Shared understanding of music making

Our Head of Research Dr Neta Spiro has, along with Michael Schober, conducted research that explored how audience members and improvisers can view a performance in different ways, and we wanted to share this with you.

Over to Neta!

Shared Understanding

Music therapists are often showing work (usually in the form of audio or video recordings) to people who did not participate in the music therapy sessions. They may do this with other therapists as part of supervision, or to a wider audience at conferences or when promoting their work. There are questions about what is understood when this showing of work happens. How much can we assume that interpretation of what happened is shared by different people? For example, how much is shared by all those who participated in the session? And how much is shared by others listening (and perhaps looking) at the session later? How much can we assume that different people with different experience may interpret in similar or different ways? 

Such questions, of how much is shared among participants and observers, are not limited to music therapists. We have published a piece of research looking at the extent to which listeners share understanding with performers and with each other, about what happened in a jazz performance. We asked 239 listeners with different types of musical experience to listen to an improvised jazz performance and rate their agreement with statements that the performers and an audience member had made about the performance. 

You can see the full research published here.

What We Found

Listeners endorsed statements that the performers had agreed upon significantly more than they endorsed statements that the performers had disagreed upon. In addition, the findings show some support for a more-experienced-listeners-understand-more-like-performers hypothesis: Listeners with more jazz experience and with experience playing the performers’ instruments endorsed the performers’ statements more than did listeners with less jazz experience and experience on different instruments. The findings also strongly support a listeners-as-outsiders hypothesis: Listeners’ ratings of the statements were far more likely to cluster with the audience member’s ratings than with either performer’s ratings. But the pattern was not universal; particular listeners even with similar musical backgrounds could interpret the same improvisations radically differently. 

The results suggest that it is possible for performers’ interpretations to be shared with very few listeners, and that listeners’ interpretations about what happened in a musical performance can be far more different from performers’ interpretations than performers or other listeners might assume.

How is this relevant to music therapy? We don’t know if these results generalise to music therapy situations. If they do, it’s possible that though some things about music therapy sessions are easily seen by most observers, at least some interpretations by participants of music therapy may be more easily observed by people with experience of music therapy. Music therapists already have plenty of first-hand experience of sharing music therapy with many different people. This study may enrich understanding of how music therapists might communicate with different types of observers. We are in the process of developing a method that we hope to apply to music therapy contexts in the future to help learn about music therapy contexts more specifically.

There’s more information about research projects and events at Nordoff Robbins is available on the Research site.