Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?

Shared Understanding in Music

Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? is investigating the extent to which performers and audiences share understanding about what happens in performance.

Music is often described as communicative. Players and audience members interpret each other’s musical moves, synchrony is often quickly and effortlessly established, expressive gestures are made, and emotional responses are felt. At the same time, the same performance can elicit different interpretations. Music’s ambiguity makes it important in social contexts: many people can participate in the same musical activity but do not need to agree on everything.

Given these two views on music, the highly and specifically communicative versus the subjective and ambiguous, the nature of people’s shared understanding remains unclear. Thus, this project asks two overarching questions: On what do audiences and performers agree in performance? To what degree do they need to agree for a musical event to be successful?

From this, more specific questions emerge. What factors influence participants’ areas and extent of agreement, such as musical experience or personal or musical familiarity? What about the venue or musical situation? Who agrees more, the people playing or the people listening? Studies of conversation, for example, have suggested that the those in the conversation have a privileged understanding than those overhearing.

So far, our case studies suggest that fully shared understanding of what happened is not essential for successful improvisation. Moreover, performers can endorse an expert listener’s statements more than their partner’s. This argues against the idea that players’ interpretations are always privileged relative to an outsider’s.

Our current projects are exploring these questions in the context of a chamber duo and sessions run by music therapists. We use time-based data visualisation approaches (such as this example) to explore our data.

Our findings also suggest that musical experience can affect levels of shared understanding: Listeners with more experience in the performance genre and with experience playing the performers’ instruments can endorse the performers’ statements more than listeners with less experience in the genre and experience on different instruments. But the patterns are not universal; particular listeners, even with similar musical backgrounds, can interpret the same performances radically differently.

CPS team

Neta Spiro, RCM


Emily Chu, The New School
Michael Schober, The New School
Katie Rose Sanfilippo, Goldsmiths
Amandine Pras, University of Lethbridge

Supported by

The Music Therapy Charity

Learn more

Spiro N & Schober MF (2021), Discrepancies and disagreements in classical chamber musicians’ characterisations of a performance, Music & Science, 4, 1-29 [DOI].

Pras A, Schober MF, & Spiro N (2017), What about their performance do free jazz improvisers agree upon? A case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 8 (966), 1-19 [DOI]. 

Schober MF & Spiro N (2016), Listeners’ and performers’ shared understanding of jazz improvisations, Frontiers in Psychology7 (1629), 1-20 [DOI].

Schober MF & Spiro N (2014), Jazz improvisers’ shared understanding: a case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (808), 1-21 [DOI].

Start typing and press Enter to search