Expressiveness & Emotion in Music - an ARC Funded project (DP0452290)

Despite much writing about it over the centuries, an understanding of the very nature of musical expressivity has remained essentially elusive. There is no generally accepted theory of how music expresses emotion or meaning. Indeed, researchers representing various disciplines use terms like emotion, affect, expressiveness or musical character rather loosely and somewhat interchangeably depending on context and the focus or approach of their respective fields. Emery Schubert and Dorottya Fabian at the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC Discovery Grant 2004-2008) to work on projects that integrate these theories and investigative methods.


Views on expressiveness in music

What is expression in music? Scruton argues that in discussing music, expression is used as an intransitive verb, namely that music is expressive. However, there are also those scholars who believe that music must be expressive of something (i.e. in the transitive sense), most commonly of emotions (Meyer; Juslin & Sloboda).

Referring to 'emotion' in relation to romantic music is accepted. In contrast, the baroque period had a well-developed 'Theory of Affections' instead (Mattheson, Heinichen). 'Expressiveness' in the intransitive sense is used as a more general term often akin to 'musicality', while the 'character' of music is something that a performer projects. In our study we further clarify the differences and overlaps between these terms.

Approaches to studying expressiveness in music

Music psychologists study these kinds of issues in two ways: (1) intransitive expression studies examine why one performance is more expressive than another; and (2) expression of emotion studies examine the contribution of compositional features such as pitch, tempo and harmony upon identifiable emotions.

Music theorists, historical musicologists and music philosophers take a more theoretical stand point and base their arguments on analysis of scores, archival documents and particular aesthetic notions regarding the expressive/affective qualities of music and how these might come about. These studies seldom provide empirical data and rarely consider the listener.


The lack of dialogue between historical musicologists and empirical investigators in psychology means that much data driven literature on musical expressiveness neglects the questions that interest musicians. The results might be objective but the proposed models are usually limited because they disregard certain musical issues such as the importance of stylistic considerations, historical performance conventions and nuances of musical character.

Our projects address these disparities. We take existing musicological and psychological assumptions regarding affect in music and scrutinise them by integrating musical analysis with empirical testing, using continuous measurement methodology and time series analysis.

Our Approach

One of the main problems of existing models of expressiveness in music is that they do not distinguish between musical styles and ignore the variety of performance traditions. We focus on baroque and romantic music for several reasons: In both styles the prime aesthetic aim was to communicate emotion whether ineffable and personal as in early 19th century instrumental music or specific and generic as during the baroque period. Both periods have a well-developed aesthetic theory and modern commentators have also mostly focused on one or the other style when discussing problems of performance or the affective (expressive) qualities of music.


Fabian D., Timmers R. & Schubert E. (eds) (2014). Expressiveness in music performance: Empirical approaches across styles and cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

For a complete list please see:

Emery Schubert

Dorottya Fabian 


There are several ways of participating in this research at the Honours or Graduate level. Prospective students with a background and interest in

• acoustics

• psycho-acoustics

• music aesthetics and philosophy

• music psychology and perception

• performance studies

• musicology (theory, analysis)

• 18th and 19th century music

are encouraged to contact Emery Schubert or Dorottya Fabian

Dotted Rhythms in Baroque Music

How to perform dotted rhythms in 17th-18th century music has an extensive literature. Normally means a ratio of 3:1 (or 0.75:0.25) between the two notes. However, many sources seem to imply that in French overtures or other genres where such rhythms are predominant, this ratio should be altered to , i.e. 7:1 (or 0.875:0.125). During the 1960-70s Frederick Neumann stirred up a controversy by questioning the validity of such exaggerated interpretations.

Emery Schubert and Dorottya Fabian introduced a new perspective when they examined the problem empirically. They conducted acoustic measurements of commercial recordings of such pieces and tested listeners’ perception of variously performed dotted patterns. In the course of their investigations they discovered the kerning illusion and showed that contrary to the musicological argument, perceived dotting ratio has a relatively minor role in creating perceived musical character: Articulation, tempo and loudness play a more crucial part.

List of studied recordings for performance of dotted rhythms in Variation 7 (audio examples)

For details see:

Fabian, D. & Schubert, E. (2010). A new perspective on the performance of dotted rhythms. Early Music, 38(4), 585-588. doi:10.1093/em/caq079

Fabian, D. & Schubert, E. (2008). Musical character and the performance and perception of dotting, articulation and tempo in recordings of Variation 7 of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Musicae Scientiae, 12(2), 177-203.

Fabian, D. & Schubert, E. (2003). Expressive devices and perceived musical character in 34 performances of Variation 7 from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Musicae Scientiae, Special Issue 2003-2004, 49-68 (abstract)

Schubert, E. & Fabian, D. (2001). Preference and perception in dotted 6/8 patterns by experienced and less experienced baroque music listeners. Journal of Music Perception and Cognition, 7(2), 113-132 (abstract)

A preliminary report on the comparison of acoustically measured and subjectively judged performance parameters was presented at the Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology (CIM04), 15-18 April 2004, Graz (Austria). The results confirm the dotting illusion and the more significant contribution of articulation and tempo (both measured and perceived) to musical character.