Michael Schutz and Scott Lipscomb created this study to settle the debate among percussionists: does the length of the striking gesture have any direct impact on the length of the resulting tone? They found that the stroke height used in playing a note on the marimba had no effect on the acoustic length of the note. However, gesture and visual information played a large role in the perceived length of notes, even when the acoustic properties between so-called "long" and "short" notes were indistinguishable. They concluded that "music is only music within the mind of the listener" and observed that effective musical performances must rely on both auditory and visual information. Performances heard in contexts such as recorded radio broadcasts and blind auditions rob "both the performer and audience of a significant dimension of musical communication."
I was frequently reminded of this topic after hearing Michael Schutz speak at the Colloquy for Music Psychology and Neuroscience. As performers of any instrument, we need to consider every aspect of the musical performance from the audience perspective. While many pianists will protest at the notion that the piano is a percussion instrument, it is undeniable that the basic operation mechanisms of the the instrument are similar to those of some percussion instruments. Many issues of performance are based on the fact that piano tones decay immediately. For example, in passages where composers write a crescendo under a long held note, my students often have trouble imagining that the note is growing louder.
The solution to this is partly further development of the inner ear, but this type of phrasing could also be understood through the use of a physical gesture. I can remember the first time I encountered this problem as a student. My teacher asked me to sing the phrase, noticing how my physical gestures mirrored the character of the long note. This demonstration was very helpful when I returned to the piano; the way I used my breath and arms to conduct the note made it much easier to shape the long note at the piano.
Beyond the basic level of duration of notes, gesture can also enhance other musical events. While preparing for a concerto competition in which I performed the same concerto as three other pianists, I was advised to use physical gestures to set myself apart from the others. Rather than simply playing a quick passage note-perfectly, she guided me in using an arm motion that would assist in communicating the effect of soaring, both musically and visually. Of course, my performance had to be technically sound and expressive in order for these visual "extras" to have any effect.
There are those who would dismiss this approach as purely virtuosic and lacking in artistic depth. Indeed, without a solid performance, visual displays merely distract the audience. Yet the findings of this study clearly show that visual cues act as an aid to audiences, influencing the way in which we respond to auditory information. Perhaps what is needed is a fine balance of both audio and visual cues. "Virtuosos are masters at shaping the musical experience, which in this case means using visual information to accomplish that which is impossible 'in reality'."