Time to decide: a study of evaluative decision-making in music performance

Waddell, G. (2019) Time to decide: a study of evaluative decision-making in music performance. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


This thesis considers the act of music performance quality evaluation as a performance in itself, examining the processes as well as the products of evaluative decision-making. It provides new understanding of performance evaluation through two experimental studies, two field surveys, and the development of a new mode to study and train evaluative skills. In the first study (Chapter 3), 42 musicians provided continuous quality evaluations of five piano works by Chopin and a twentieth-century composer varying by length and familiarity. Three of these pieces had been manipulated to contain performance errors in the opening material, and two of those the same error at the recapitulation. Results showed that familiarity had no effect within works of a well-known composer, but times to first and final decision were significantly extended for an unfamiliar work of an unfamiliar composer. A shorter piece led to a shorter time to first decision. An error at the beginning of a performance caused a shorter time to first decision and lower initial and final ratings, where the same error at the recapitulation did not have a significant effect on the final judgement, despite causing a temporary negative drop. In the second study (Chapter 4), 53 musicians and 52 non-musicians gave continuous quality evaluations of one of five randomly assigned videos manipulated to include an inappropriate stage entrance, aural performance error, error with negative facial reaction, or facial reaction alone. Results showed that participants viewing the ‘inappropriate’ stage entrance made judgements significantly more quickly than those viewing the ‘appropriate’ entrance. The aural error caused an immediate drop in quality judgements that persisted to a lower final score only when accompanied by the frustrated facial expression from the pianist; the performance error alone caused a temporary drop only in the musicians’ ratings, and the negative facial reaction alone caused no reaction regardless of participants’ musical experience. The two survey studies comprised custom questionnaires delivered to large audiences (300 & 433) in live professional settings. The first survey (Chapter 5) examined the relationship between self-reported mood and anxiety states before and after performance with perceived quality and enjoyment of the music. The second (Chapter 6) expanded this to incorporate individuals’ perceptions of the social and physical environment. Results from both studies found high correlations of enjoyment and quality ratings, with familiarity with the music not predictive of either outcome. Mood states following the performance were more predictive of judgements than those reported prior. Seat location was not predictive of perceptions, although ratings of the building’s acoustic and appropriateness were moderately predictive. Concertgoers assumed their own ratings to be marginally higher than those of their fellow audience members. Based on the challenges faced in studying performance evaluation in ecologically valid settings, and the parallel difficulties in training the skill of performing evaluations, the principles of Immersive Virtual Environments and distributed simulation are discussed as potential solutions through the proposal of the Evaluation Simulator (Chapter 7). All results of the thesis are then discussed concerning their implications for musicians, teachers, and organisations, as well as domains beyond music, in executing and training effective evaluations of human performance. A new research agenda is posited that examines the act of performance evaluation with the same rigour and consideration of complexity given to the performances themselves.

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