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Never! Competition winners ‘likelier to be picked by eye than by ear’

Research at University College London finds that judges – both lay and expert – are more likely to identify a competition winner with the sound switched off. The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay (pictured), herself a Juilliard-trained pianist, suggest that looks and gestures matter more than the sound emitted. Although 83 percent of participants insisted that sound was paramount, the group scored much better on silent video than on visionless audio.

Here’s a summary in Nature.



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  1. James Brinton says:

    Something like this probably accounts for Nobuyuki Tsujii’s win at the Cliburn in 2009. Definitely one of those cases where the sentimental favorite was not the equal of those who came in behind him. To its credit, the Cliburn shook things up after the 2009 competition.

    • Excuse me, Mr. Brinton. But it is rude for you to make this statement without basis. And the Cliburn “shook things up” because of a change in leadership. Mr. Tsujii has earned his respect worldwide since 2009, although it sounds like not yours.

      • James Brinton says:

        No personal opinion was expressed.
        On the other hand, this was a minor scandal in the local and musical press, and much of the commentary dripped with sarcasm. It also is instructive to review the careers of the runners-up, most of whom appear to be playing more often and to greater acclaim than the winner.

        • M. L. Liu says:

          I have the utmost respect for all virtuosos. There is no need to begrudge the success of one in favor of others.
          Since his win at the Cliburn Competition, Nobuyuki Tsujii has been a great ambassador for the competition as well as for piano music. Last month, he debuted at the BBC Proms and brought the house down at the Royal Albert Hall. Nobu is by far the classical musician most in demand in Japan, regularly selling out the largest concert halls.
          Please take a look at to see just how busy his concert schedule is.

  2. Recording contracts are certainly awarded based on looks, too.

    • A rather sweeping statement, don’t you think, Barbara? And not really true, either.

      • Petron Schmid says:

        I have to dissappoint you. This statement is absolutely true lately.

        • Of course it’s true. Just look at all the young musicians with recording contracts. Try perusing some of their websites, or even their pages on whatever music company’s website. They are not only chosen for their looks, they’re made to pose like models too. What a farce!

  3. Chia-Jung Tsay (pictured), herself a Juilliard-trained pianist, suggest that looks and gestures matter more than the sound emitted.

    Perhaps that is the case if you are woman, but I can certainly say that looks never came into the result of the Leeds International Piano Competition last year as 1) they were all men, six of them, and 2) the most musical and less showy pianist won the competition quite rightly.

    Women in general are still ‘clothes horses’ first before they do anything else in life, be it playing the piano, reading the news on telly, or just walking down the road going to a wine bar. It all matters, and who is to blame in this I wonder?

  4. contrarian says:

    This is neither the first nor the last such study, so one would hope she addresses the current literature on this subject. Here are a few other studies for the curious:

    “The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators’ performance ratings”

    “Effects of Performer Attractiveness, Stage Behavior, and Dress on Evaluation of Children’s Piano Performances”

    “What Does Seeing the Performer Add? It Depends on Musical Style, Amount of Stage Behavior, and Audience Expertise”

    There are many many more dating back to at least 1990, when Klaus Ernst Behne conducted a study in which 93 participants listened to the SAME audio clip but with different visual input (videos of different pianists) and thought each “performance” was different. An updated the study from 2011:
    ““Seeing or Hearing the Pianists? A Synopsis of an Early Audiovisual Perception Experiment and a Replication,”

    Of course, everyone knows the classical music industry is based on looks now anyway, so who cares if you listen?

    • robcat2075 says:

      Perusing the abstracts, it seems each of those studies was posing rather different comparisons than the current study. For example, one was comparing audience reactions to the same performer attempting to affect different physical mannerisms.

      It looks like the current study isn’t merely treading old ground but is looking at the problem with a new method.

  5. Jack Becker says:

    And in other news…water is wet.

  6. This is very interesting but not all that surprising. Outside of music, there have been many studies that show the power of visual impressions; even show people a photo for a moment and a high percentage can pick the person who earns more money, wins a political race, etc..

    In this case I don’t find it particularly surprising; when you listen to/watch a musical performance, you are taking in the entire experience. It’s not a matter of looks – just the overall impression and the charisma of the performer.

    For musical competitions, I suppose you could go to blind evaluation. But are the judges selecting the “best” player, or the one who gives the best overall impression in performance? Visual is a factor.

  7. The reporting article is not very clear about it, but presumably the study was done mainly or entirely on pianists. This could be a special case, because the sound production as well as quite a lot of the details of phrasing and artiulation are in fact visible in piano playing. One doesn’t need musical training to realize that, and maybe get influenced in one’s judgement. I wonder whether there would have been the same result if the study would have been carried out with singers or instrumentalists who play instruments with a less visible sound production, e.g. Woodwind players for instance. If you want, take a video clip by Stefan Schilli as an example, a wonderful oboe player IMHO. WATCH first without the sound, and after that LISTEN with a blank screen. I would suggest this one (starting at 1:12):

    I believe it will be rather obvious that the connection between the visual and the acoustic or musical side of his performance is a lot less strong than it would be with a pianist. Hopefully someone will repeat this study with other instrumentalists. It would be highly interesting to compare if, how and to which degree the results would be different from Ms. Tsay’s study.

  8. “The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay (pictured), herself a Juilliard-trained pianist, suggest that looks and gestures matter more than the sound emitted.”

    Another way of reading the results is that there is such a thing as musicality to the eye and that music itself is not just an art of sound. Dance is a visual art, right? But if the movements don’t match the music, it doesn’t work. I think we may find surprising results if we do the same study with subjects listening to dance steps (amplifying the sounds of the stage) together with the music and judging the dancers by that. I think we would also be surprised how much we can hear the quality of the dancers.

  9. “To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.”

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