Translating Comedic Impression to Clinical Experience

How physical manipulations can influence one's response to music

Posted Sep 21, 2013

The following video recently made the rounds in music therapy-land:

When I first watched the video, I was highly entertained, moving to the music and laughing at my favorite impressions: Julie Andrews, Zooey Deschanel, Celine Dion...

When I watched the video a second time, I began to! How is she DOING that?

So then I watched the video a third time, then a fourth time, then a fifth. With each viewing, I watch Christina Bianco a little more closely and analyzed how she was creating those amazing impressions. What physical and vocal activity was she controlling and manipulating to create these sudden shifts.

First on the list is timbre, which can be thought of as the sound quality of the sound. Timbre is what helps us identify and discriminate between a flute and a tuba, even with our eyes closed. The timbral changes Christina was making seemed to primarily involved the use or exaggeration of vibrato (e.g. her Julie Andrews) and shifting to a more nasal tone (e.g. her Kristin Chenoweth).

Second is Christina's physical control of her facial affect, hand and arm gestures, and body posture. If you close your eyes and listen to the video, you will still perceive the different impressions she is creating. But if you watch and listen at the same time, the effect is enhanced, it's more powerful (incidentally, this is supported by research which indicates that an audiovisual stimulus is perceived as more emotional than a purely audio or purely visual stimulus. But I digress...).

The third item involved Christina's oral-motor control and how she changed the shape of her mouth with different impressions. Part of this is related to timbre in that it allowed her control over how her vowels were shaped. The other part is visual and how the shape of her mouth contributed to the overall effect of her facial affect.

The final observation is her control over the nuances of the music. The subtle rhythmic and tonal shifts that lend a unique musicality to the melody, which Christina does so beautifully in her Adele impression. Interestingly, it's these nuances that are thought to contribute to a music-induced emotional experience.

So why an interest in this? Part of it is purely academic on my part, analyzing how Christine creates those musical impressions.

The other part is clinical. As a music therapist, our training involves being aware of our physical movements. Our facial affect, how our body is positioned, the gestures we make. These can make a difference not only in how the music stimulus is produced, but perhaps (as evidenced by Christina's performance) in how our clients perceive and interpret a musical experience.

In short, exploring how an artist like Christina controls that side of her performance helps me as a clinician learn ways I can do the same. Which can potentially enhance the experience of my clients and the effect of the music stimulus.