Analyzing the Expressive Meaning of Musical Gestures and Topics in Beethoven's Piano Sonatas

Joshua Albrecht, University of Mary Harden-Baylor

This paper investigates the role of musical gesture in expressing affect in the Beethoven piano sonatas. Many papers in favor of the investigation of the expressive meaning of musical works rely on the musical intuitions of the author. While invaluable, theorists' analyses are often biased or contradict one another, so it seems appropriate to balance the interpretations of individual theorists with listener reception in a broader audience. To mitigate analytical bias, the analysis was conducted by 34 music majors, who listened to 15 excerpts from the Beethoven piano sonata literature and rated them along nine different affective dimensions.

Participant ratings of affect were correlated with surface musical gestures, and the resulting regression models were then tested against a new collection of fifteen excerpts from the Beethoven piano sonatas, evaluated by a different group of 34 participants. The new ratings were predicted by measuring the same musical parameters for the new excerpts. Using the old regression models to predict participant responses resulted in a test of the generalizability of the results across many listeners and excerpts. Although not providing perfect matches, the results were largely consistent with listener evaluations, suggesting that specific musical gestures in Beethoven's piano sonatas are reliably correlated with particular affective expressions. The results from this study are used to test several claims in the topic theory literature on the role of musical gesture in expressing emotion. While in many cases results were consistent with topic theory's claims, there were some instances in which the results were contradictory.