Sight beats sound in music research
Tuesday 20th August 2013, 12:50AM BST.
Ears play second fiddle to the eyes when it comes to criticising a classical music performance, research has shown.
Even professional musicians make judgments based on what they see rather than the sounds they hear, scientists found.
The findings reveal that people can reliably pick the winners of music competitions after watching muted video recordings of performances.
Visual cues, such as the sight of a player becoming emotionally carried away with his or her rendition, seem to be more important than the music itself.
“It is unsettling to find – and for musicians not to know – that they themselves relegate the sound of music to the role of noise,” said psychologist and concert pianist Dr Chia-Jung Tsay, from University College London, who led the study.
In a series of experiments, more than 1,000 volunteers were shown short clips of top performances from 10 international classical music competitions.
Different versions of the clips consisted of just the sound of the music, video images with sound, or silent video footage.
Participants included both novices with no particular musical background and professional musicians.
After listening to and watching performances by the competition finalists, they were asked to identify the winners.
Despite 83% of novices saying the sound of the music mattered most, only a quarter of them picked the correct winners just by listening. The figure was significantly lower than what would be expected if they had made random choices.
But when they watched silent videos, more than half got the right result – odds that were significantly greater than chance.
More surprisingly, professional musicians were also much more likely to predict winners when they could see but not hear the players.
In the case of the professionals, 96% insisted they relied primarily on their ear for music when evaluating a performance.
Yet the tests showed that even fewer experts than novices could identify winners on the basis of sound-only recordings – just 20.5%.
When shown video-only recordings, 46.6% of professionals predicted the outcome of the competitions.
Both novices and professionals alike only matched the chance result expected of untrained non-experts when presented with videos that included sound tracks, with about a third picking winners.
“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,” said Dr Tsay.
“The results show that even when we want to be objective in evaluating the sound of music, when it comes to live performance, the visual experience can be the most influential aspect.”
The findings, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested it was not the physical attractiveness of performers that swayed the professional musicians.
However the visible “passion” of performers appeared to have a major impact. When watching silent videos, almost 60% of experts who selected “the most passionate contestant” correctly identified the winners.
“Involvement”, “motivation”, “creativity” and “uniqueness” also contributed to visual information that signalled winning performances.
“People in the studies weren’t able to distinguish elements like ‘passion’ from the sound of the music alone, and these factors appear to be used as proxies for quality,” said Dr Tsay.
The results demonstrated the dominance of visual information in “decision circuitry” evolved to aid survival over millions of years, said the scientists.
They wrote: “Professional training may hone musicians’ technical prowess and cultivate their expressive range, but in this last bastion of the realm of sound, it does little to shift our natural and automatic overweighting of visual cues.”
Dr Tsay added: “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.
“The findings in the domain of music suggest interesting implications for many other domains, whether the decisions involve hiring employees, interviewing physicians, or selecting political leaders.”