Are There Differences In The Perception Of Vibrato?

24 Jun

A group of researchers investigated whether the perception of vibrato differed between groups of strings and non-string players.  Vibrato is a musical embellishment that involves bending the pitch of a target note (sharp or flat) to produce a wobbling effect (from a psycho-acoustic perspective, it is the deliberate detuning of an instrument to add expression or color to a melodic line).   An example of the effect can be listened too here.

In the study, two groups of music majors were taken from two universities and organized according to their experience in stringed instrument performance.  Both the “string” group and the “non-string” group consisted of 36 music majors.  Participants of the experiment were presented with 16 pairs of pre-recorded cello and violin samples.  In each pair, a sample note with vibrato was played through one speaker, while a sample of the same note with no vibrato was played through another.  The participants could add and manipulate vibrato to the non-vibrato sample by turning an unmarked dial.  The instructions given to the participants were to “match” the same width and pitch of the presented vibrato sample.  No time limit was given, and the vibrato sample was looped to ensure that the participants could use as much time as needed.

The results showed that both group of music major perceived the pitch of vibrato to be near the center of both the cello and violin tones.  This means that despite the fluctuating pitches caused by the vibrato, both groups still identified the general pitch that the deviations were centered around.   However, non-string players reported a wider range of deviation from the center pitch than the string players.  These results suggest that experience with string performance may result in a more acute sense of pitch perception, and in this specific case the tuning of stringed instruments.  Finally, this study found a distinction of pitch perception across gender differences: female participants found the pitch of vibrato tones to be tuned 2 cents sharper than what male participants perceived.  Though, as the researchers conclude, 2 cents of difference is below the threshold of pitch discrimination and further research will be needed to investigate whether there are any gender differences in pitch perception.

These studies not only reveal differences between specialized musicians, but remain consistent with studies on “expertise:” those familiar with or experts at an activity tend to have different cognitive experiences than the lay-person.  It would be interesting to combine the methodology of this study with that of neuroscience to examine any differences in brain activation between the “string” group and “non-string” group.

Geringer, J.M., MacLeod, R.B., & Allen, M.L. (2010). Perceived pitch of violin and cello vibrato tones among music majors. Journal of research in music education, 57, 351- 364.


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