Judging Musicians by Showmanship

If you’ve ever been to an orchestra performance you know that all about the music. It’s the “sound” that makes the show.  That’s by design—the music, after all, is meant to be the experience.  But a new study finds that general listeners and professional musicians as well will judge a performance based on its visuals as much or more than its sound. That at less was the conclusion of group of 106 musicians experienced in judging music competitions.

They were shown six-second clips of the top three finalists in a classical music competition, their task was to identify the winner in each of 10 cases. Judges were randomly assigned to one of three groups for the judging—sound only, video only, or both video and sound.

When the researchers asked the judges what they rated most highly in performance, the judges said “sound”; but when given only the audio information, the judges were worse at picking the actual winner, scoring only  26%. Mere chance would produce a one in three chance of getting it right.

When given audio and video, judges got about one-third of their guesses correct; but when given the video only, they guessed the correct winner 47% of the time. Similar findings resulted when the experiment was with non-musicians as judges.

Paradoxically, the silent video resulted in the most accurate predictions as who would win a music competition. When the researchers simplified the videos to just black and white outlines of the musicians’ bodies and asked questions about the abstracted performance in terms of performer’s creativity, involvement, motivation, passion and uniqueness: They found that one measure that was rated the most was: passion!

The result if this experience seems to suggest that while the music is important, the real measure of a performance is the physical passion and dedication of the performer to the music, not just the music itself.