How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video A new study shows that judges base musical performances more on sight than on sound.
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How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

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How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

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Let's turn now to the science of hearing. When we listen to music, we often close our eyes. It helps us hear better. But a new study suggests there might be more to music than what meets the ear. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Chia-Jung Tsay was a piano prodigy. Her teachers always stressed one thing.

CHIA-JUNG TSAY: Sound is really important in the domain of music.

VEDANTAM: She got the lesson about sounding good. That's her playing Mendelssohn at age 12.


VEDANTAM: She made her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 16. Tsay made it into the best music schools. Now, getting into these schools and various music competitions usually required auditions, and different auditions had different rules.

TSAY: Some competitions were auditions which require audio recordings. And other types of organizations would ask for video recordings.

VEDANTAM: The judges all said they were evaluating her music, but Tsay started to notice a pattern.

TSAY: I noticed that, for whatever reason, I seemed to be doing better when I submitted video recordings, or when the auditions or competitions involved live-round kinds of evaluations.

VEDANTAM: A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains why the judges liked Chia-Jung Tsay more when they could see her perform. Here is the researcher who published the study.

TSAY: I'm Chia-Jung Tsay.

VEDANTAM: That's right. In addition to her music career, Tsay is also a psychologist at University College, London. She recently showed amateur and professional musicians clips from classical music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners, but there was a twist. Different volunteers were given different kinds of clips.

TSAY: These were silent videos or audio recordings or videos with sound.

VEDANTAM: In other words, some volunteers could only hear the music. Some could see the musicians and hear the music. And some could only see the musicians. They heard nothing. You can guess what happened next.

TSAY: What was surprising was that even though most people will say sound matters the most, it turned out that it was only in the silent videos - so, videos without any sound - that participants were able to identify the actual winners.

VEDANTAM: Incredibly, the volunteers were better able to identify the winners when they couldn't hear the music at all, compared to when they could only hear the music. In fact, it was even worse than that. When the volunteers could see the musicians and hear the music, they became less accurate in picking the winners. The music was actually a distraction. OK. So, this says something about the volunteers, but Tsay points out that it also says something important about the original experts who judged the competitions.

TSAY: What this suggests is that the original judges - the professional musicians - had actually heavily over-weighted visual information at the expense of sound.

VEDANTAM: That's why volunteers who only saw the performers were able to guess what the judges had decided. Now, if the judges weren't going on the music, what was the X factor? Good looks? In a separate analysis, Tsay found it wasn't about superficial looks.

TSAY: I wouldn't necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment. There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance.

VEDANTAM: In fact, Tsay's study is only the latest to show that people's judgments on all manner of issues are shaped by what they see. We know we shouldn't judge books by their covers, but marketers know that we do. Economists and political psychologists have found that voters can predict the winners of elections when they watch videos of the candidates with the sound off.

TSAY: There is a very real gap between what people say they value, what people truly believe they value, and what is actually being used in these important evaluations.

VEDANTAM: That's a useful reminder for the next time we judge other people, and the next time other people judge us. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: Elmore Leonard evoked strong images with his sharp, simple writing. The celebrated crime novelist died this morning of complications from a stroke. He was 87. Many of his gritty novels, including "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," were made into movies. Elmore Leonard once offered his most important rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. This is NPR News.

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