The gloomy, heart-felt words and melody of a love ballad; the infectious joy of the gamelan orchestra; the somber and searching tones of "Taps" sounded on a solo trumpet: Do the musicians in each case actually feel some of the emotions that they express through music, or is their expression merely performed, with little personal resonance? A small study of instrumental music students in England offers some clues.

The investigators, Anemone Van Zijl and John Sloboda, asked the students to keep a "practice diary" for a week as they worked on a single piece of their own choosing. Some of the students were in the beginning stages of work on their pieces, while others were closer to producing a stage-ready performance. All were focused on playing "art" or classical music, and their time commitment ranged from six hours a week (a violinist beginning to work on Bach's E Major Partita for solo violin) to a staggering forty-five hours put in by a cellist in the final stages of work on Ligeti's Sonata for Solo Cello. In the diary the students recorded the particular section or sections of the piece they were concentrating on, interpretive decisions regarding musical expressivity, technical difficulties or challenges, any "inner techniques" they used to perform the desired interpretation (thoughts, visualizations, etc.), the emotion expressed by the music, and any emotion invoked in themselves. The investigators also interviewed the musicians twice, once before they filled out the diary and once after.

Results were intriguing. All of the participants said that filling out the diary made them more aware of their particular strategies while working through a piece and preparing for a performance. The musicians reported using a wide variety of different "inner techniques" as they worked through their pieces. While the participants were consistent in both interviews as to how they described a "musically expressive performance," they were able to answer in much more detail in the second interview, after they had gone through the exercise of filling out the practice diaries. All of the participants reported feeling emotions during practice and were able to identify emotions expressed in the music. Interestingly, the participants tended to describe the emotions in the music in very specific and subtle ways, but described their own emotions in more vague and general terms. Sometimes the musicians' emotions were similar to the emotions expressed in the music, and sometimes they seemed to be causally related, as when playing a sad passage made one performer feel calm. Others times the musicians' emotions seemed to be more directly related to the practice activity itself, with feelings of frustration over technically challenging passages, and feelings of triumph as these same passages were mastered.

In their analysis of the interviews and diaries, Van Zijl and Sloboda identified four different phases that musicians seemed to go through as they worked towards a stage-ready performance. Each of these phases had a different emotional resonance for performers, and a different relation between the emotions expressed in the music and the musicians' own emotions. In Phase 1, the initial exploration of a piece, musicians played through the piece in order to get a sense of its overall shape. As they attended to the composer's intentions (indicated in the score) and to musical conventions and style, they also "checked in" with the emotions they experienced while playing in order to get a sense of how the piece should ideally sound. Phase 2 was devoted to mastering technical difficulties and also working through the negative emotions related to these difficulties. Participants felt that, in this stage, negative emotions tended to get in the way of experiencing the emotions present in the music. When technical difficulties have been mastered, Phase 3, the construction of an expressive interpretation, follows. Here musicians used various inner techniques in order to bring their own emotions in line with the emotions expressed in the music. As they progressed, the intensity of their own emotions waned, as they moved from feeling the emotions expressed by the music to knowing how to express them musically. Finally, in Phase 4, the construction of an expressive performance, all of these different aspects come together. The participants describe being engaged with the emotions expressed in the music such that they were able to integrate some felt emotion with their knowledge of how to perform the work and express the musical emotions in a convincing way, all the while keeping a sense of awareness or control of the process.

It seems clear that any distinction between musicians' genuine and performed emotions is more complicated than had been suspected. Much remains to be known about musicians' emotional experience, and I hope that Van Zijl and Sloboda (or other researchers) will continue to address these and related questions. Do amateur musicians have a different emotional relation to their instruments and to the works they perform than do these expert musicians? Do musicians working in different musical genres go through a similar process as they work towards performance? Do they have different or similar emotional responses? Finally, is there a difference between playing the blues and singing the blues? That is, does the particularization of emotion through song lyrics, (not just "lonesome" but "so lonesome I could cry") have an effect on the emotional lives of singers?

Van Zijl, Anemone G. W. and John Sloboda. Performers' experienced emotions in the construction of expressive musical performance: An exploratory investigation. Psychology of Music, April 2011; vol. 39, 2: pp. 196-219.

About the Author

Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., is the coeditor of Song, Songs, and Singing and the author of Why Music Moves Us.

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