Reinvestigating the Impact of Final Ritardandi on Music Evaluation and Felt Musical Tension

By Kleinsmith, Abigail L.; Friedman, Ronald S. et al. | Psychomusicology, October 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Reinvestigating the Impact of Final Ritardandi on Music Evaluation and Felt Musical Tension


Kleinsmith, Abigail L., Friedman, Ronald S., Neill, W. Trammell, Psychomusicology


Musical performances are routinely imbued with timing variations that are either entirely unnotated or only partially specified in any written score. Research has revealed that these local variations in tempo, collectively referred to as rubato, are shaped by a complex combination of motor, perceptual, and cognitive factors (Penel & Drake, 1999, 2004), that they enable listeners to reliably distinguish between the performances of different musicians (Sloboda & Lehmann, 2001), and that they substantially contribute to the perception of emotional expressivity in a given performance (Bhatara, Tirovolas, Duan, Levy, & Levitin, 2011).

A number of studies have specifically examined how expressive timing variations influence music preference and/or judgments of performance quality. For instance, Repp (1992a) analyzed the timing pattern used by expert pianists to perform a repeated melodic gesture in Schumann's Träumerei. Although the notes in the gesture are isochronous as written in the score, Repp found that pianists tended to vary the onset time between notes according to a parabolic function, with local tempo rising and then falling. He then conducted an experimental study in which he presented to both musically trained and untrained listeners different versions of the abovementioned gesture, which varied in their timing pattern (i.e., conforming to a standard parabolic function vs. an unnatural parabolic or nonparabolic function). Here, musicians reported that the variations that conformed to the parabolic pattern used by expert pianists sounded better to them, whereas nonmusicians did not show any consistent preference for one timing pattern over another. Repp concludes that with musical training, or at least extensive listening experience, individuals develop clear expectations and preferences for patterns of rubato and that this can serve as a constraint for performers on what constitutes an aesthetically optimal rendition of a musical gesture. Interestingly, in subsequent research, Repp (1997) showed that expert piano performances that deviate from normative timing profiles may be perceived as less beautiful, even if they are judged as more unique, suggesting that distinct, and potentially conflicting, criteria may factor into evaluations of overall musical quality.

Another notable study bearing on how timing variations influence music evaluation was conducted by Johnson (1996). Here, a panel of expert musicians were asked to judge the quality of several performances of the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major for Horn and Orchestra. The two highest and lowest-ranked performances were subsequently played for a set of musicians and nonmusicians, who were asked to make continuous ratings of the appropriateness of the use of rubato in each horn solo and to rate the overall musicianship and quality of expression shown by each soloist. Johnson found that for the two finest performances, as judged by experts, musicians rated the use of rubato as more appropriate. These ratings were also associated with higher evaluations of musicianship and quality of expression. Nonmusicians were apparently unable to use patterns of rubato to discriminate between performances in a manner that conformed with the experts' rankings. The results of this study suggest that rubato use may play a significant role in the ability to make refined judgments of musical quality.

In subsequent studies, Johnson (1997, 2003) extended these findings, confirming that, at least for musically trained listeners, the normative use of interpretive rubato is essential to judgments of "musicality," whereas unnaturally exaggerated levels of rubato may contribute to a performance sounding less musical (and thereby presumably lower in aesthetic quality and less enjoyable). Notably, Johnson, Madsen, and Geringer (2012) have observed that although musicians seem to be able to discriminate the finest performances using patterns of rubato, when they are themselves allowed to alter the local tempo of a standard performance to maximize musicality, they tend to impose patterns of rubato that are associated with what experts would deem relatively mundane renditions of a piece. …

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