Interpreting expressive performance through listener judgments of musical tension

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This study examines listener judgments of musical tension for a recording of a Schubert song and its harmonic reduction. Continuous tension ratings collected in an experiment and quantitative descriptions of the piece's musical features, include dynamics, pitch height, harmony, onset frequency, and tempo, were analyzed from two different angles. In the first part of the analysis, the different processing timescales for disparate features contributing to tension were explored through the optimization of a predictive tension model. The results revealed the optimal time windows for harmony were considerably longer (~22 s) than for any other feature (~1-4 s). In the second part of the analysis, tension ratings for the individual verses of the song and its harmonic reduction were examined and compared. The results showed that although the average tension ratings between verses were very similar, differences in how and when participants reported tension changes highlighted performance decisions made in the interpretation of the score, ambiguity in tension implications of the music, and the potential importance of contrast between verses and phrases. Analysis of the tension ratings for the harmonic reduction also provided a new perspective for better understanding how complex musical features inform listener tension judgments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 998
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberDEC
StatePublished - 2013


  • Activity analysis
  • Continuous response analysis
  • Expressive performance
  • Harmony
  • Tension
  • Trend salience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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