Incremental comprehension of pitch relationships in written music: Evidence from eye movements

Lauren Hadley, Patrick Sturt, Tuomas Eerola, Martin Pickering

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

To investigate how proficient pianists comprehend pitch relationships in written music when they first encounter it we conducted two experiments in which proficient pianists’ eyes were tracked while they read and played single-line melodies. In Experiment 1, participants played at their own speed; in Experiment 2 they played with an external metronome. The melodies were either congruent or anomalous, with the anomaly involving one bar being shifted in pitch to alter the implied harmonic structure (e.g., non-resolution of a dominant). In both experiments, anomaly led to rapid disruption in participants’ eye-movements in terms of regressions from the target bar, indicating that pianists process written pitch relationships online. This is particularly striking because in musical sight-reading eye movement behaviour is constrained by the concurrent performance. Both experiments also showed that anomaly induced pupil dilation. Together these results indicate that proficient pianists rapidly integrate the music that they read into the prior context, and that anomalies in terms of pitch relationships lead to processing difficulty. These findings parallel those of text reading, suggesting that structural processing involves similar constraints across domains.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-219
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date17 Mar 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Mar 2017

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • sight-reading
  • music performance
  • music processing
  • eye movements


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