Study: When Judging Music Competitions, Looks Matter Most

Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 12:00 AM

University College London psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay University College London psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay

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


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Comments [7]

serena suarez from New Britain, Connecticut

Though stage presence should be a factor in the judgement of the performance, it shouldn't be the most prioritized factor. The performance should be able to speak for itself. Talent, overall, should triumph appearance.

Feb. 03 2016 10:26 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

PRIZE WINNING is the most sure-fire method to accelerate one's career success. The earlier one starts winning competitions the surer one's fame and financial rewards. The focus must be on improving and widening one's repertoire of possibilities to mature one's art. There must be a passion, a dedication, to constantly seek to improve. If one truly has the desire and strives with serious workouts to develop skill and stamina then success should surely be obtainable. STAGE PRESENCE and body language that reveals an interpretive ONENESS with the work performed besides a handsome or beautiful physique DO positively rate the performer. In the CLASSICAL field especially OPERA the timbre, musicianship, dramaturgy verity, projection, stamina and rarity of the voice quality SHOULD be the primal factor. In my own case, I work out daily at a gym, I run in scheduled races besides on a rubberized outdoor track, eat properly and sleep adequately. All these factors definitively affect one's appearance and stamina. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where vocal technique for declamation in plays and singing technique plus all the roles of Wagner and Shakespeare are taught.

Aug. 27 2013 12:49 PM
Cheryl Stewart from Indiana

Physical appearance is not the same as stage presence. A successful solo performer needs to have that elusive 'something' we call stage presence. a competition are we judging musical prowess and talent or are we judging potential to have a solo career. The latter means a combination of stage presence and musicianship.

Aug. 24 2013 08:45 AM

This is quite different than the audition process used by many symphony orchestras--specifically, complete anonymity (not even the gender of the player is revealed). Performers competing for a chair are behind a curtain. The jury sees nothing--not even the performer's name; rather, they only hear the playing.

Now in all honesty, anything can be biased--and no one ever said that the world (especially the music world) is fair. Jury members comprised of other performers, persons in the know, conductors, and so on, are often quite aware of who's who, simply by listening to two things--first, to the playing; and second, to the grapevine gossip concerning who's looking to fill the position.

In the woodwinds world, the playing style years ago between Metropolitan Opera Orchestra oboists Bhosys and Lucarelli was easily distinguishable--one did not need to see them in order to know who was working the Saturday matinee. One put on radio, listened for a few seconds, and the rest was academic.

Aug. 23 2013 11:14 AM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

Sad, yet true. When I was growing up, If you didn't look like Paul McCartney, you learned how to read music. Things change, or so we are led to think.

Aug. 21 2013 09:13 AM
Louis Torres from New York

Participants in competitions should therefore always perform behind a curtain of some sort and not be seen. (Anyone who disputes this, including professionals in the field, may not truly love or value music.) Let the musicians and singers then be heard and seen in post-competition recitals.

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) - /

Aug. 20 2013 04:18 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This blog deals with perhaps the two most questionable aspects of the music business,competitions,and the emphasis on external appearance.The results of music competitions have often been disputed,and the misplaced emphasis on looks over talent has long been debated.Kiri Te Kanawa has recently come out against the insistence on overly thin singers.Perhaps the success of young heavyweights Angela Meade and Jamie Barton is a sign of change,and potential future Caballes and Normans will not be discouraged from pursuing performing careers.

Aug. 20 2013 12:43 AM

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