Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Looking at Music

Something I pointed out a while back is now supported by science: musicians win competitions and build careers with their looks. Here is the study reported in the Harvard Gazette.
“What I found was that people had a lower chance of identifying the eventual winner if they only listened to the sound,” Tsay said. “People who just had the video — even without the sound — had surprisingly high rates of selecting the actual winner. Even with professional musicians, who are trained to use sound, and who have both expertise and experience, it appeared that the visual information was overriding the sound.”
Because musical differences between two top performers are often slight, viewers can more easily pick up on visual cues they associate with high-quality performance, Tsay believes. Factors such as a performer’s engagement, passion, and energy resonate.
Chia-Jung Tsay is a pianist herself with significant performing experience so it is surprising that she, in my view, misinterprets the evidence. Yes, sure, of course appearance is a big factor: that is precisely why young performers building careers put so much emphasis on it. I have talked about that here and here. But, "musical differences between two top performers are often slight"? Where did this astonishing misapprehension come from? I can understand that an average concert-goer certainly being more swayed by the artist's garb or demeanor than by the strength of his or her interpretation: that is, after all, exactly why agents, managers and marketing advisors recommend what they recommend. But musicians? Chia-Jung Tsay seems to be saying that even musicians are oblivious to the actual musical content of the performance. But what is probably actually happening is that even in competitions judged by musicians, the visual aspect is given a lot of weight. I think this is simply because of the corruption of musical quality that has invaded even the classical musical world. Judges, perhaps even against their better judgment are saying to themselves, "oh yes, she has an excellent chance of a career because she plays pretty well and looks really great--audiences like that."

Want to know the truth? Despite the supposed "findings" of studies like these, musical differences between "top" performers are not "slight", but often enormous. There are gorgeous looking pianists that have wooden phrasing, and empty interpretations. There are very ordinary, or even off-putting in appearance, pianists that are as profound as anyone could wish for. A significant number of the posts on this blog are about distinguishing things like this, so just have a look around. There are so-called Bach specialists that play Bach really badly. There are string quartets with no feeling for Beethoven. And these are famous artists with big careers.

I think the real implication of the study I linked to at the top is that after decades of the unrelenting denial of aesthetic quality and difference, even people who should know better are giving in.

But vive la diffĂ©rence!

Now I'm going to put up two performances of a Chopin ballade. For the first artist there are NO clips on YouTube that do not feature a video of her playing, so to perform the experiment you will have to start the clip playing and NOT watch it.

Here is another clip of the same piece played by a different artist:

So, what do you hear? Any major differences between these "top performers"? Or are they "slight"?


Unknown said...

I think is is more likely an evolutionary bias rather than a cultural one. This comes up everywhere. There have been studies linking the amount of makeup women wear directly to their success. Enough to be making an effort but not too much to be threatening to other women. This is all terrible and unfair but it goes to show we're still the same humans we've always been. Much of the time we have no idea how many things are influencing us and how biased we are.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jared,

I'm not sure I understand the meaning of the contrast between "evolutionary" and "cultural" bias. Yes, I have no doubt that in nearly all social contexts appearance has a big effect on success. The WSJ yesterday had an article on how your body language affects how people see you. But isn't music a special case? A small area where how you sound IS actually more important than how you look? Isn't this one of the interesting things about music? Sure, in pop music, the look is as important (if not more important) as everything else. But if you are listening to classical music, how important is the appearance of the quartet as opposed to how they sound? I know I would rather listen to an old recording of Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich playing trios than the latest hotshot trio from Julliard. Why? Because of how they sound, meaning the depth of their interpretation and musical understanding.

I attended a recital by the latest young Canadian cellist a number of years ago and on the way out ran into a wise and seasoned violinist friend of mine. I offered some sort of critique of the cellist's performance and he simply replied, "you were expecting maybe Rostropovich?"

Rickard said...

I think Lang Lang might be a good example of focus on looks or showmanship instead of focus on musicality. I didn't know what all the fuss about him was until I recently watched a video where it was explained. The basic problem is that he surely can play lots of hard pieces from pianos but it comes out pretty bad musically when compared to other concert pianists. The root of the problem might be is that he plays too fast just to show off, he focuses too much on showing "emotions" with his face and doesn't really care about how it all turns out (or it seems that way when he plays at least). And ofc he has fanboys that will defend him at any cost.

Rickard said...

hard pieces at piano* Sorry about that awkward unintended grammar mistake.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have a number of commentators whose first language is not English. All grammatical errors forgiven in advance!

I haven't really come to an aesthetic opinion on Lang Lang. I guess I have been too distracted by Yuja Wang's miniskirt and Khatia Buniatashvili's backless dress.

Would it make sense to compare Lang Lang with his rival Yundi Li do you think?

Unknown said...

What I mean by evolutionary rather than cultural bias is that I do not believe this is a conscious decision made on the part of the judges but is an inherent bias in humans because of the way we evolved. Also coincidentally I heard an interview on cbc with Chia-Jung Tsay after reading this and what she claimed was not that the most attractive people were more likely to win. In the study people could pick the winners of competitions most successfully by watching videos of performers without sound. The same was not true of looking at pictures.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jared. I understand your point now. And thanks also for bringing out a distinction that I glossed over. What Chia-Jung Tsay seems to be saying is that her research revealed that the way performers LOOK when they play is more indicative of their likelihood of being the winner of a competition than a still photo. And, presumably, more indicative than just listening to an audio?

This is a less-implausible claim, certainly, as a soundless video can capture some of the dynamics of a performance. Everything but the actual musical performance! But I still think that my critique holds true. Imagine a music competition in which the performers were videotaped and the videos were watched by the judges with the sound off. Would that seem to be a fair music competition?

I think that what we have here is correlation, not causality. The kinds of performers who tend to win competitions also might be the kinds of performers who are visually demonstrative in certain ways. Viewing a soundless videotape might be a way to identify these performers.

Or, more likely, the whole competition process has been corrupted to the extent that judges are more and more tending to pick the superficially demonstrative performers and giving less credit to the musically gifted. I can't really judge without having all the information about what performers and what competitions were used in the research.