Forget practicing, it’s how you look

A truly shocking paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 110 pp. 14580 – 14585 ’13 ] showed that people could reliably pick the winners of classical musical competitions when they looked at soundless videos of the competitors. Neither naive listeners or musical ‘experts’ were reliable at all when they just listened to recordings, or when they looked and listened to videos and sound.

This actually makes a peculiar sort of sense to the neurologist. Probably half our brain is involved in analyzing visual input, maybe 10% analyzes sound.

I’m still going to practice. Perhaps the music industry knows something we didn’t till now. I’ve always been appalled by the way great female classic musicians are made to look like sluts on album covers. You don’t see Lang Lang in a jock strap.

Here are the actual experiments.

Experiment 1. One hundred six participants (Mage = 20.73, SD = 2.46; 49.5% male*) volunteered.† Participants were instructed about 10 live classical music competitions that they would judge, based on excerpts of the three finalists in each competition. They had the chance to receive an additional $8 if their selections matched the actual competition outcomes. They had the choice of sound or video recordings; or, if they chose the recordings with both video and sound, $2 would be deducted from any bonuses won.

Experiment 2. One hundred six participants (Mage = 22.26, SD = 1.79; 41.1% male*) with little to no experience in classical music volunteered.† Through a within-subjects design, each participant received both the video-only set and the sound-only set of the same performances (SI Text). Participants were then asked to identify the winner of each competition. Finally, they were asked to identify whether sound, visuals, or other cues were more important for them in judging a music competition.

Experiment 3. One hundred eighty-five participants (Mage = 24.18, SD = 9.64; 46.1% male*) with little to no experience in classical music volunteered.† Through a between-subjects design, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: video-only, sound-only, or video-plus-sound versions of the experiment 2 stimuli. They were then asked to identify the winners and report whether sound, visuals, or other cues were more important for them in judging a music competition (SI Text).

Experiment 4. Thirty-five professional musicians (Mage = 27.00, SD = 9.69; 31.6% male) volunteered. They were recruited from music conservatories, symphony orchestras, and professional music organizations. The design paralleled the within-subjects format used in experiment 2 and implemented the same stimuli (SI Text).

Experiment 5. One hundred six professional musicians (Mage = 27.25, SD = 12.55; 41.5% male) volunteered. The design paralleled the between-subjects format used in experiment 3 and implemented the same stimuli. Analyses on effects of demographic variables revealed no significant patterns (SI Text).

Experiment 6. Eighty-nine participants (Mage = 27.38, SD = 10.68; 50.0% male*) volunteered.† Participants received silent videos from the experiment 2–5 stimuli that had been reduced to black-and-white moving outlines (Fig. S2). Participants were then asked to identify the winners of each competition.

Experiment 7. Two hundred sixty-two participants (Mage = 21.52, SD = 3.36; 52.3% male) volunteered.† Participants were assigned to either the silent videos or the audio recordings from the experiment 2–5 stimuli. They were then asked to identify the most confident, creative, involved, motivated, passionate, and unique performer in each set of finalists. Repeat choices were allowed.

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