In Brief

Psychologists at the University of Uppsala in Sweden have developed a computer program that teaches guitarists to better convey emotions through music, according to a study published in the June Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 12, No. 2). Musicians who use the computer program show, on average, greater improvement expressing emotions with their playing than those who work with human teachers, according to study author Patrik Juslin, PhD.

Juslin and his colleagues recruited 36 semiprofessional guitar players through newspaper advertisements. After hooking their electric guitars into a computer, the participants played the tune "When the Saints Go Marching In," multiple times, each time expressing happiness, anger, sadness or fear.

The researchers then divided the participants into three groups and charged them with better expressing two of the emotions through the song. One group sought to do this through solo practice, another through work with a human teacher, and a third group used a computer program called "Feel-ME."

The Feel-ME program analyzed aspects of the musicians' performance, including tempo, volume, articulation and timbre. Past research has shown that slow, soft music signifies sadness to listeners. So when performers attempting to convey sadness played too quickly, the program suggested they slow down. To convey happiness, the program suggested participants play songs quickly and loudly. The program than recorded and analyzed the players' subsequent attempts and provided feedback on their improvement over the course of a two-hour session.

In contrast, the human teachers, who also worked with participants for about two hours, often asked the musicians to tap into their past experience--conjuring up, for instance, feelings of sadness by imagining the death of a cherished relative.

The guitarists with human teachers and the ones working with the com-puter program improved more than those who practiced on their own, as measured by 30 listeners otherwise unaffiliated with the study. However, the listeners felt that the computer-trained musicians were slightly better at conveying emotions than the human-trained ones. The computer program may have had a slight edge because it could provide immediate and specific feedback, Juslin says.

"People think, 'How could a computer know anything about emotions?'" says Juslin. "[But] the program is simulating listener judgments based on statistical models of how 'real' listeners have judged similar performances in the past."

--S. Dingfelder