Musicians Communicate Non-Verbally During Performance

Summary: Fitting musicians with motion capture sensors and applying mathematical techniques, researchers discover how musicians communicate non-verbally while performing different pieces of music.

Source: McMaster University.

A team of researchers from McMaster University has discovered a new technique to examine how musicians intuitively coordinate with one another during a performance, silently predicting how each will express the music.

The findings, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, provide new insights into how musicians synchronize their movements so they are playing exactly in time, as one single unit.

“Successfully performing music with a group is a highly complex endeavor,” explains Laurel Trainor, the senior author on the study and director of the LIVELab at McMaster University where the work was conducted.

“How do musicians coordinate with each other to perform expressive music that has changes in tempo and dynamics? Accomplishing this relies on predicting what your fellow musicians will do next so that you can plan the motor movements so as to express the same emotions in a coordinated way. If you wait to hear what your fellow musicians will do, it is too late,” she says.

For this study, researchers turned to the Gryphon Trio, an acclaimed chamber music ensemble. Each performer was fitted with motion capture markers to track their movements while the musicians played happy or sad musical excerpts, once with musical expression, once without.

motion tracking of the musicians
This is an image of the motion capture used to measure performers’ image is credited to LIVELab, McMaster University.

Using mathematical techniques, investigators measured how much the movements of each musician were predicting the movements of the others.

Whether they were portraying joy or sadness, the musicians predicted each others’ movements to a greater extent when they played expressively, compared to when they played with no emotion.

“Our work shows we can measure communication of emotion between musicians by analyzing their movements in detail, and that achieving a common emotion expression as a group requires a lot of communication,” says Andrew Chang, the lead author on the study.

Researchers suggest this novel technique can be applied to other situations, such as communication between non-verbal patients and their family and caregivers. They are also testing the technique in a study on romantic attraction.

“The early results indicate that communication measured in body sway can predict which couples will want to see each other again,” says Chang.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Michelle Donovan – McMaster University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to LIVELab, McMaster University.
Original Research: Open access research for “Body sway reflects joint emotional expression in music ensemble performance” by Andrew Chang, Haley E. Kragness, Steven R. Livingstone, Dan J. Bosnyak & Laurel J. Trainor in Scientific Reports. Published January 18 2019.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]McMaster University”How Musicians Communicate Non-Verbally During Performance.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 January 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]McMaster University(2019, January 18). How Musicians Communicate Non-Verbally During Performance. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 18, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]McMaster University”How Musicians Communicate Non-Verbally During Performance.” (accessed January 18, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Body sway reflects joint emotional expression in music ensemble performance

Joint action is essential in daily life, as humans often must coordinate with others to accomplish shared goals. Previous studies have mainly focused on sensorimotor aspects of joint action, with measurements reflecting event-to-event precision of interpersonal sensorimotor coordination (e.g., tapping). However, while emotional factors are often closely tied to joint actions, they are rarely studied, as event-to-event measurements are insufficient to capture higher-order aspects of joint action such as emotional expression. To quantify joint emotional expression, we used motion capture to simultaneously measure the body sway of each musician in a trio (piano, violin, cello) during performances. Excerpts were performed with or without emotional expression. Granger causality was used to analyze body sway movement time series amongst musicians, which reflects information flow. Results showed that the total Granger-coupling of body sway in the ensemble was higher when performing pieces with emotional expression than without. Granger-coupling further correlated with the emotional intensity as rated by both the ensemble members themselves and by musician judges, based on the audio recordings alone. Together, our findings suggest that Granger-coupling of co-actors’ body sways reflects joint emotional expression in a music ensemble, and thus provide a novel approach to studying joint emotional expression.

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