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 Music Cognition senior thesis at Northwestern University. At the time, I was interested in becoming a conductor and so I chose a project that was in keeping with this. From my practical experience as a conductor (which basically consisted of conducting small groups in conducting class), I knew that the conductor’s right hand conveys the beat pattern and that the left hand is much freer in terms of what it can show. The right hand is relatively straightforward, but how do conductors learn to use their left hand? Conducting manuals didn’t help much here. Apart from entrances and cues, they referred in a vague sort of way to spontaneous events, balancing issues, and sound color. Yet from my observation of experienced conductors, it seemed to me that they use an informal set of “expressive gestures” (i.e. gestures in the left, or non-dominant, hand). This observation led me to my next question: Is it possible to speak of a “repertoire” of expressive gestures? And later: Do these expressive gestures share something in common?

Around the time that I first began thinking about these questions, I was taking 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 examined video samples of many different conductors and found that conductors do indeed have a repertoire of expressive gestures in their left hand. Further, these gestures consistently make use of a small set of handshapes:

BoyesBraemBrämPg132Excited by Boyes Braem and Bräm’s findings, I decided to set up my own experiment in order to replicate and challenge their limited set of handshapes. More specifically, I wanted to find out if an expressive gesture would still convey its intended meaning if I altered its handshape. In my study, participating musicians (23 in total) were given a specific musical context (e.g., decrescendo, pay attention, play out) and asked to rate an experimentally altered expressive gesture on how well it conveyed the given context. In addition to the handshape, I also manipulated the orientation (i.e. which direction the palm is facing). My aim was to see if a change in the handshape or the orientation was more likely to affect the participants’ ratings. I found that handshape changes resulted in the lowest scores, and thus determined that the handshape is the most important parameter 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. In conclusion, I discovered not only that conductors use a repertoire of expressive gestures but also that these gestures are limited to a small set of handshapes.

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.”

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