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Putting music to the test


Brigid Veale
27 April 2011
How do singers convey emotion in their songs? That’s a question a visiting researcher is trying to answer in a joint project with Southern Cross University and the Coffs Harbour Regional Conservatorium.

Julie Orlando is a visiting fellow from the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada. She is working closely with psychology researchers in Southern Cross University’s School of Health and Human Sciences.

“I am a senior lab instructor in the psychology department at home and my personal background is in music and music theatre. My Masters degree brought these two things together and then the opportunity arose to come here and continue that research,” Ms Orlando said.

Her project, which will involve singers from the Coffs Harbour Regional Conservatorium, will look at how emotions are conveyed through song.

“I have a number of singers who are going to perform pieces of music with specific emotive intents – for example to convey happiness or sadness.

“I will be playing these performances back to volunteer participants and then have the participants rate the emotions they observe to see if they have the same emotional interpretation as intended by the singers.

“We want to be able to identify whether the singers have been successful in conveying the emotions.”

The songs will be played back to the participants using a combination of audio and video.

“Once we have completed this first stage we will be able to investigate further what influences the response to a song, whether that is the sound or the facial expressions for example,” Ms Orlando said.

“It is really important for singers to know what tools they have to use. Emotional expression is the keystone of music and if singers know which tools to use they can improve their performances.”

Associate Professor Rick van der Zwan, from Southern Cross University’s School of Health and Human Sciences, said this was an exciting new project.

“Non-verbal cues to how we are feeling are much more difficult to control than things we say. Music is an emotive medium and understanding how it is that performers convey emotions will help us unlock what cues are important,” Professor van der Zwan said.

“This is the first step in understanding how the human brain processes not just music, but the content of music.”

Associate Professor van der Zwan visited Canada himself last year.

“Southern Cross University has a number of strong links with Canadian institutions and we are working to facilitate student exchanges between Coffs Harbour and our Canadian colleagues at UNBC and elsewhere.”

Photo: Julie Orlando with singer Phillip Raineri, who is participating in the study.