A functionalist perspective on emotional communication in music performance

Abstract: Music is probably the most widely practiced and appreciated of all art forms. One explanation for this may be that music offers a powerful means of emotional communication. Knowledge is scarce in this matter, however, especially when it comes to performance of music. It may be argued that this problem partly stems from a lack of relevant theories. This thesis proposes a theoretical framework, the Functionalist Perspective, that integrates ideas from research on emotions and nonverbal communication with Brunswik's (1956) Probabilistic Functionalism. The usefulness of this approach is illustrated in three studies:Study I showed that professional guitar players were able to play a piece of music so as to communicate specific emotions (i.e., happiness, sadness, anger, fear) to listeners. Acoustical analyses revealed that the performers used a number of probabilistic (i.e., uncertain) but partly redundant cues in the performance to generate the emotional expression.Study II showed that synthesized performances based on the empirical data from Study I yielded predicted judgments of emotional expression from listeners. It was further shown that the listeners used tempo, sound level, articulation, timbre, and tone attacks in their judgments. Linear regression models provided a good fit to listeners' cue utilization.Study III used multiple regression analysis to describe cue utilization of performers and listeners. The two systems were then related by means of the lens model equation. The results showed that (a) about 80% of the variance in listeners' judgments could be explained by the performer's expressive intention, (b) the accuracy of the communication depended mainly on the extent to which the cue weights of the performers matched the cue weights of the listeners, (c) the cue utilization was more consistent across melodies than across performers, and (d) there were cross-modal similarities in code usage between music and vocal expression.It is suggested that music performers may become better at communicating emotions to listeners by comparing their cue utilization, as described by regression models, with optimal models for successful communication based on the cue utilization of listeners. Implications for future research and possible applications for music education are discussed.

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