Mastery through imitation: a preliminary study

Lisboa, T. and Williamon, A. and Zicari, M. and Eiholzer, H. (2005) Mastery through imitation: a preliminary study. Musicae Scientiae, 9 (1) pp. 75-110. ISSN 1029-8649 (print) 2045-4147 (online)


A paradox exists between the long history of teaching music through imitative strategies and the demand to possess original artistic insight. This article addresses this paradox by investigating the general musical and educational implications of imitative learning strategies. In the first study, five advanced violinists were divided into an Experimental Group (n=3) and a Control Group (n=2). All violinists were asked to prepare and perform the Adagio from J. S. Bach's Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor, discussing with the researchers their views on how they felt this composition should be interpreted. The violinists in the Experimental Group were subsequently asked to study a Target recording of the piece by Jascha Heifetz (the duration of study was unspecified) and to perform a “perceptually indistinguishable copy” of it. This was followed by interviews and a final, non-imitated performance approximately one month later. The results of detailed analyses of timing profiles from the performances and interviews show that the participants were able to imitate expressive features of the Target recording. The results also reveal that the imitation process directly influenced their conceptions of how the piece could be interpreted (as observed in the final performances) but that the extent of this influence was highly individual-specific. In the second study, listeners (n=30) were presented with recordings of all three performances given by the violinists in the Experimental Group and with the Target recording; they were asked to rate the overall quality of each performance and their similarity to the Target on 7-point scales. The results show that the imitation process did produce perceptually salient changes in the violinists' performances but the direction of change in terms of overall quality (positive or negative) was also individual specific. The results from both studies are discussed in relation to their pedagogical implications.

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