Caitlyn Trevor, David Huron, Johanna Devaney

Analyses of the Musical Motivations Behind Expressive Left-hand Performance Practices of Classical String Players

Subject: Classical string players have to decide how to finger their musical passages–decide which fingers should play each note and where on the instrument. Typically technical ease is the main goal of fingering. However, sometimes fingerings are based on expressive intention rather than technical ease alone. For example, when aiming to increase the emotional intensity of a passage, advanced string players sometimes choose to play a passage using a high position on a low string even though upper position playing is more challenging. This study investigates this seemingly counterintuitive performance choice.

Theories of the Creative Process: Research in speech offers a possible explanation. When highly emotional, people tend to speak higher in their range. Accordingly, utterances at the identical pitch level will sound more emotional if the speaker is perceived to have a lower tessitura than a higher one. Moving to a high position on a lower string might mimic this vocal emotional communication practice to convey a higher emotionality.

Goals: The methodology was generated from the following questions: for listeners, is there an audible difference between string registers (low- versus high-positions) and does that difference impact their emotional perception of a performance?

Data: The data for these studies will consist of behavioral experimental response data and acoustic analyses data.

Methodology: Cellists were recorded playing 14 sustained pitches. For each pitch, one recording was made of that pitch being played in a low position on a high string and one recording of the same pitch in a high position on a low string resulting in 14 pairs of recordings of the same pitch played in different positions. In the experiment, participants were given two “sound groups” with example recordings: Group A with low position pitches and Group B with high position pitches. Participants were asked to identify which recorded pitch (of each pair) sounded most similar to Group B. In part two, one short melody was recorded in low and high playing positions. In a 2AFC paradigm, listeners chose which of the two versions of the melody they perceived as more emotionally expressive. In part three, acoustic analyses related to timbre were conducted testing for measurable differences between string registers.

Results: Results demonstrate that listeners are reasonably able to differentiate between the playing positions (p < .001) but might not interpret melodies played in a high playing position as more expressive. The acoustic analyses results show that there are notable timbral differences between string registers. From a pedagogical standpoint, these results can inform string teaching practices for training string students on how to approach fingering a musical passage, an essential skill for becoming a professional string instrument player.


Ohio State University, USA

Is a multidisciplinary musician who endeavors to incorporate all her areas of study into her work as a performer, music theorist, teacher, and music cognition researcher. She recently completed her PhD in Music Theory at Ohio State University. She previously completed a Masters in Cello Performance and a Masters in Music Theory at Ohio State University as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Music at Illinois Wesleyan University with focuses on cello, composition, and music cognition. Caitlyn is also a part of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory working under David Huron. Her research interests include expressive performance practices, film music, and music and emotion.

Ohio State University, USA

Brooklyn College, CUNY, USA