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Motor skill performance in violin bowing: Evidence for constrained action effects on acoustical, physiological and physical outcomes

Motor skill performance in violin bowing: Evidence for constrained action effects on acoustical, physiological and physical outcomes

Presenter Name:Emma Allingham

School/Affiliation:University of Hamburg

Co-Authors:Birgitta Burger & Clemens Wöllner


In sport, focusing on body movement during an action (internal focus) has been shown to cause performance degradation and increased muscle activity compared to focusing on the task goal (external focus, Wulf, 2013). To explain this, The Constrained Action Hypothesis (CAH) posits that attention to movement processes disrupts automaticity, impairing performance (Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001). Additionally, in instrumental music making, a somatic, or body-centred focus on tactile sensory feedback may be beneficial (Stambaugh, 2019). Only a few studies have tested the CAH in music making, and we aimed to do so in the novel context of a violin bowing task. Thus, we compared effects of three counterbalanced foci: internal: focusing on arm movement, distal external: focusing on sound, and proximal external or somatic: focusing on bow-string resistance. We hypothesised that the two external foci would result in superior performance on acoustic and motion parameters, and lower EMG activity compared to internal. 32 participants (16 experienced players, 16 novices) performed an open-string bowing task, under the three focus instructions. Audio, motion capture, and EMG data of bowing arm muscles were recorded. Mixed ANOVAs revealed that somatic focus produced significantly increased tone brightness (spectral centroid), bow-string contact point consistency (motion capture), and shoulder muscle activity compared to internal focus. These findings support the CAH, while suggesting that this task benefitted from a proximal external (somatic) rather than distal focus. This reinforces recent suggestions that a proximal external focus can avoid constrained action, whilst allowing attention to action technique (Singh & Wulf, 2020).


Singh, H., & Wulf, G. (2020). The distance effect and level of expertise: Is the optimal external focus different for low-skilled and high-skilled performers? Human Movement Science, 73, 1–6.

Stambaugh, L. A. (2019). Effects of focus of attention on performance by second-year band students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(2), 1–14.

Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 77–104.

Wulf, G., McNevin, N., & Shea, C. H. (2001). The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A: Human Experimental Psychology, 54(4), 1143–1154.

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