Complexity of physiological responses decreases in high-stress musical performance

Williamon, A. and Aufegger, L. and Wasley, D. and Looney, D. and Mandic, D. P. (2013) Complexity of physiological responses decreases in high-stress musical performance. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 10 (89) ISSN 1742-5689 (print) 1742-5662 (online)


For musicians, performing in front of an audience can cause considerable apprehension; indeed, performance anxiety is felt throughout the profession, with wide ranging symptoms arising irrespective of age, skill level and amount of practice. A key indicator of stress is frequency-specific fluctuations in the dynamics of heart rate known as heart rate variability (HRV). Recent developments in sensor technology have made possible the measurement of physiological parameters reflecting HRV non-invasively and outside of the laboratory, opening research avenues for real-time performer feedback to help improve stress management. However, the study of stress using standard algorithms has led to conflicting and inconsistent results. Here, we present an innovative and rigorous approach which combines: (i) a controlled and repeatable experiment in which the physiological response of an expert musician was evaluated in a low-stress performance and a high-stress recital for an audience of 400 people, (ii) a piece of music with varying physical and cognitive demands, and (iii) dynamic stress level assessment with standard and state-of-the-art HRV analysis algorithms such as those within the domain of complexity science which account for higher order stress signatures. We show that this offers new scope for interpreting the autonomic nervous system response to stress in real-world scenarios, with the evolution of stress levels being consistent with the difficulty of the music being played, superimposed on the stress caused by performing in front of an audience. For an emerging class of algorithms that can analyse HRV independent of absolute data scaling, it is shown that complexity science performs a more accurate assessment of average stress levels, thus providing greater insight into the degree of physiological change experienced by musicians when performing in public. ******* This article is available open access on the publisher's website at the Official URL given below. *******

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