Mastery through Imitation

Mastery through Imitation investigated the musical and educational implications of imitative learning strategies, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2001-03), in partnership with the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana.

The training of musicians, even those at advanced levels, often involves the consideration and subsequent imitation of their teachers’ musical ideas. Yet, for some musicians, the notion of copying or imitating another’s interpretation of a piece, even within the confines of the practice room, is musically suspect and may even taint artistic originality. In visual arts discourse, imitation is most closely linked to words such as forgery, copy, fake, and reproduction. These contrast dramatically to the artistically desirable terms of creative, original, authentic, and genuine. Thus, the paradox arises that, while students are often taught through imitative strategies, not all creative artists agree on the extent to which they are useful.

Mastery through Imitation confronted this paradox by asking what musicians can learn by integrating information from acknowledged ‘master’ interpretations of particular works into their practice and performance. Advanced student violinists were divided into experimental and control groups. All were asked to prepare and perform the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor (performance no. 1). Those in the experimental group were then asked to study a target recording of the piece by Jascha Heifetz and to perform a ‘perceptually indistinguishable copy’ of the recording (performance no. 2). This was followed by interviews and a final, non-imitated performance approximately one month later (performance no. 3).

The results revealed that the violinists were able to imitate expressive features of the target recording to a high degree and that the imitation process directly influenced their conceptions of how the piece could be interpreted, as observed in their final non-imitated performances. However, the extent of influence was highly individual-specific, with some violinists producing final performances that were different from both the original performance and their imitations of the Heifetz performance. These findings suggest that the imitation process did not suppress individuality and novel interpretive insights. Rather, it compelled the violinists to consider their interpretative approaches carefully and to exercise their listening, evaluation, and decision-making skills.

Project team

Aaron Williamon, RCM (PI)
Hubert Eiholzer, CSI
Tania Lisboa, RCM
Massimo Zicari, CSI

Supported by

Swiss National Science Foundation

Learn more

Lisboa T, Williamon A, Zicari M, & Eiholzer H (2002), An alternative to midi data: analysing timing and dynamics of string performances, in C Stevens, D Burnham, G McPherson, E Schubert, & J Renwick (eds.), Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (pp. 624-626), Causal Productions.

Lisboa T, Williamon A, Zicari M, & Eiholzer H (2002), Mastery through imitation, a paper presented at the Tenth Anniversary Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, Liège, Belgium.

Lisboa T, Williamon A, Zicari M, & Eiholzer H (2005), Mastery through imitation: a preliminary study, Musicae Scientiae, 9, 75-110 [DOI].