We Judge Musicians More on Showmanship Than Sound

By Lisa Raffensperger | August 19, 2013 4:09 pm

Yo-Yo_Ma musician

If you’ve ever been to an orchestra performance, you know that there’s not always a lot to look at. That’s by design—the music, after all, is meant to be the experience. But a new study finds that general listeners and professional musicians alike judge a performance based on its visuals more than its sound.

Researchers reached that conclusion by recruiting a group of 106 musicians with experience judging music competitions. They were shown six-second clips of the top three finalists in classical music competitions around the world, and tasked with identifying the winner in each of 10 cases. The judges were randomly assigned to one of three groups for the judging—sound only, video only, or both video and sound.

Silent Musicians

When the researchers asked judges what they prized most highly in performances, the judges said sound. But in fact, when given only audio information, the judges were worse at picking the winner than by chance alone: they scored only 26 percent, whereas sheer chance would dictate a one in three chance of getting it right.

When given audio plus video, judges got about one-third of their guesses correct, comparable to chance. But when given video alone, they guessed the correct winner 47 percent of the time.

Similar findings resulted when the researchers ran the experiment with non-musicians as judges. Seemingly paradoxically, silent video resulted in the most accurate predictions about who would win a music competition.

A Matter of Passion

To understand why this was, the researchers simplified the videos down to black-and-white outlines of the musicians’ bodies. They asked viewers a range of questions about the abstracted performances, including the performer’s creativity, involvement, motivation, passion and uniqueness.

They found that one measure was especially predictive: passion. Viewers tasked with choosing the most passionate contestant identified the actual winners nearly 60 percent of the time, which was better than any of the previous setups, the researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers say that people’s dependence on visuals is thus likely a way to perceive musicians’ internal states. As in other creative professions, emotionality and expression are crucial parts of a musician’s performance, and these cues appear to be more easily perceptible by sight than by sound. So the next time you’re at the orchestra and you really want to get carried away by the music, a few words of advice: plug your ears.

Image by Andy Mettler / World Economic Forum

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, select
MORE ABOUT: music, psychology
  • Chad Dickhaut

    Six-second clips? That hardly seems long enough to properly judge which was the winner based on sound alone (to start, how can one be assured the clips in question are equally representative of the quality of each performance as a whole?). Small wonder, then, the subjects who could fill in the gaps with visual cues would do better! The method almost presupposes the conclusion, IMHO.

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