a musical illusion

The percussion community has often debated whether it is possible to produce long and short notes through variations in striking motion.  Many established percussionists believe that gesture length can affect musical note duration, however others are adamant that this is not possible (see Schutz, 2009 for a summary).  We have placed samples of the gestures below as time-elapsed images at 200 millisecond intervals. Click any image to see an animated demonstration (you can also download sample gestures for use in class demonstrations).

To explore this question empirically, we recorded a internationally acclaimed marimbist Michael Burritt (Eastman School of Music) performing single notes using long and short striking motions. We then crossed (swapped) the audio and visual components and asked participants to judge the duration of the sound independent of the image. We also asked them to judge note duration in a different condition consisting of the audio information alone. The results indicate that although physical gesture length does not affect the sound of the note (i.e. the acoustic information), it clearly changes the way the note sounds (i.e. our perception of that information).  In other words, expert musicians use this illusion to control an audience’s musical experience beyond that which is acoustically possible.

To see a demonstration of the illusion and learn more about its musical implications, see view the TV clip to the left, a special segment on our work.  You can also listen to Edward Willette’s feature story in his World of Science below, learn about textbooks on cognitive psychology and music cognition discussing this work, and read about grants and awards funding our current work on this illusion.  For additional coverage on this work in the popular press, please visit our media page or view print coverage.

World of Science | Science writing | A musical illusion | Best music cognition experiment