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Do you watch or listen to music?

Think back to the last time you attended a concert or watched a recorded performance. What do you remember most about it? Was it the sound of the music, the interpretation of the artist, or the way the performer looked on stage? Today, we discuss the concept of visual bias in the judgement of musical performances and consider what it means for the appreciation of music.

As recent research shows, when it comes to the judgement of a musical performance, most people rely on their eyes rather than their ears. Most of us look at the gestures, movements and stage presence of a musician and think that if the performer looks confident, passionate or dramatic, then it must be a good performance. A series of experiments conducted by social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay from University College, London, demonstrated that when people were asked to identify the winners of elite piano competitions, they tended to rely on visual rather than auditory cues. Yet when asked, people would usually say that sound is the most important source of information in assessing a performance. However, as Tsay pointed out, “we tend to overweigh and privilege visual information” without realising it. Most people think they know what good music sounds like, when in fact they are swayed by the visual presentation of the performer.

What does this mean for listeners?

It is important for anyone listening to a musical performance to be aware of the potential for visual bias. In the 1970s, orchestras began using blind auditions as a way to counter this visual bias. This has not only helped to resolve major imbalances between the number of male and female players in orchestras but also ensured that those who produced the best sounds were hired over those who looked the best.

There are many ways you can cultivate your listening skills to ensure that you don’t let the visual cues distract you. You can start by taking a moment to actively clear your mind before you listen to a performance, using simple techniques like turning off the lights when you listen to music in order to heighten your sense of hearing. You might also like to listen to the same piece two or three times and take note of different things you notice about the musician’s playing each time. It’s a good idea to make focused listening a part of your everyday routine so that you can train your ears over time.

Similarly, the next time you attend a live concert or a competition, listen to the performance with your eyes closed. At music competitions in particular, audiences have often arrived at different verdicts from the adjudicators because adjudicators tend to place a greater emphasis on tone colour, pace, and musical narrative. If you are an amateur listener, you might like to try and develop an appreciation for these different aspects and see whether you can hear the differences in tone colour and musical interpretation. When you can identify and articulate the differences in sound, you’ll know that you have mastered the art of listening!

What does this mean for music students?

For music students, clearly the first priority should be focused on the sound that you are producing. Sometimes students focus so much on their gestures in performance that they forget to actively listen to the sound being produced. While it is important to have a good stage presence, your physical movements on stage should be congruent with the musical narrative and intent. Any gesture, no matter how dramatic and impressive looking, would look rather foolish and pretentious if not called for in the music.

An analogy would be a soccer match where a player falls down dramatically despite only a slight physical contact with an opponent. The feigned agony often looks ridiculous as it is clear to everyone that the gestures were dramatised and incongruent with the cause. The same applies in a musical performance. The performer’s gestures should be aligned with the intent of the music and the actual physics of playing the instrument (or singing) rather than rote-learned movements designed purely to impress. So if you are a music student, our advice would be to firstly understand what the music is trying to say (i.e. musical intent), know exactly what kind of sound you want to produce, and identify the most appropriate ways to execute and realise that sound! That way, you will achieve perfect harmony and alignment between the aural and the visual. Happy practising!

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