Despite much writing about it over the centuries, an understanding of the very nature of musical expressivity has remained essentially elusive.

There is no generally accepted theory of how music expresses emotion or meaning. Indeed, researchers representing various disciplines use terms like emotion, affect, expressiveness or musical character rather loosely and somewhat interchangeably depending on context and the focus or approach of their respective fields. Emery Schubert and Dorottya Fabian at the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC Discovery Grant 2004-2008) to work on projects that integrate these theories and investigative methods.


Views on Expressiveness in Music

What is expression in music? Scruton argues that in discussing music, expression is used as an intransitive verb, namely that music is expressive. However, there are also those scholars who believe that music must be expressive of something (i.e. in the transitive sense), most commonly of emotions (Meyer; Juslin & Sloboda).

Referring to 'emotion' in relation to romantic music is accepted. In contrast, the baroque period had a well-developed 'Theory of Affections' instead (Mattheson, Heinichen). 'Expressiveness' in the intransitive sense is used as a more general term often akin to 'musicality', while the 'character' of music is something that a performer projects. In our study, we further clarify the differences and overlaps between these terms.

Approaches to Studying Expressiveness in Music

Music psychologists study these kinds of issues in two ways: (1) intransitive expression studies examine why one performance is more expressive than another; and (2) expression of emotion studies examine the contribution of compositional features such as pitch, tempo and harmony upon identifiable emotions.

Music theorists, historical musicologists and music philosophers take a more theoretical standpoint and base their arguments on analysis of scores, archival documents and particular aesthetic notions regarding the expressive/affective qualities of music and how these might come about. These studies seldom provide empirical data and rarely consider the listener.


The lack of dialogue between historical musicologists and empirical investigators in psychology means that much data-driven literature on musical expressiveness neglects the questions that interest musicians. The results might be objective but the proposed models are usually limited because they disregard certain musical issues such as the importance of stylistic considerations, historical performance conventions and nuances of musical character.

Our projects address these disparities. We take existing musicological and psychological assumptions regarding affect in music and scrutinise them by integrating musical analysis with empirical testing, using continuous measurement methodology and time series analysis.

Our Approach

One of the main problems of existing models of expressiveness in music is that they do not distinguish between musical styles and ignore the variety of performance traditions. We focus on baroque and romantic music for several reasons: In both styles the prime aesthetic aim was to communicate emotion whether ineffable and personal as in early 19th century instrumental music or specific and generic as during the baroque period. Both periods have a well-developed aesthetic theory and modern commentators have also mostly focused on one or the other style when discussing problems of performance or the affective (expressive) qualities of music.


Fabian D., Timmers R. & Schubert E. (eds) (2014). Expressiveness in music performance: Empirical approaches across styles and cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

For a complete list please see:


There are several ways of participating in this research at the Honours or Graduate level. Prospective students with a background and interest in the below are encouraged to contact Emery Schubert or Dorottya Fabian.

  • Acoustics
  • Psycho-acoustics
  • Music aesthetics and philosophy
  • Music psychology and perception
  • Performance studies
  • Musicology (theory, analysis)
  • 18th and 19th-Century music