Design for auditory imagery: altering instruments to explore performer fluency
In NIME design, thorough attention has been devoted to feedback modalities, including auditory, visual and haptic feedback. How the performer executes the gestures to achieve a sound on an instrument, by contrast, appears to be less examined. Previous research showed that auditory imagery, or the ability to hear or recreate sounds in the mind even when no audible sound is present, is essential to the sensorimotor control involved in playing an instrument. In this paper, we enquire whether auditory imagery can also help to support skill transfer between musical instruments resulting in possible implications for new instrument design. To answer this question, we performed two experimental studies on pitch accuracy and fluency where professional violinists were asked to play a modified violin. Results showed altered or even possibly irrelevant auditory feedback on a modified violin does not appear to be a significant impediment to performance. However, performers need to have coherent imagery of what they want to do, and the sonic outcome needs to be coupled to the motor program to achieve it. This finding shows that the design lens should be shifted from a direct feedback model of instrumental playing toward a model where imagery guides the playing process. This result is in agreement with recent research on skilled sensorimotor control that highlights the value of feedforward anticipation in embodied musical performance. It is also of primary importance for the design of new instruments: new sounds that cannot easily be imagined and that are not coupled to a motor program are not likely to be easily performed on the instrument.