Science Imitates Eddie Izzard

by John Holbo on September 2, 2013

Via Andrew Sullivan Matt Sitman, the look of music.

In a study by Harvard graduate Chia-Jung Tsay … nearly all participants — including highly trained musicians — were better able to identify the winners of classical music competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings. “In this case,” says Tsay, “it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.

I thought Eddie Izzard already proved that.



Neil Levy 09.02.13 at 5:00 am

Note that the choice was between the top three finalists, so the conclusion is not that how you look matters more than how you sound: it is that the visual is a better guide than the aural when discriminations are really fine. Note, too, that it is not *looks* in the sense of aesthetics that matters: participants were able to pick the winner from line drawing renderings. The visual cues may be to something like “stage presence”. Or they may be to something like confidence, which (presumably) correlates well with actual ability, or even fluidity, which (again presumably) correlates even better with performance.


John Holbo 09.02.13 at 5:16 am

“something like confidence”

Keeping confirming and denying things!


Andrew F. 09.02.13 at 6:03 am

An executive transvestite is of course keenly aware of the impact appearances can have upon perception.

A very smart and very funny show. Haven’t seen it since the first time I watched it – a friend showed it to me during a challenging time to make me laugh (it worked well). Worth seeing if you haven’t. Actually reminds me of another part of the show, but it belongs on the Syria thread.


Martin 09.02.13 at 6:36 am

Not Andrew Sullivan, he’s on vacation. This is via Matt Sitman.


pedant 09.02.13 at 12:30 pm

So her research question was something like:
to what extent can people who only watch the videos of competitions, reproduce the rankings that were actually assigned by the original judges?

But the quick write-up that you link to is missing a crucial piece of info:

did the original judges assign their actual rankings under the influence of visual information, or not? Were they properly screened and blinded from visual distraction?

One surely hopes so, right? After all, I have been hearing for a good decade or so that there is a clear body of research showing that musical auditions produce different results when the judges can see the performer and when they cannot.

In particular, it has been a staple of the “implicit bias” research (about which I have read only as an interested amateur), that women fare much worse in auditions where the judges can see them, and fare much better in blind auditions (and indeed have their performances lauded with traditionally masculine accolades like “muscular,” “commanding,” etc. that are denied to them when the judges see that they are women.)

So surely, in the face of this body of research, and at this late date, competitions are not allowing their judges to actually *see* the performers, are they?

Because that would be too depressing for words.

So: if this current research compares the rankings assigned to silent video clips, with the rankings assigned by judges who had all audio and no visual distractions, then this is interesting research! Rather surprising result! Calls for more study!

But if this current research simply compares the rankings assigned to silent video clips with the rankings assigned by judges who were watching the performers and knew their gender, race, stature, mode of dress, etc. etc. then the result itself is not very surprising, but the fact that anyone is still allowing competitions to be judged this way is deeply depressing, not to say appalling. It just calls for all of the competition-organizers to be fired.


Mark Eli Kalderon 09.02.13 at 12:54 pm

Why assume that vision is a distraction here? We know from studies of speech perception that hearing a phoneme can depend upon seeing it articulated by the speaker (think of the McGurk effect—of which there are plenty of demonstrations on YouTube). Once you are OK with cross modal effects, it is open to think that seeing the source of the sound, in this case the performer working their instrument, can carry information relevant to the nature of the sound produced (attack, rhythm, etc.). So maybe “blind” listening would be a perceptually impoverished circumstance of hearing compared to seeing the music being performed.


pedant 09.02.13 at 1:01 pm

MEK–wouldn’t that sort of explanation predict that the differences between blinded judging and unblinded judging would be unaffected by the gender, race, attractiveness etc. of the performers? Whereas in fact it is not?

Or do you just extend the theory to say that white men gain the greatest benefit from visual input because they are the most skilled at “visual enunciation?” Whereas women etc., no matter what kind of sounds they may be producing, just are “visually inarticulate”?

Calls for more research!


ajay 09.02.13 at 1:13 pm

I am doubtful about this research. I’d be much more inclined to believe it if I hadn’t seen a photo of the researcher.


pedant 09.02.13 at 1:14 pm

Oh, and thanks for the McGurk effect, which I had been unaware of. Nifty!

Notice that the general lines of your response, i.e. insisting on the importance and non-irrelevance of visual info, is also what the researcher herself does in the linked article:

“Even if we implement more objective evaluations, a lot of music is consumed live, so you can’t take out the visual,” she said. “Unless we decide we only want to experience music through auditory means, there will always be a visual element to these performances.”

Translation: suck on it, non-standard looking people! Us attractive types are going to get all of the top billings and TV spots anyhow, so you uglies may as well get weeded out early on in the competition!


Harald K 09.02.13 at 1:49 pm

I don’t think attractiveness in the conventional sense is the main thing, at least not in classical music. It’s what they call visual expressiveness, which I less diplomatically call theatrics, which is the issue.

They would say that good visual expressiveness both helps and is a symptom of good musical expressiveness. I’d say there’s no reason to assume that, so I wasn’t surprised by this research.

I’m afraid the classical music have not taken the lessons from blind auditions to heart. As far as I know, most prestigious competitions are not blind.


Rakesh Bhandari 09.02.13 at 2:13 pm

On visual expressiveness, see Chris Thile of Goat Rodeo.


Alexir 09.02.13 at 3:00 pm

An interesting study, but the best we can do is speculate. The Harvard website notes: “At the direction of the depositing author this work is not currently accessible through DASH”. There are no derived publications (at least according to the Google Scholar). All a bit unusual, at least in my experience.

So, we don’t really know what Tsay actually did or how well it would stand up to actual scrutiny. Still, speculation is always fun.


Belle Waring 09.02.13 at 3:01 pm

Given the famously dramatic rise in hiring women for orchestras when auditions are blind, I would be very interested to know whether the women participating in these contests won in proportion to their numbers. If the men won disproportionally one could chalk it up to garden variety sexism. And I don’t think women ever even reach that level if they are not attractive to begin with.


Mark Eli Kalderon 09.02.13 at 3:14 pm

Pedant I was making a rather limited claim. I was just questioning whether every influence of vision on audition distorts what is genuinely there to be heard. Cross modal effects in audition are pervasive and not all a source of illusion. That is consistent with there being visual clues (about race or gender) that can introduce bias in the evaluation of a musical performance.


PJW 09.02.13 at 3:51 pm

Susan Boyle.


William Timberman 09.02.13 at 5:02 pm

Does Eddie Izzard remind anyone else of Angela Merkel — minus the German, which I’m sure he could do if asked — or am I just a non-executive, non-transvestite weirdo?


adam.smith 09.02.13 at 7:43 pm

@pedant – the problem with blinding judges, which is done routinely for orchestra auditions but pretty much never for solo competitions – is that it’s widely accepted among musicians that visuals are part of the performance.
This is most pronounced among singers – see how much Joyce DiDonato works on theatrics&expression during her masterclasses, for example:
But it’s certainly also the case for instrumentalists. When I saw the Takács quartet give a masterclass, I thought it was striking how much they worked on things like facial expressions etc., especially with their advanced students.
And I’m not sure why that should be a bad thing by itself. If it matters for the judges, it certainly matters for the audience. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any problems with that – the fact that you can pretty much no longer become a touring solo violinist unless you’re also hot is certainly troubling. But detaching the competition from the experience of the concert goer doesn’t strike me as a solution. I mean – theater critics and judges also have their biases, are we going to insist they only listen to shows?
(That said, the winners of the major competitions like Tchaikovsky or Queen Elisabeth strike me as more male then what you end up seeing on the circuit, for whatever reasons).


Frank Ashe 09.02.13 at 9:36 pm

Doesn’t anybody here consume music chiefly through CDs? Naxos has made a good business out of recording music from first rate orchestras with third rate names, knowing that people are only going to rate the music on how it sounds, not by irrelevant reputation.


pedant 09.02.13 at 10:42 pm

“…the winners of the major competitions like Tchaikovsky or Queen Elisabeth strike me as more male…”
“And I’m not sure why that should be a bad thing by itself.”

Oh, totally agree! Where would I be without male privilege? If I had had to compete on a level playing field with equally talented women, I would have been unemployed for decades now.


Harold 09.02.13 at 11:17 pm

While it is true that the tendency of musical judges is influenced by negative prejudice, and that for this reason orchestras began holding auditions with the player behind a screen, it doesn’t mean that the awarders of the prize in this case are necessarily prejudiced. It could also possibly mean that the winners were better at communicating the intention of the composer than the other contestants. If you watch any great performer you see they frequently (though not always) move more of their bodies than other, more average performers. That is because they are much more effective at really putting their whole heart and soul into it. If you see a video of the Mammas and the Poppas, for example, you will see that Cass Eliot is moving her entire body as she sings, down to her very finger tips, while the others are all stiff in comparison. Watch Callas sing and then watch someone else. Callas sings with her entire being, body and soul. Mick Jagger is another example. Even if they are standing relatively still, they are probably still moving something — their facial muscles — in some crucial communicative respect.

Scientists also tell us that great communicators in public speaking, such as former President Clinton, use many many more hand and body gestures than other speakers. Great comedians like Charlie Chaplin also move their whole bodies much more, and so do great dancers. The visual is an important aspect of effective communication — both musical and spoken, and when the visual is taken away, you can still hear it.


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 12:09 am

Right pedant. That’s why you wear dark glasses to every performance you go to, right? Because if not, you might be influenced by your biases in how you perceive it. If you don’t, I hope you think of yourself as a sexist & racist pig?!

You shouldn’t wear dark glasses when reading comments, though. Else you wouldn’t have missed that I readily concede that there are problems (as in “I’m not saying there aren’t any problems with that”) but that the solution must be more complex than just removing a key part of the performances. My reference to the music competitions is also a lot more nuanced than you make it out to be: My claim is that among commercially successful solo artists you see more women than among the winners of major competitions. Unless you believe that the classical music market & concert circuit is a perfect judge of quality that doesn’t necessarily mean that the competition judges are sexist. It _could_, but it could also be that some of faces of the dudes who are winning don’t conform to what the record companies want to put on their labels. I honestly don’t know. If I had to guess, it’s some of both.
(Oh – and the gender, race, and ethnicity of performers in my preferred art form has zero impact on my privilege as a white male academic).


pedant 09.03.13 at 12:17 am

I think you spoiled your argument at the end:

“… and when the visual is taken away, you can still hear it.”

If by this you mean that the performer who is more theatrical also produces better sound, and that the theatricality itself produces audible effects on the sound, then the judges ought to be able to hear the difference without seeing the performers.

But earlier you were trying out a different argument, which I think is shared by adam.smith, namely that musicians are also visual performers.

This is obviously true for opera singers–Callas is both a singer and an actor and a performance artist. So if she enters a competition for opera performance, it is entirely appropriate for her to be visible to her judges–the visual is part of the total performance. Ditto for Jagger, who is a singer and a dancer and an actor. The dancing is part of the act; if he enters competitions for singing and dancing and tongue-waggling, his judges will need to see him in order to judge accurately.

The trouble here is that orchestral and chamber music differ from opera and stadium rock in exactly these ways: the visual antics of the performers are not essential to them. You can fully experience a symphony via a recording. Or by being in the auditorium with your eyes closed. Or by being a music-lover who was born blind.

Not so for dance, or opera, or the geriatric gyrations of Jagger. If you can’t see, you are missing something. Those aspects are essential to the performances.

But these arguments don’t work for all kinds of music. Unless you want to say that judges who were born blind *necessarily* could not judge a piano competitions, as they could not judge competitions in the visual arts?


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 12:20 am

As for Naxos – I think that’s exactly right if you look at chamber works – e.g. the Kodaly Haydn Quartets on Naxos are outstanding (as is the fact that their recording a ton of music that no one else does, which is part of the reason for their good reputation among enthusiasts).
But it’s not actually true for the orchestra recordings. There is an audible difference between fine orchestras like Seattle and Milwaukee (both recording on Naxos) and great orchestras like Chicago, New York, or Berlin. It’s so audible that people immediately notice when an orchestra like Minnesota, which wasn’t considered top-tier, puts out an amazing recording like their Beethoven symphonies.


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 12:31 am

“You can fully experience a symphony via a recording. ”
uhm – no? Really, you can’t. You get a lot out of it, but it’s nowhere close to a live performance. Why else would people go and spend tons of money on it? Symphony hall isn’t the opera where you may go to see & be seen.
And that’s even less the case when a soloist is involved. The visual charisma of a performer matters a ton. Look at the theatrics of great classical performers (Du Pre or Lang Lang being prime example, just so we’re clear that this isn’t some white male thing). It’s spellbinding. You can actually look at them with sound off and still be glued to the screen.


pedant 09.03.13 at 1:15 am

“Why else would people go and spend tons of money on it?”

Well, you might want to hear it live because the sound is better in the hall than on your MP3. But the difference in that case is still an audio difference.

That’s why I offered the next two scenarios: in the hall, but lacking visual input, either temporarily or permanently.

You do know that Lang Lang irritates the shit out of some musicians, who think that his theatrics positively detract from the musical experience?

Look: of course someone could create a new hybrid art-form, which combined musical performance with some other stuff that could only be appreciated visually. We could require the oboists to send out semaphore-signals of the notes they play. You’ll need to be able to see them to judge how well they do! We could ask the horn section to play their parts while also doing synchronized swimming routines in a pool. My god, you have to see that to appreciate it! We could require our pianists to do a perfect mime rendition of Dean Stockwell’s lip-synching to Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet. What a visual feast!

How can we tell the first-prize winning piano-Stockwell-performers from the second-prize winners, without seeing them? We can’t! It’s a hybrid performance, part musical, part visual!

This is what you are telling me about Lang Lang–he plays the piano, and he also does a little interpretive dance. Nice! Cool hybrid medium. Let’s hope it doesn’t get confused with a pure musical performance, or judged as though it were one.


Anonymous Participant 09.03.13 at 2:15 am

Hey, I think I participated in this study!

For what it’s worth, (and of course one data point doesn’t count for much) what I most consciously considered as a factor was how “intense” they looked while playing. Which I suppose supports Eddie Izzard’s hypothesis.


Harold 09.03.13 at 2:39 am

It is true that I feel somewhat confused about the matter. I don’t know anything about classical competitions other than watching my children’s (more-or-less-beginners) violin and piano recitals, where children would play the same piece and they sounded like they were playing entirely different pieces, of different lengths and with different notes. Incidentally, when we went to buy a new bow or instrument, we would always listen blind before deciding on one — and usually, it was quite obvious which sounded better and to the teacher too, if she we brought them to her for consultation.

In any case, if the facial movements and gestures were something purely extraneous that can be taught, then why don’t the students of Callas and Didonato do it as well Callas and Didonato? Obviously, it can be taught up to a point.

I saw Mick Jagger at the grammy awards a few years ago and he was the only performer whose dancing didn’t appear highly choreographed — he also covered much much more of the stage than any of the others. I heard a Laban-trained movement analyst once discussing him, who noted how his movements, especially of the knees and thighs, were remarkably similar to those of a morris dancer.

Still, one would like to know what the judges in this particular experiment were listening and watching for.

As far as whether a recording can be as good as a live performance, it is true you can close your eyes at the concert hall, which I suppose is why it used to be called “absolute” or abstract music, but as for as a recording being the same — no way, even if the brain does supply the missing harmonics. Glenn Gould seems to have thought a recording could be equally good in its own, and very different way, though.

It is very complex as adam.smith has said. Some musicians — like Szegeti or Oistrach — put the music across with hardly any physical emoting, at least not perceptible to me, and you feel they are transparent vehicles and you are hearing what the composer really intended — maybe that is an illusion, too, but it is to me the most pleasing one.


Neil Levy 09.03.13 at 3:17 am

At comment one, I pointed out that “looks” can’t explain the results and noted that the performers were all at around the same (highly proficient) level. I also pointed out that the visual cues may correlate extremely well with actual proficiency. Almost every commentator has preceded to ignore these points. And this is CT, (genuinely) a bastion of quality discussion and insight. It is to despair.


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 3:45 am

That’s why I offered the next two scenarios: in the hall, but lacking visual input, either temporarily or permanently.

Right. So according to you, seats with limited visibility shouldn’t get any price discount. And there should never be such a thing as a video screen that broadcasts performances from symphony hall. But visually impaired seats are always discounted and video screens are common – the NY Phil has them for big events like the season opener, the Chicago Symphony has them at Ravinia, concerts are shown on TV (and used to be a lot more frequently when classical music had a bigger place in public culture) etc.
Look, you can try to decree some art form, but it’s not how classical music works or is supposed to work. It’s also not how most professional classical musicians think about performance. And that’s not some newfangled thing – Liszt, Paganini certainly knew about it. Who are you that you think you get to define that visual aspects don’t play a role in classical music?

And sure, some people are annoyed by Lang Lang (as they were by DuPre), but that’s hardly the point, right? The fact that some people find their theatrics negatively impacts their performances just goes to underline that they’re part of it. So they prefer musicians that portray the music with a stern serenity. So look at a Janos Starker performance. He was perhaps the prime example of a performer eschewing theatrics (while performing at least ;). But boy would you miss out by not watching him. His deep dedication to his instrument and the music is palpable. Why do you want to take that away?


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 3:49 am

@Neil – this isn’t a classroom discussion where we need to stick to article we all read at home. I understood the study, but that’s not what I was interested in re: pedant’s comments.


Tony Lynch 09.03.13 at 3:57 am

Don’t you guys naturally close your eyes to listen better when the music is good? I do. Even though it means missing Mick and Keith and Charlie.


Meredith 09.03.13 at 4:22 am

All sorts of good points being raised on this complicated issue, but I’d like to second Neil Levy @1 on one element: “The visual cues may be to something like “stage presence”. Or they may be to something like confidence, which (presumably) correlates well with actual ability, or even fluidity, which (again presumably) correlates even better with performance.”
This “confidence” conveys itself through myriad styles (from shy and unassuming to formal and business-like to brash and bold), but it grows out of the performer’s absorption and passion — conviction — in the music s/he is performing, so that (as my best violin teacher put it to me, advising me about practice, finding your way in interpretation, and then, performing) as people hear (and maybe you the audience only hear, not see) a performance, as audience you are convinced in the moment (WITH the performer) that THIS this is what and the way and the how this music IS and MUST BE. Imperfections of intonation, even flubbed notes, so forth — who cares, if the overall performance is utterly convincing? Especially in a live performance — even the recording (audio, audio-visual — visual alone seems weird to me) of a live performance! In fact, the imperfections are part of the experience of a live performance (and put me in mind of the required imperfections in a Navajo sand painting). Listen to and/or watch Oistrach and Richter (the Brahms/Franck combo) :

Don’t know about Belle’s @12. Though I take your fundamental point, still, I suspect that great performing musicians are attractive BECAUSE they are great at what they DO — that confidence factor? (Confidence not as self-assertive ego — rather, confidence as absorption and devotion by a supremely skilled and imaginative practitioner — someone who takes us all together, through humility, to a perfect place, at least for a moment?) As for any advantages in being “conventionally attractive,” well, no doubt that can help in promoting soloists’ careers, but it’s not going to get even soloists their initial attention. And get this (conventionally attractive women, nay, any women! — beware):


Colin Danby 09.03.13 at 4:53 am

Gosh, Neil, how can we ever make it up to you?

But seriously, maybe we can we pull this apart a little.

– Musicians give each other visual cues, which can make e.g. chamber music, small-ensemble jazz, or Indian classical performances more interesting – you get some sense of the music from the inside, as it’s being made. Obviously conducting is all about cues and audiences can follow those.

– It seems reasonable to suppose that part of some musicianship is deliberately giving the audience cues as well, about what to expect, how to listen. Clearly there’s a lot of variation here, vocalists tending to be especially expressive. OTOH my Dad, who had a career as a professional oboist, had contempt for conductors who were too concerned about their “rear view.”

Anyway, you could make a respectable argument that the visual is not irrelevant for some performance and some consumption of performance, and that might get at the point of why the film matters in the above study.

But that said, I’m with Frank @18 and Tony @31. Music is an aural medium, and if it were up to me I’d keep judging blind. Recordings often have *better* sound than live venues. I’m struck above that when commenters above try to describe the advantages of the visual, it’s oddly naive: “heart and soul,” “deep dedication.” This is not any communication about the particular music that’s going on, but instead some kind of communion they want to feel with a performer, an emotion. (A lot of people seem to want to experience art in these quasi-religious terms.) That there’s a demand for that kind of experience is obvious! But “adam smith” doesn’t seem to realize how tautological his argument about “how classical music works” is.


adam.smith 09.03.13 at 6:51 am

if by “naive” and “quasi-religious” you mean “something more than listening to a CD at home” that may include a stronger emotional connection to the piece and/or the performer, then yes, I do want that and I’m entirely unapologetic about it. If you want to try to start a movement to ruin live classical movement even more by removing any visual and emotional component from performances, go ahead and try. I’ll hope there’s enough opposition.

My “argument” about “how classical music works” isn’t tautological. It’s not meant as a normative argument but a description of what classical music is and has been for a long time. I’m happy to argue about whether that’s a good thing, but that’s not an argument pedant has made so far. Their claim has simply been that “the visual antics of the performers are not essential to them. You can fully experience a symphony via a recording. Or by being in the auditorium with your eyes closed.” They don’t write “shouldn’t be essential”. It’s “are not essential”. And if my points against that are so obvious as to appear tautological, I’m quite pleased ;).
(and if this is your dad – what an awesome career)


bad Jim 09.03.13 at 6:56 am

One of the reasons I prefer live symphony performances is that my ear isn’t that good. I find that I sometimes confuse oboe with clarinet, and brass instruments with each other, particularly with works I first heard at a young age. Tchaikovsky was fond of creating novel sounds with unison woodwinds. Beethoven sometimes weaves so many different threads together that it’s easier to keep track with your eyes than your ears (and this is even true with chamber music).

Then there’s the giant hammer in Mahler’s 6th, whose effect is almost entirely visual, as are some of the virtuosic extravagances of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy.

Sometimes, especially with opera, subtracting the visual spectacle can be revealing. I’ve at least had the delusion, while listening to the radio, that parts of Don Giovanni and Rigoletto were more like symphonic suites than plays with incidental music.


Harald K 09.03.13 at 11:45 am

adam.smith & Frank Ashe: IMO, Naxos licenses excellent musicians, but have dubious mixing standards. Especially older orchestra recordings just aren’t very well mixed.

Harold presents the thesis that the visually expressive also actually make better music for the ears. But that’s exactly what this research we’re talking about is evidence against.

It’s a priority for me that the music should be enjoyable on its own, and not overly reliant on theatrics. In competitions and such where theatrics have a place, it should be possible to separate these things: let one judge hear without seeing, one see without hearing, and one both seeing and hearing. Then they write up their opinions independently and compare. But absent damning evidence of gender imbalance (as there was for orchestra hirings), I don’t think we’ll have much luck convincing classical musical authorities of that.


Harold 09.03.13 at 2:12 pm

I am not arguing that visually expressive music makes better music for the ears. I am arguing that live, acoustic music is better music for the ears. I also agree with Neil Levy that the visual aspects of a performance can reveal a lot of information about technical proficiency; for those who know what to look for. Nevertheless, competitions, virtuosity, and theatrics shouldn’t be the main thing music is about, obviously.


Harold 09.03.13 at 4:49 pm

What I have been trying to say is that performance is communication and classical performance is a system of communication with agreed-upon criteria. The very best performers are those with the deeper grasp of the content and shape of what they are trying to communicate. This originates in the performer’s brain. My own take is that if a performer is more effective at communicating information aurally, they are also probably more effective at communicating visually. The judges are also more familiar with the content of a piece and they can probably supply the aural aspect from their own brains – they can observe the quality of the attack, for example, or the prolongation at the end of the bow stroke — the way the hands “fall” on the piano keys, the vitality of the rhythm and so on – just to mention a few crude things, for example.


Jonathan Mayhew 09.03.13 at 7:08 pm

This is a fascinating topic. One aspect I enjoyed in the playing of a timpanist of an orchestra I used to watch live a good deal was his grace and economy of movement. I enjoyed watching him and listening to him at the same time. Seeing him made me hear the timpani better, because I could tell when the notes were being played visually in a very precise way. Seeing him also made his drums sound better, because I was affected by the aesthetics of his movement. I think it is plausible that an expert judge could tell the difference between a good and a less good timpanist almost as easily by watching with the sound off as by listening with the visuals off. One’s everyday enjoyment of such things is alway tinged by those impure elements. Some of us enjoy that sort of contamination and some don’t. For auditions and competitions there is another logic at play, though, since the purity of perception acquires an ethical dimension.


matt w 09.04.13 at 12:11 am

I’m going to (I think) second Colin @33.

It seems very plausible that visual presentation is an aesthetically important part of musical performance, in many ways. (I don’t know an awful lot about classical music but in collectively improvised music it’s usually much easier to follow the many things that may be going on at once when you can see the performers.) For this reason, you’d expect people who saw audiovisual clips of the performance to be better at identifying the winners than people who just heard recordings, and that wouldn’t be a disturbing result.

But it seems implausible that the visual element is so aesthetically important that it ought to be easier to identify the winners from vison alone than from sound alone. And given the obvious ways this can be unfair, that is disturbing. (As Jonathan @39 acknowledges: ” For auditions and competitions there is another logic at play, though, since the purity of perception acquires an ethical dimension.”)


adam.smith 09.04.13 at 12:39 am

But it seems implausible that the visual element is so aesthetically important that it ought to be easier to identify the winners from vison alone than from sound alone.

I’ve now read the study a bit more carefully, and I don’t think that’s the correct interpretation of what’s going on. Some key points:
1. The excerpts used were 6secs long – we should not be surprised that even for experts it’s impossible to judge the quality of almost equally matched musical performances from such mini clips
2. People who had the same conditions as the judges – i.e. aural and visual – did no better than those just having aural. Which is rather odd – if the claim is that judges decide by visuals even though they listen to the music, why wouldn’t the participants with the same experience _also_ judge mainly by the visuals?

Here’s my suggested model of what’s going on: There is broad agreement about which visual cues/behaviors are considered a better performance. There is, given sufficiently close quality of playing, very little agreement on which aural elements consider a better performance – certainly not in 6secs clips, but as the author points out, not even among the judges who have listened to more.
Now, if both judges and participants weigh the aural aspect (say) 90% and the visual aspect 10% – but everyone agrees on the latter and no one agrees on the former – you’d get exactly the experimental results she got.
If, on the other hand, people weighed visual cues more heavily than aural clues generally, participants who both watched and listened should have been indistinguishable from those who just watched.

So if I’m right, what she has shown is that people are more likely to _agree_ on visuals and to be able to make these judgments more quickly. Not that visuals dominate musical decisions.


jonnybutter 09.04.13 at 1:12 am

I am arguing that live, acoustic music is better music for the ears.

All music is ‘acoustic’. I don’t know why the mix you get listening live is necessarily better than a carefully considered very high resolution recorded mix. This is especially true since the advent of multiple speaker systems and the software with which to mix to them. I would think you could hear things in a multi channel mix you could never hear in a stereo or binaural one. Why are the latter necessarily better?


Harold 09.04.13 at 2:20 am

“All music is acoustic” Adam Gopnik, but he does tackle that question here at some length:

There is agreement that reproduced music can never quite capture the quality of dynamic variation, much less the infinite resonances experienced in the concert hall, but Gopnik concludes that it doesn’t matter because the brain supplies what is missing. Agree or not, it is an interesting article.


Colin Danby 09.04.13 at 6:00 am

Thanks AS, yes that’s the guy. Just a few further points.

Clearly, two different people sitting side by side in a conference hall may be having different experiences, and beyond a point there’s no use asserting the primacy of one kind of experience over the other. My point about tautology is just that purchasers of the expensive seats in concert halls (for whatever motive) are one small market segment. Folks who can’t afford that and listen to the radio or to recordings are another. A century ago many, perhaps most consumers of classical music were playing it themselves or listening to amateurs.

Relatedly, Meredith’s point about risk, about the here-and-now is interesting, and something I hadn’t thought about. One might also build an argument around the community made by a live performance. There’s a whole further question about the performance of religious works in secular spaces… or even the possibility that the way we experience religious works in religious spaces has been changed by the fact that we do so much listening in secular spaces.

Where I mistrust the visual is that, as Eddie Izzard shows, it lends itself so readily to kitsch, to the substitution of an emotional experience for an aesthetic one. The ideology of romanticism is also still rampant – the possessed, suffering artist. One of my greatest listening experiences was the Beaux Arts Trio many years ago, who looked like insurance executives but who played so well you wanted to weep.


Meredith 09.04.13 at 6:30 am

Colin, we posted at the same moment, responding differently to Neil. I am struck by the number of “con” compounds I used! I share your distrust of kitsch. Kitsch v. con — an interesting tension. How to distinguish?

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