Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 204, Issue 4, pp 549–558 | Cite as

Gesture imitation in musicians and non-musicians

  • Michael J. SpilkaEmail author
  • Christopher J. Steele
  • Virginia B. Penhune
Research Article


Imitation plays a crucial role in the learning of many complex motor skills. Recent behavioral and neuroimaging evidence suggests that the ability to imitate is influenced by past experience, such as musical training. To investigate the impact of musical training on motor imitation, musicians and non-musicians were tested on their ability to imitate videoclips of simple and complex two-handed gestures taken from American Sign Language. Participants viewed a set of 30 gestures, one at a time, and imitated them immediately after presentation. Participants’ imitations were videotaped and scored off-line by raters blind to participant group. Imitation performance was assessed by a rating of performance accuracy, where the arm, hand, and finger components of the gestures were rated separately on a 5-point scale (1 = unrecognizable; 5 = exact imitation). A global accuracy score (PAglobal) was calculated by summing the three components. Response duration compared to the model (%MTdiff), and reaction time (RT) were also assessed. Results indicated that musicians were able to imitate more accurately than non-musicians, reflected by significantly higher PAglobal and lower %MTdiff scores. Furthermore, the greatest difference in performance was for the fine-motor (finger) gesture component. These findings support the view that the ability to imitate is influenced by experience. This is consistent with generalist theories of motor imitation, which explain imitation in terms of links between perceptual and motor action representations that become strengthened through experience. It is also likely that musical training contributed to the ability to imitate manual gestures by influencing the personal action repertoire of musicians.


Action-imitation Mirror neuron system Observational learning Musical training 



The authors wish to thank Robert Carver for his sign language expertise, and all those who participated in this study. We also thank Magali Keil, Amanda Daly, Annie Dubé, and Olga Ganova for their assistance with data collection and scoring. This research was supported by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC-238670) and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec (V.P.); and the NSERC- CREATE Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Training Grant (M.S.).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael J. Spilka
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher J. Steele
    • 1
  • Virginia B. Penhune
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada

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