The investigation of musicians’ physiological and psychological responses to performance stress

Aufegger, L. (2016) The investigation of musicians’ physiological and psychological responses to performance stress. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


Stress in music performance shows an intrinsic relationship with changes in cardiovascular functioning and emotions, yet to date, studies analysing these stress indicators are few and far between. The overarching aim of this thesis is therefore to investigate performance stress through the lens of both self-reported anxiety and physical stress signatures in heart rate variability. For rigour, this is achieved through a close examination of the relationship between stress and structural complexity of heart rate variability in response to different conditions musicians underwent: (1) a low- and high-stress performance and (2) a simulated performance environment. In my thesis I approached the problem in a comprehensive way and investigated five Studies. Studies 1 and 2 (Chapters 3 and 4) employ new heart rate variability methods to analyse physical stress. Study 3 (Chapter 5) compares heart rate variability responses before and during a performance in a simulated and a real-life performance environment; Study 4 (Chapter 6) qualitatively addresses further enhancements related to simulated performance environments. Study 5 (Chapter 7) examines heart rate variability responses to simulated performance feedback of different emotional valence. Results provide conclusive evidence that musicians performing in high-stress conditions display lower levels of structural complexity in the heart rate variability (signature of high stress), in particular prior to the performance, and a statistically significant elevation of subjective anxiety. The findings show that both simulated and real performance scenarios create similar physical and emotional responses. Interviews with musicians reveal the benefits of simulations in combination with complementary training methods. More immediate follow-up research may focus on heart rate variability responses to other training strategies, such as Alexander Technique and physical exercise; use a greater selection of standardised self-assessments; and evaluate musicians experiencing severe performance stress, for which this thesis has paved the way.

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