How Music Looks Can Be More Important Than Sound, Says Science

Posted By Derek Nance on Aug 28, 2013 |


I was driving to work the other day when a fascinating story on NPR ran.  According to a new research study, visual cues are more important than how the music actually sounds when judging music, regardless of musical training.  The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was authored by Chia-Jung Tsay.  Tsay is a psychologist at University College, London and a concert piano virtuoso.

Participants in the study were shown clips from international piano competitions and asked to pick which performer won the competition.  However, some participants were given videos with sound, while other participants were given only the audio or only the video of the performance.  When all the results were tallied, the participants who watched the video performance without the sound were more able to correctly guess the winner of the competition.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazzette, Tsay commented, “I wouldn’t expect musical novices to be able to use auditory information the same way a trained musician with 20 years of experience would, but when I ran the studies with professional musicians — people who perform as part of orchestras, or who teach at music conservatories — and I saw the same result, that was when I realized that regardless of the amount of experience, people still seem to rely on visual information.”

As handbell ringers we always joke that people love handbells because they look shinny, but maybe there is more truth to that joke than we believe.  I know when I bring friends to a bell concert they fall in love with the instrument instantly, and lots of that has to do with how beautiful a bell ensemble looks while ringing.  Getting our bells up, keeping our arms moving, connecting with the audience, and looking confident are more than just things directors harp about, they really are important for creating music.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment… There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance” according to Tsay during her interview with NPR.

This is why videos of bell ringing on YouTube are so important.  We have an instrument that practically sells itself when people see it, we just need to put ourselves out there more.  As a fun exercise, try watching YouTube videos of bell groups without the sound and then decided if you would go watch an hour long concert with that group.  The results may surprise you.

If you want to read more about this study, check out these links:

NPR Science Friday: Judging Music With Visual Cues

Harvard Gazette: The Look of Music

NPR: How To Win That Music Competition? Send a Video

Nature News: Musicians’ Appearances Matter More Than Their Sound

Cover Photo: “Hugo Kitano – Senior Appreciation Brunch – 2011 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival” by –Mark– on Flickr.  Used under Creative Commons License.