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Study On Classical Piano Competition Finds "Experts And Novices Alike Privilege Visuals Above Sound"

Jimmy Haas

by Jimmy Haas

Published August 22, 2013

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Social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay recently published the results of a study called Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance, which looked into what factors were most important in judging a musical performance in classical competitions. She presented one of three things to volunteers: a video with sound of a competition performance, the same video without sound, or the sound without a video. She then asked the volunteers to choose which they thought was the winner.

Although 83.3% of the volunteers claimed that sound was the most important factor in their judgments at the beginning of the study, the results seem to show that they may have been wrong.

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The volunteers consisted of both musical novices and experts. However, the study found that with sound alone and video with sound, the correct guess of choosing the winner out of three finalists was only 33% for both the novices and the experts. In other words, it was the same percent as chance. Surprisingly, participants were able to pick the correct winner more often when there was no audio at all.

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As the BBC notes, scientists believe that this shows the importance of the visual over other senses for our brains. Dr. Tsay is herself a well-known concert pianist, and she came up with the idea for the study because she had noticed that she did better in competitions when she was required to submit a video rather than just audio.

She said this about the results of her study:

"Classical music training is often focused on improving the quality of the sound, but this research is about getting to the bottom of what is really being evaluated at the highest levels of competitive performance...We must be more mindful of our inclination to depend on visual information at the expense of the content that we actually value as more relevant to our decisions."

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The results seem to say that people put more value on what looks like a moving performance. Dramatic movements and gestures seem to convey a player's passion and intensity far more than just the music itself. What was most surprising about this was that the expert judges of music competitions did essentially the same as novices. If they too are pulled in by the visual performance more than the sound, then what does that mean for these competitions?

Of course, it must be noted that many people will read these articles and immediately make the jump to say that this is the reason that pop stars are pretty girls and handsome young men. While this may be true in some ways, the study was really only about classical pianist competitions. Though it doesn't mean that people don't judge their music by the performance and the visual aspect of it. As music psychologist Alexandra Lamont says, "Music performance is far more than just sound, and the visual aspects often enhance the quality of the experience, whether this be watching an energetic young virtuoso on stage at the Menuhin Competition or being dazzled by a light display during a DJ set at Glastonbury."

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