Let’s go look at music tonight
He is sometimes called the first rock star. He would whip his long hair around as he played, beads of sweat flying into the audience, and women would swoon or throw their clothes on to the stage. This is not Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page, but Franz Liszt, the nineteenth-century Hungarian pianist whose theatrical recitals made the composer Robert Schumann say that “a great deal of poetry would be lost” had Liszt played behind a screen.
But who cares about the histrionics — it’s the music that matters, right? Not according to the latest study, which shows that people’s judgements about the quality of a musical performance are influenced more by what they see than by what they hear.
The participants [in the study] were presented with recordings of the three finalists in each of ten prestigious international competitions, and were asked to guess the winner. With just sound, or sound and video, novices and experts both guessed right at about the same level as chance (33% of the time), or a little less. But with silent video alone, the success rate for both was about 46–53%. The experts did no better than the novices.
However, there are limits to how much what you see can override what you hear. That might happen for competition finals, where all performers are comparably excellent, but previous studies of the role of visual information in musical assessment have shown that trained musicians have no problem distinguishing between good and significantly poorer performances.