Menus Subscribe Search

Visual Cues Impact Judgment of Piano Performances

• August 29, 2011 • 12:38 PM

When it comes to classical pianists like Yuja Wang, what you see influences what you hear.

When young pianist Yuja Wang performed at the Hollywood Bowl in early August, the chatter was not about her virtuosity, but rather her short, tight dress. Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette addressed the controversy, writing: “Should we comment on how classical stars look? On the one hand, appearance has no bearing on how an artist sounds.”

Stop right there. In fact, visual cues we pick up from watching musicians in action significantly influence our judgment of their playing, according to newly published research.

German researchers Klaus-Ernst Behne and Clemens Wöllner present evidence that a pianist’s body language impacts how even knowledgeable listeners evaluate his or her performance. While they don’t address the issue of attire, their research provides a clue as to why women artists are sometimes judged differently than men.

Writing in the journal Musicae Scientiae, Behne and Wöllner describe their successful attempt to replicate a fascinating 1990 study, which was originally published in German. As part of a 2009 music psychology seminar at a major music academy, they gathered 35 students — all accomplished musicians — for a study of the visual impact of piano performances.

The participants viewed videos featuring four student musicians at the keyboard. Specifically, they watched two renditions of Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Major, and two performances of a capriccio by Brahms.

Unbeknownst to them, the soundtracks for the videos were recorded by the same pianist. He was seen in one of the four videos; for the other three, the on-screen performer was actually a body double.

For both the Chopin and Brahms works, one of the “performers” was male, the other female. After watching both renditions, participants rated what they heard using five-point scales to judge the players on such elements as confidence, precision, drama, virtuosity and expressivity.

Despite the fact the soundtracks were identical, “Nearly all participants identified differences between the pairs of video recordings,” the researchers report. Duplicating the results of the 1990 study, the “performances” by the male pianists were perceived as more precise, while the female pianist’s “performance” of Chopin was judged as more dramatic.

How could people with finely honed listening skills be fooled into thinking they were hearing different interpretations? 

“Differences between male and female performers’ bodily communication were frequently reported [by the participants during debriefing sessions],” the researchers write. “Female performers were described as using their bodies more expressively than male performers.”

This image of physical freedom and expressivity translated into “hearing” more dynamic performances from the women. In contrast, the men’s physical restraint apparently led listeners to believe their performances were more technically exact.

“When individuals are presented with multimodal sensory information, one stream of information can overtake another, giving rise to perceptual illusion,” the researchers write. Since “music is most often the outcome of human movement,” it’s unsurprising that our observations of such movements help us make sense of what we’re hearing.

So the classical music establishment acted wisely when, in the 1960s, orchestras began holding blind auditions, with candidates playing behind a screen. But audiences and critics watch as well as listen to performances. Perhaps more problematically, so do judges of piano competitions, at least in the final rounds. This research suggests their reactions may depend in part on the competitors’ physicality.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the famously stoic violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was known “neither to move nor even to flinch during a performance,” became a superstar during the era when recordings were first mass produced. Would he be as successful in this visual age, when concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its dynamic music director, Gustavo Dudamel, are beamed live into movie theaters?

On the big screen, we have been primed to expect action — and, come to think of it, sex appeal. Wang’s fashion sense, however disconcerting it is to some, may be very savvy. But this research suggests her reputation for exciting performances isn’t impacted so much by her body as it is by her body language.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.