A Music Cognition Experiment Revisited Ten Years Later

Handshape and Orientation in the Expressive Gestures of the Conductor’s Left Hand

It’s been nearly ten years since I submitted my senior thesis for the Music Cognition major at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. At the time, I was interested in becoming a conductor. From my training as a conductor with Fred Ockwell and Victor Yampolsky, I learned that the right hand is strict in terms of showing the beat pattern of the music. In contrast, the left hand is much freer. In addition to indicating cues, entrances, articulation, and timbre, it may be used to correct balancing and intonation issues. Given this greater degree of freedom, how do conductors learn to use their left hand? From my observation of experienced conductors, it seemed that each conductor has a small repertoire of expressive gestures in his/her left (i.e. non-dominant) hand. This observation led me to the next question: Do conductors share expressive gestures in common? If so, do these expressive gestures adhere to a basic set of rules and features?

Around the time that I first began thinking about these questions, I was enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Richard Ashley. Aware of my interest in conducting, he recommended Penny Boyes Braem and Thüring Bräm’s article “A Pilot Study of the Expressive Gestures Used by Classical Orchestra Conductors” (2000). In this groundbreaking study, Boyes Braem and Bräm examine video samples of many different conductors and find that conductors share a basic “repertoire of non-dominant hand gestures” (151). Further, these gestures consistently make use of a small set of handshapes:

Figure 1: Limited set of handshapes, image from Boyes Braem and Bräm (2000, 150).

Excited by Boyes Braem and Bräm’s findings, I decided to set up my own experiment to test their limited set of handshapes. More specifically, my aim was to find out if by altering the handshape of a given gesture, this would affect the gesture’s intended meaning. Also, what would happen if I changed the gesture’s orientation (i.e. which direction the palm is facing)? As I put it at the time, the experiment’s goal was to investigate whether handshape or orientation is the “meaning-bearing component” of expressive gestures–whether a change in handshape or orientation is more likely to affect the gesture’s meaning.

In my study, participating musicians (23 in total) were given a specific musical context (e.g., decrescendo, pay attention, play out, fix the intonation, hacking sound, sustain the sound) and asked to rate an experimentally altered expressive gesture on how well it conveyed the given context. (A high score meant that the gesture conveyed the given context.) In addition to the gesture’s handshape, I also manipulated its orientation. I found that handshape changes resulted in the lowest scores, thereby determining that the handshape is the most important component in terms of a gesture’s ability to convey the intended meaning. I also confirmed the basic set of handshapes found by Boyes Braem and Bräm, comparing it with handshapes that I created using the American Sign Language finger spelling alphabet. In conclusion, I found that handshape is the component most likely to influence a gesture’s meaning.

See here for a link to the abstract of my Music Cognition senior thesis “Handshape and Orientation in the Expressive Gesture of the Musical Conductor’s Nondominant Hand.”