Thursday, August 22, 2013

How Music Sounds May Not Be as Important as How It Looks


When it comes to music, what we see may be even more important than what we hear.

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay had participants predict the winners of musical competitions based on recordings — some audio-only, some videos with audio, and some silent videos. The results were surprising: Participants who saw videos, even without sound, were able to identify the winners at a significantly higher rate than those who only listened to the music.

Tsay, who holds Ph.D.s in both organizational behavior and music, was inspired to conduct the study based on her own experiences at elite musical competitions. “I found that depending on what type of evaluations were used — whether it was live rounds or audio recordings that had to be submitted — the results might vary widely,” Tsay reported. “My intuition was that there was a much more sophisticated role for visual information.”

It’s not just a matter of tone-deafness or training: Tsay’s results stayed consistent from laypeople to highly trained professional musicians. “What this suggests,” says Tsay, “is that there may be a way that visual information is prioritized over information from other modalities. In this case, it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.”

Tsay theorized that viewers were tuning in to factors like passion and engagement, but it’s possible that subtler biases were in play as well. In 2000, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin and Celia Rouse of Princeton found that when orchestras held blind auditions, in which musicians play anonymously from behind screens, the number of women who advanced from preliminary rounds increased by 50 percent—and the number ultimately hired increased severalfold.

Tsay’s study determined that visual input has a distinct impact on how we experience and evaluate music. The next step is to determine why—whether and to what extent neurological predisposition interacts with social biases, conscious or otherwise.

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