Classical Music World: Sight Vs. Sound

By ANN MCLAUGHLIN, Artistic Director
Los Alamos Concert Association

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences isn’t an obvious place to find interesting articles about music. But a recent article written by psychologist and Juilliard-trained pianist Chia-Jung Tsay, caught my attention. 

In a series of experiments, Tsay showed 185 non-musicians video clips of competitors as they performed in 10 international music competitions. One group both viewed and heard the competitors.  A second group heard the audio, but didn’t see the performers and the third group watched but did not hear them as they played. 

Tsay then asked the subjects to guess which competitors won the top prizes awarded by professional competition judges.

The result? The novice participants who saw silent video clips agreed with the professionally trained judges at a significantly higher rate (46.4 percent) than either of the other two groups. The sound only group agreed with the judges at a very low rate of only 28.6 percent. The group both hearing and seeing still fell short at only 35.4 percent.

Apparently, hearing the performance actually got in the way of guessing what the jury would decide! Tsay repeated her experiment with professional musicians as subjects, and got similar results.

Trained musicians and amateur music lovers alike will undoubtedly be aghast at this finding. Isn’t it all about the music, what we actually hear?

Before the 1960s, orchestras were all-male bastions. If a woman appeared in an orchestra she played a harp or flute – instruments suitable for young ladies. Under pressure from women (and men, too), professional orchestras began evaluating applicants by having them audition behind a screen and identified by number. As a result, women are now a routine sight in professional orchestras.   

A famous early beneficiary of the new “blind auditions” system was French horn virtuoso Julie Landsman. The French horn is generally not considered a “girly” instrument and the consensus was that women didn’t have the lung power to play the instrument well. Landsman, in her blind audition for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra wowed the hiring committee by holding the final note for so long that they laughed. Imagine their surprise when their new horn player walked out from behind that screen!

The conductor and the other evaluators didn’t see her. They chose her after only hearing her. So doesn’t that prove that it is all about the music? Not really. 

For generations, what conductors and male orchestra members saw, simply overwhelmed their judgement about what they heard. They saw a woman and could not overcome the ingrained notion that women couldn’t play brass instruments to their standards or violins or cellos for that matter.

It is impossible for our visually oriented species to ignore what we see. We start making judgements the instant a performing artist takes the stage.   

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Live performance is a deeply human activity. It is all about an artist making a connection with an audience. Nothing that happens on the stage is off limits when people decide how they feel about a performance.

In this highly charged age when the technical prowess of performers is jaw-dropping, that extra “something” can make or break a career. If competition judges imagine that they are awarding medals based only on what they hear, they are deluding themselves. Deep down (and, I would hope, quite consciously) they should all be asking themselves one question: Does this performer have a shot at a real career? Will people actually pay to hear (and see) this person play?

I’ve seen Julie Landsman perform many times at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.  She looks now, many years after that blind audition, like someone’s comfy grandma. But when she walks out on stage, she radiates a combination of confidence, dignity and warmth that says, “I have totally got this. Hang on to your seat!” It’s like seeing a great opera diva take the stage.

Charisma! We know it when we see it! And who can say it shouldn’t affect what we hear?

The Los Alamos Concert Association is celebrating its 70th Anniversary beginning this month. Check out our charisma-filled season at www.losalamosconcert.org.

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