Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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