A longitudinal study of the development of expressive timing

Tempo arches have often been reported in polished music performances, but their development during the learning of a new piece has not been studied. We examined the development of expressive timing at three levels of musical structure (piece, section, phrase) as an experienced concert soloist (the second author) prepared the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 6 for solo cello for public performance. We used mixed effect models to assess the development of expressive timing and the effects of the performance cues (PCs) that the cellist used as mental landmarks to guide her performance. Tempo arches appeared early in practice at all three levels of musical structure and changed over time in complex ways, first becoming more pronounced and more asymmetrical and then shrinking somewhat in later performances. Arches were also more pronounced in phrases that contained PCs, suggesting that PCs reminded the cellist where to “breathe” between phrases. The early development of tempo arches suggests that they were an automatic product of basic cognitive or motor processes. The complex trajectory of their later development appeared to be the result, at least in part, of a deliberate communicative strategy intended to draw listeners’ attention to some musical boundaries more than others.