Score-dependency: over-reliance on performing music from notation reduces aural pitch replication skills

Corcoran, C. and Spiro, N. (2021) Score-dependency: over-reliance on performing music from notation reduces aural pitch replication skills. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies, 10. pp. 73-98.


Background in music performance: Most music is performed or improvised by ear, but Western classical musicians primarily perform music from notated scores. Background in music perception: Classical musicians have greater difficulties playing melodies by ear than musicians with other backgrounds (Woody & Lehman, 2010). This ties in with Harris and de Jong’s (2015) finding that non-improvising musicians exhibit less activation in the right auditory cortex than improvising musicians. The right auditory cortex is known to play a central role in pitch processing (Peretz & Zatorre, 2005). Aims: (1) To investigate score-dependency (SD) in a behavioural study as a tendency for classical musicians to rely on notation over aural engagement in a music-learning scenario, and quantify SD levels for research. (2) To establish whether SD affects pitch perception. (3) To establish whether SD is a result of long term engagement in a score-focussed performance culture that precludes or minimizes participation in ear-playing scenarios. Main contribution: Through a behavioural experiment we explore how score-dependency (SD) affects aural reproduction mechanisms, especially with regards to pitch. We introduce the SDR (score-dependency rating) measure for establishing musicians’ individual levels of SD in relation to that of their peers. 20 notationally literate classical musicians were played a number of melodies and were asked to reproduce them on their instruments while simultaneously referring to provided music notation. By manipulating the degree of pitch and rhythm information shown in the music notation, we controlled the amount of pitch/rhythm information participants had to reproduce by ear alone. Counting how many times they needed to hear each melody again before task completion let us quantify their individual levels of dependence on notation. More score-dependent musicians showed a significant effect of struggling to reproduce pitch content—but not rhythm content—by ear. This effect was not found for nondependent musicians. As pitch and rhythm are likely processed separately, SD may selectively affect aural pitch perception mechanisms, explaining reportedly limited activations in the right auditory cortex among SD musicians. Participants' age and years of music experience correlated with their SD levels, suggesting that long-term reliance on notation may increase this effect. Our results therefore indicate that SD may be an extreme form of overlearning, stemming from a long-term involvement in score-focussed performance practice without engaging in mitigating ear-playing scenarios. This posits SD as an effect of extreme task specialisation that creates a dependency on a specific technology (notation). We argue that this may limit a wider embodied engagement with music in favour of developing skill-specific cognitive mechanisms. Implications: Our data suggests that a score-specific musical focus as often found in classical music education can endanger aural reproduction skills for pitch and associated perception/action mechanisms. Consequently, results have implications for music education and performance, as well as for cognitive and neuroscientific research into perception of music.

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