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It’s what you see at the concert, not what you hear

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Bad Brains
What does it take to win a musical competition — having a performance that hits all the right notes or having the best stage presence?

When my current bandmates and I began trading emails and videos back and forth in order to conceptualize our musical project, this video of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion got passed around with the assertion that, “We oughta aim to be this much fun.”


(Maybe trying to aim for this is why we haven’t played a show yet.)

Perhaps flashy tactics work to impress ordinary rock and roll audiences, but would a passionate performance sway professional judges at an international classical music competition? A study recently published by Chia-Jung Tsay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents evidence that when it comes to musical performances, what you see might have a larger sway on your judgement than what you hear.

Participants in Tsay’s study were given the promise of a cash prize in exchange for correctly selecting the winner of an international music competition. In other words, participants were asked to select the same musician as the competition judges. Participants were given a choice of performance clips that contained video only, audio only, or both video and audio. The majority of participants picked the audio-only clips. Although there was a penalty for selecting both audio and video, the combined clips were the second most popular selection. These choices indicate that most of the participants probably thought that the audio of the performance would be the most important in helping them select the true winner. There were two groups of study participants — those who were novices and those who were experienced musicians.

The results of the study were quite surprising. The novices that saw the video-only clips of the performance were the most likely to pick the correct winner at a level significantly above chance. When hearing the audio-only clips, novices performed at significantly below the level of random chance. The clips that contained both audio and video didn’t seem to help the novices get the winner right either, as novices that saw those all-inclusive clips performed at the level of random chance.

But maybe novices didn’t do well with the video clips because they are, well…novices. Perhaps they are more likely to be swayed by what a performance looks like than what it sounds like because they don’t have the discriminating ear of expert musicians. But it turns out the experts in the study performed in the same way as the novices! Experts with video-only clips performed better than chance at selecting the true winners, while experts with audio-only performed below chance. The experts with the combined video and audio clips, similarly to the novices, performed at the level of random chance. Experts provided with the video-only clips were significantly better at selecting the competition winners than those with the audio-only clips or those with the clips with video and audio combined.

So it seems among both novices and experts, the visual aspects of a performance are more helpful than the auditory aspects in picking the winner of a classical music competition. Tsay also found that the musicians the study participants rated as the most “passionate” in the video-only clips were more likely to be the actual competition winners. Creativity, involvement, motivation, and uniqueness were also rated as video-only factors that were helpful in picking the right winner at a level above chance.

When it comes to being the winner of a music competition or putting on an impressive performance, perhaps how passionate you look while performing has a greater influence on the judges than how well you are actually playing. Or perhaps everyone plays at a fairly equal level in a musical competition, so what really sways the judges’ opinion is in the visual aspects of the performance. Tsay applies these findings to decision-making in general in her discussion.

“People are limited by attention to certain cues, with inconsistency and at times detriments to judgment…Given the dominance of visual cues in our decision making, it would be valuable to determine the contexts in which a visual dependence may not be one that leads to wise decisions and good long-term investments in selecting, promoting, and rewarding talent.”

Until then, I’ll be honing my stage presence.

Tsay C.J. Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI:

Image: A particularly passionate Bad Brains performance via user Alex Carvalho on Flickr.

Princess Ojiaku About the Author: Princess Ojiaku is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is also a student of life, exuberant nerd, and musician. She often tweets her daily links of interest and digital personal mutterings. Follow on Twitter @artfulaction.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. waltvdk 10:52 am 08/30/2013

    As a general rule of thumb, I find that the quality of the music in a performance varies inversely to the amount of props, background dancers, pulsing lights etc.

    Link to this

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