The look of music | Harvard Gazette

Thanks to my good brother, John C., who pointed this out for me. John did some studies with my mentor and myself on the Philosophy of Music and Silence. Always a rare treat to sit and converse with him. We have had more than a few dialogs on “the tyranny of the visual” over all senses and art forms, even that of hearing in music.

…In a study by Chia-Jung Tsay, who last year earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior with a secondary Ph.D. field in music, nearly all participants — including highly trained musicians — were better able to identify the winners of competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings. The work was described in a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a very counterintuitive finding — there have been some interesting reactions from musicians,” Tsay said. “What this suggests 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”…

via The look of music | Harvard Gazette.


  1. A fascinating study and one that reinforces observations I have made over the years, particularly as it pertains to symphonic music making. I infer from your remarks (the tyranny of the visual) that this is a dismaying report. I tend to agree, but recently, with the news of orchestras going bankrupt and being dismantled by their trustees in the name of cost effectiveness, I have come to think of it in a different light. There is a certain amount of if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em-ness in my new outlook, but I feel that it has become an existential issue for orchestras that bears consideration. Many American orchestra players eschew the idea of a show of engagement, professing that it distracts from the listening experience. And it shows. There is a continual stream of comments from audience members remarking on the apparent lack of involvement in the players on the stage. If those involved in the production of the music cannot seem to convey that which they profess to find compelling, what does that say to an audience member? One letter writer said, “why should I clap for people who look like they could’nt care less about the music they just performed?”

    It might just be in our best interests to accept that the ever more visual nature of present day humans makes the pure aural appreciation of music an incomplete experience? That the music is no longer enough, in and of itself. Yes, this is dismaying, but is our recourse watching the slow disappearance of one of mankind’s most amazing art forms, due, in part, to a reluctance to adjust to a changing perspective on concert listening? Or resorting to the popularized approach to programming: show tunes, video game music, movie music, etc, in order to attract listeners to the hall who don’t have a relationship with classical music? If one believes that it is more important to hold onto the notion of aural purity than to “appeal” to the visual demands of modern audiences, then I suppose those are the alternatives. But if one believes that concerts of the great symphonic works of the past and present can perhaps survive longer, even see a resurgence in attendance, if players were no longer actively discouraged from showing any involvement (moving, facial expressions, etc), which they presently are, then it would seem to me to be the far better choice to embrace a more involving stage presence than going the popularization route and bemoaning the loss of an entire art form.

    I realize that it is a simplification of the problem to suggest that greater player involvement is the one thing that will turn the fortunes of American symphony orchestras around, but right now all I see is hand wringing. Let’s try SOMETHING! Look at the Berlin Philharmonic. They are compelling to watch as well as listen to. Dudamel in LA is apparently demanding that his players show more. Coming from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra sensibility this is not surprising. It could be too little too late, but it is something. Personally, I do not want to watch see this inspiring art form diminished and dumbed down for lack of will to keep it great.

    In my view very little is lost by appealing to the visual nature of humans with what will seem to some at first as pretense. But it is widely thought that a little pretense often evolves into real involvement.

    1. Thanks for this response from somebody in the field. While the “tyranny of the visual” has played a big part in my examination of aesthetics, I use it here simply to point out how competitors may find themselves at a disadvantage for visual reasons. On the other hand, I began a program of closing my eyes to listen to new popular music when MTV came along. I want the song to first speak to my ears.

      I concur wholeheartedly with the notion that there is something “irritating” about going to the symphony and seeing musicians who apparently could care less if they are playing to a full or an empty house. In this regard, it becomes the opposite. I have heard many renditions of symphonic pieces. Whereas I want to hear a new piece, I am drawn to seeing how a musician will perform an older, established piece through his/her FULL embodiment. It becomes a key aspect of how I receive the music.

      I encourage you to follow through with this and not see it as giving in. I bet if you really looked at how music was performed 150 years ago or more, you will find that how folks perform today is a newer development and therefore contains no necessity for the music per se.

      1. Thanks for your quick response. As I tried to convey, I, myself, have embraced the idea, in my own playing, as well. It is the vast majority of players whom I think still see it as “giving in”. A new enthusiastic young player coming into the symphony gets the message early and clearly that too much “show” in one’s playing (however that is defined) will not fly with one’s colleagues. A distressing feeling for a newbie fresh from the high falutin rhetoric of the conservatory. The culture of the orchestra effectively squelches the instinctive human responses to powerful music. What an irony.

        Thanks again for the supportive words.

  2. And yes, symphony orchestras are indeed “at a disadvantage for visual reasons”. A new parameter for us to seriously consider.

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