Study: When Judging Music Competitions, Looks Matter Most

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Competitions have long been a hotly debated aspect of the classical music business, considered by some to be a necessary springboard for aspiring soloists and by others a poor barometer of artistry and future potential.

Now a new study may provide further ammunition for competition skeptics. Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay and her research team at University College London found that when it comes to judging a performance, people will focus more on an artist's stage presence than their musical prowess.

Tsay's team gave 1200 volunteers, including professional musicians and novices, recordings of three finalists from 10 international singing competitions, and asked them to guess the eventual winners. Some of the clips were only video, some were only audio and others contained both sound and images.

With just sound, or sound and video, novices and experts both guessed right and picked out the winners at about the same frequency (roughly 33 percent of the time). But with silent video alone, the success rate for both was much higher: from 46 to 53 percent.

In other words, both novices and experts were most accurate in predicting winners when they could only see the performers, significantly more than when they could only hear them. 

The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog.

"These findings point to a powerful effect of vision-biased preferences on selection processes even at the highest levels of performance," wrote Tsay, a social psychologist who is also a Juilliard-trained classical pianist. "Professional musicians and competition judges consciously value sound as central to this domain of performance, yet they arrive at different winners depending on whether visual information is available or not.”

Daniel Levitin, a Music neuropsychologist at McGill University in Montreal told the journal Nature that the results were not surprising. "In a sense, the visual channel is more primordial than the auditory," he said of the brain's chemistry. But for pianists or violinists who toil for countless hours on competition repertoire, the study may be sending a message: go see a stylist or a wardrobe consultant.

"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 Tsay.

Below: Watch an excerpt of Tsay performing Liszt