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09-05-2019 | Original Article

Tonal and textural influences on musical sight-reading

Auteurs: Olivia Podolak Lewandowska, Mark A. Schmuckler

Gepubliceerd in: Psychological Research | Uitgave 7/2020

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Abstract

Two experiments investigated the impact of two structural factors—musical tonality and musical texture—on pianists’ ability to play by sight without prior preparation, known as musical sight-reading. Tonality refers to the cognitive organization of tones around a central reference pitch, whereas texture refers to the organization of music in terms of the simultaneous versus successive onsets of tones as well as the number of hands (unimanual versus bimanual) involved in performance. Both experiments demonstrated that tonality and texture influenced sight-reading. For tonality, both studies found that errors in performance increased for passages with lesser perceived psychological stability (i.e., minor and atonal passages) relative to greater perceived stability (i.e., major passages). For texture, both studies found that errors in performance increased for passages that were more texturally complex, requiring two-handed versus one-handed performance, with some additional evidence that the relative simultaneity of note onsets (primarily simultaneous versus primarily successive) also influenced errors. These experiments are interpreted within a perception–action framework of music performance, highlighting influences of both top-down cognitive factors and bottom-up motoric processes on sight-reading behavior.
Voetnoten
1
Within the context of piano performance, it is possible to create unimanual passages that contain harmonic complexity and combine simultaneous and successive note onsets, and to create bimanual passages that present only a single melodic line (i.e., the two hands playing strictly in parallel). For simplicity, we are associating unimanual and bimanual performances with a certain level of variation in musical texture, although the comparison between homophonic and polyphonic passages does allow us to compare texture within bimanual performance. Future work, however, will disentangle these structural factors and motoric constraints.
 
2
Technically, a key signature indicates one of two tonalities for a passage—the relative major and minor tonalities (e.g., G major or E minor).
 
3
A statistical comparison of the number of accidentals included in the major, minor, and atonal passages revealed that, ironically, the major and minor variants actually contained significantly more accidentals (M = 25.87, SD = 16.03 for major and M = 26.0, SD = 14.94 for minor) than the atonal variants (M = 15.71, SD = 9.65), F(2, 46) = 23.93, MSE = 34.98, p < 0.001. Although less than ideal, it should be recognized that such a difference actually works against the principal hypothesis that sight-reading will be more difficult for atonal, as opposed to tonal passages.
 
4
While this was not tested explicitly in this study, it is possible that participants had memorized the music prior to performance in the unspecified amount of time provided to visually inspect the pieces. As such, it could be argued that the task in this study does not qualify as sight-reading. We do not believe that this is the case, since prior studies of sight-reading have provided participants with visual inspection times comparable to the times self-selected by participants in this study (e.g., 60 s in Kopiez & Lee, 2006; Meinz & Hambrick, 2010; Wöllner, Halfpenny, Ho, & Kurosawa, 2003; 30 seconds in Henry, 2011; Wolfs, Boshiuzen, & van Strien, 2018). Moreover, the act of sight-reading involves “the instant adaptation to new [motor] constraints” (Lehmann & McArthur, 2002). Because participants were not allowed to play the piano while visually inspecting the to-be-performed pieces in this study (which has not always been the case in previous studies of sight-reading), pianists’ performances more likely reflect fundamental processes involved in sight-reading than rehearsed performance. This is not to say, of course, that working memory processes are not involved in musical sight-reading, just as such processes are involved in reading text (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Dixon, LeFevre, & Twilley, 1988). Rather, the argument here is that although a component of sight-reading behavior, pianists’ performances are not necessarily being driven by such memory processes.
 
5
It is also possible to divide the number of errors by the number of notes produced by the participant, as opposed to the number of notes in the musical score. A subsidiary set of analyses actually employed this measure and produced comparable results to those reported in the text.
 
6
As an interesting aside, we attempted a follow-up experiment to this study employing as participants a group of graduate and senior undergraduate students who were enrolled in a course on atonal music theory and composition. Our assumption was that such a participant pool would have significant familiarity with atonal materials, and that by testing sight-reading of tonal and atonal materials both prior to and following the conclusion of this class we could actually directly assess the impact on sight-reading of explicit familiarity with the music style. Unfortunately, our intentions were undermined by the fact that once we explained that we were investigating sight-reading performance, we could not encourage any of the students in this class to participate in the experiment.
 
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Metagegevens
Titel
Tonal and textural influences on musical sight-reading
Auteurs
Olivia Podolak Lewandowska
Mark A. Schmuckler
Publicatiedatum
09-05-2019
Uitgeverij
Springer Berlin Heidelberg
Gepubliceerd in
Psychological Research / Uitgave 7/2020
Print ISSN: 0340-0727
Elektronisch ISSN: 1430-2772
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01187-1

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