Q: A musical competition is all about music and talent, right?
A: Not exactly. In fact, like it or not, in any competitive environment where humans are involved, appearances will matter.
This point was definitely made by researcher Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London when he published a research study at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2013.
Tsay sought out to examine the influence of appearance on the judgment of musical competitions.
- He did this to find out, in his own words, whether there are “gaps between what we say we use to evaluate performance and what we actually use.”
- Musicians like to say, “It’s all about the music!” But when musicians are in a competition, is that really true?
The remarkable thing about this series of studies was the super-thorough way that Tsay made his point. Some might see this huge string of 7 studies as overkill – but I see it as evidence of a committed researcher who covers all his bases.
In this study, all Tsay did was get a group of participants to answer the question:
- “Suppose that you have the chance to win cash bonuses if you can guess who won a live music competition. You may choose the type of recording you think would give you the best chance of winning the prize. You can select sound recordings, video recordings, or recordings with both video and sound. Which recordings do you choose?”
- Tsay told the participants that if they choose the recordings with BOTH video and sound, there would be a “tax” on their earnings. In other words, they would win less money (as a penalty).
- 58.5% chose the sound recordings.
- 14.2% chose the video recordings.
- Despite the penalty, 27.4% chose BOTH recordings. No doubt, they felt that they had a bigger shot at winning the money with both the audio and the visuals, and thus they were willing to take a smaller amount with a bigger chance of success.
STUDY 2: NOVICE RATERS
In this study, Tsay got 6-second video clips of 10 highly prestigious international classical music competitions.
Then he showed these clips randomly to a group of novice participants who were not trained in classical music.
- The participants were randomly shown video-only or sound-only versions of each clip.
- Then, they were asked to pick who they thought was the winner of each of the 10 competitions.
Since the participants are untrained, one would expect them to fare no better than chance when picking among the top 3 of each competition (they should be right 33% of the time).
83.3% of the participants reported that sound mattered most for their evaluation of the musical performance.
However, participants were HIGHLY more likely to identify the winners of each performance when they were only given the visual recordings.
- When they had the audio-only they did more poorly than chance – they correctly identified the winners 26% of the time.
- When they had the video-only they got it right 53% of the time.
- This effect was observed in all 10 competitions.
STUDY 3: NOVICE RATERS
This time they repeated the same study, only they gave some participants both audio and sound to see if this improved their judgments.
Having both audio and sound did not improve their results. In fact:
- When participants were given the sound-only recordings, they could predict the winner around 29% of the time.
- When participants were given both video and sound, they predicted the winner around 35% of the time.
- When participants were given the video-only recordings, they could predict the winner 46% of the time!
- In other words, having the audio only hindered their ability to correctly judge the winners! The visuals were the most important tool to judge the winner accurately.
STUDY 4: EXPERT RATERS
The previous studies were done with novice raters, who were not professionally trained experts in musical judgment. Certainly the experts are “all about the music,” right?
In Study 4, the previous procedure was repeated, only this time the raters were expert judges who had all been judges in musical competitions before.
In this study, a whopping 96.3% of raters said that sound was the most important in judging a musical competition.
However, here’s the shocker: When given sound-only clips, the experts were EVEN WORSE at identifying the winners of the competitions than the novices.
- When given sound-only clips, only 20.5% of experts were able to correctly identify the competition winner.
- When given video-only clips, 46.6% could correctly identify the winner.
STUDY 5: EXPERT RATERS
Once again, Tsay tried to find out if giving some participants (who were experts) both audio and sound would help them better predict the winners of competitions. The same procedure was followed from before, only with some experts getting both audio and video.
82.3% of experts said that sound was most important in judging musical competitions. However, when it came to judging, those who got:
- Sound-clips only: 25.7% correct
- Sound and video combined: 29.5% correct
- Video-clips only: 47% correct
In other words, experts were no better than novices (and in some respects they were worse) than novices in predicting the results of prestigious classical music competitions. And not only that, but the experts were even more reliant on visual data for judging and were worse at predicting with sound.
STUDY 6: MOTION
- In this study, the video clips were digitally altered so that they showed only a basic outline of performers.
- The researcher was trying to rule out the possibility that the judges were going off stereotypes about visual appearance (the musician’s race, gender, etc.).
- Participants judged the performers based only on 6-second clips of very crude outlines of the musicians.
- The participants correctly guessed the winners of the competitions 48.8% of the time, which is significantly more than chance.
- In other words, it was the motion of the musicians – posture, movement, the way they carried themselves, etc. that made the difference.
STUDY 7: MOTION CONTINUED
In this study, the outline videos were discarded and the original video clips were shown.
Participants not only judged who the winners of the competitions were, but also were asked to rate each musician (sound-only and video-only) on the following traits:
Participants picked up more significant cues about creativity, involvement, motivation, passion, and uniqueness from the visual clips rather than the sound-only clips.
In other words, more emotional data was communicated through the visuals than the sound.
The trait that had the biggest impact on correct judgments of winners? PASSION
The researcher made a bold statement at the end of the study:
- “This set of seven experiments suggests that novices’ judgment mirrors that of professionals: both novices and experts make judgments about music performance quickly and automatically on the basis of visual information.”
- Some key things to consider when interpreting these results for yourself:
These weren’t clips from a local “battle of the bands” – they were highly prestigious international classical music competitions.
- This means that all the performers were at the top of their game.
- Certainly, if one of the sound clips had a performer squeaking out a note or missing a beat, the judges would have noticed that.
- So this doesn’t mean that you can “look the part” and perform poorly and still expect to get rated highly.
- But it does mean that in a competition of highly-qualified performers who are all playing complex, difficult pieces, visual data gave the performers an edge over their opponents.
- Visual data was the way that performers could effectively communicate their emotions (passion, motivation, creativity, etc.) to the judges in a way that even their music couldn’t.
SO: Are you looking for an “edge” to stand out in front of a group of candidates who are all highly qualified?
TRY IMPROVING YOUR VISUAL APPEARANCE
Tsay, C. J. (2013). Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. PNAS, 110(36), 14580-14585. Link: https://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580.full.pdf+html