Keller, Dalla Bella, & Koch (2010) investigated the interaction between our senses (specifically sight, touch, and sound), our expectations (anticipatory imagery), and the timing, accuracy, and intensity of our movements.

Musicians were given color-coded signals followed by a 3-part auditory cue indicating respectively the sequence and timing in which they were to tap 3 keyboard keys. During execution of the task 3 categories of feedback were provided; no sound, 3 tones with low medium and high tones corresponding to the top, middle, and bottom keys, and mismatched tones. Musicians had the most accurate timing when there was no audio feedback, the most accurate movement patterns when the low/medium/high tones matched the keys and the least accurate timing and movement when the audio tones didn’t match the top, middle, and bottom keys.

This speaks to the subtle effect on motor performance of sensory feedback that is missing or different from what the performer expects. I’d speculate that this explains to some degree why pianists play poorly on un-tuned pianos, vocalists sing better in auditoriums with excellent acoustics, and why rock stars throw tantrums when the sound engineers don’t play the right mix on their stage monitors. I’d also speculate that this phenomenon transfers directly to the visual and kinesthetic realms in other tasks and performance settings.

Rock star tantrum….

From a coaching and consulting perspective this experiment demonstrates the impact on performance of situations when something doesn’t ______________ right or doesn’t _________________ the way the performer expects it to.  Even though the audio feedback wasn’t directly relevant to executing the task in the experiment, it had a clear impact on the quality of the performance. I’ll keep this in mind when working with individuals whose performances are impacted by seemingly tangential changes to their sensory experiences and expectations.