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

Tags: , , ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

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

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

In Battle Against Climate Change, Cities Are Left All Alone

Cities must play a critical role in shifting the world to a fossil fuel-free future. So why won't anybody help them?

When a Romance Is Threatened, People Rebound With God

And when they feel God might reject them, they buddy up to their partner.

How Can We Protect Open Ocean That Does Not Yet Exist?

As global warming melts ice and ushers in a wave of commercial activity in the Arctic, scientists are thinking about how to protect environments of the future.

What Kind of Beat Makes You Want to Groove?

The science behind the rhythms that get you on the dance floor.

Pollution’s Racial Divides

When it comes to the injustice of air pollution, the divide between blacks and whites is greater than the gap between the rich and the poor.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014