Sound, Vision and Musical Judgement

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There’s been a certain amount of heat coming from under collars in the musical world over the last few days over reports of research that showed that judges in piano competitions appear to be using visual information more than aural in picking winners.

Or, to be more precise, people asked to second-guess judges in piano competitions got the same answers much more reliably by watching silent videos than by either audio alone or video+audio clips. Which isn’t precisely the same thing, but the research sounds like it is robustly enough constructed that one can reasonably draw that conclusion.

Now, the heat has come in the rather predictable form of fulminations about:

  • Young performers getting promoted on glamour rather than ability
  • How shallow and dumbed down everything is getting with all this focus on visual things instead of the Music Itself
  • How nobody ever listens properly any more

Which is interesting in all kinds of ways, not least that all these points, except possibly the last one, are at best tangential if not completely irrelevant to the research. But they do help reveal why the research is proving so disturbing.

Classical music has an underlying set of values that elevates Reality over Appearance, Truth over Presentation. Hence, Beethoven’s wild hair and rough orchestrations are seen as in some ways fundamentally more honest than Mozart’s wigs and control of texture. During the 19th century, German symphony elevated itself over Italian opera, as it was about structure, narrative and abstract musical content, rather than costume, coloratura and stories with actual people in them.

(And everybody got a bit uncomfortable about people like Liszt and Paganini who did both instrumental music and virtuoso showmanship at the same time, and thus showed up the arbitrariness of the categories.)

The advent of recording technology allowed the concept of ‘the music itself’, as an idealised entity independent of and superior to the physical exertions of those who produce it to emerge as a widely-held and cherished belief, that got mapped onto the senses of sound and vision respectively. Hi-fi is the apotheosis of an aesthetic of absolute music.

But it is of course an illusion. Classical music, like all pre-digital technologies, is enacted by human beings. And, as my day out watching athletics reminded me, you can see a lot of what someone is thinking and feeling by watching them. So it makes sense that you can make very coherent judgements about mastery, expressiveness, sense of musical shape, joie de vivre and all kinds of other intensely musical elements, just by watching people. As I documented in my second book, musical traditions are embedded in patterns of action.

And, notwithstanding the grumblings about excessive use of eye-candy to sell classical music, the experiment seemed to show that it wasn’t social categories that people were using to make judgements. Gender and ethnicity apparently had no influence on the results at all. So, while it may be true that nobody listens properly any more (did we ever, I wonder?), at least the overly visual responses seem to be genuinely musical.

But it does leave you wondering what the deal is with sound. I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that one’s visible being is integral to the music you make, but I’m not really ready to let go of the idea that what it sounds like is also important. Indeed, much of what I do with conductors and singers is predicated on the notion that the two are intimately interrelated. Listening to a choir and then describing the conductor that exists in your mind’s eye is a great training exercise.

I suppose this could partly be because the study was of advanced musicians, so maybe at that level, they can all make a good sound, and the differentiating factors are the more emergent or meta-musical factors such as passion and personality. It would be interesting to see what kind of results would emerge from similar studies in other performance disciplines - woodwind, for instance, where tone quality is culturally fetishised more strongly than other instrumental families, or indeed singing, which has the conflicting (in terms of this study) imperatives of dramatic characterisation and the centrality of the Voice.

But in the meantime, it’s fun watching the profession trying to make sense of it without looking either too pretentious or too daft...

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