Does Style Trump Substance?

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Synopsis

"(...) the visual element plays a larger role in our judgement of expertise and performance quality than we might think."

I was five years old when I first played for Dr. Suzuki. I performed Corelli’s La Folia, and when I was done playing, he said something very astute that always stuck with me.

I should note that he was always very kind to me, and unfailingly supportive and optimistic, but the gist of his comment, conveyed to me in the gentlest possible way, was “You sound better with my eyes closed.”

Indeed, I cringe to watch videos of myself performing back in the day. Knees locked, shoulders slumped, tummy jutting out, face completely expressionless, mouth half-open like a zombie… It’s not a pretty sight.

In subsequent years, other teachers also commented on how disengaged and bored I often looked (or calm, if they were glass half-full types).

The stubborn kid I was, I figured, on principle, that how I looked on stage shouldn’t matter. That my performance should be judged on what people heard, not what they saw.

But what if that’s just not how we’re wired?

What are our eyes doing?

Chia-Jung Tsay is a Juilliard Pre-College alum (piano), with a seriously impressive portfolio of a half-dozen or so degrees from Peabody and Harvard.

Like most talented young musicians, she worked diligently to improve her musical and technical skills, but noticed that she seemed to do better in auditions which required video recordings as opposed to audio-only recordings.

As she pursued her PhD in organizational behavior and psychology, she wondered how large a role our eyes play in the evaluation of a performance, and conducted a series of studies to see what she could find.

Guess the winner!

In a set of experiments including both non-musicians and professional musicians, Tsay evaluated participants’ ability to correctly guess the winner of 10 international competitions by presenting them with 6-second clips of the top three finalists.

Some participants were presented with audio-only clips of the finalists.

Other participants were presented with video-only clips of the finalists where the audio was removed.

Yet others viewed regular video clips with the audio intact.

The novices

When presented with sound-only clips, non-musicians correctly identified the winner ~25.5%-28.8% of the time. In other words, they would have been better off guessing randomly (if participants had simply guessed, you would expect them to pick the winner correctly about 33% of the time).

When presented with video-only clips, non-musicians correctly identified the winner ~46.4%-52.5% of the time. Still not a spectacular percentage, but a definite, and statistically significant edge above purely guessing.

Adding audio to the video seemed to confuse the participants, as this made them less likely to pick the winner (35.4%).

That in itself is a pretty interesting finding – that non-musicians are better able to guess the winner of a big competition merely by watching a silent 6-second video clip of their performance, than by actually hearing them play.

But this isn’t likely to hold true when professional musicians are the ones guessing who the winners are, right?

The pros

Well, as it turns out, the professional musicians didn’t fare much better.

When presented with sound-only clips, the pros correctly identified the winner ~20.5%-25.7% of the time.

And when presented with video-only clips, the pros correctly identified the winners ~46.6%-47% of the time.

Here too, seeing video footage with audio only hindered their efforts (29.5%).

What?!

So even professional musicians are better able to guess the winner of a competition by seeing them in action for 6-seconds than by hearing them play for 6-seconds?

This is some pretty astounding data. At first glance, concerning, perhaps. Even disappointing?

Style vs. substance

Some media outlets have taken these findings to mean that we live in a day and age where style trumps substance. Where looks and showmanship matter more than true artistry and musicianship.

But I don’t think Tsay and her data are suggesting that how we look matters more than how we sound. (And it should be noted that follow-up experiments established that race, gender, and physical attractiveness did not significantly impact participants’ judgment.)

I think Tsay’s findings simply suggest that the visual element plays a larger role in our judgement of expertise and performance quality than we might think.

That all else being equal, what we communicate visually may be the extra edge that tips the jury (or the audience) one way or the other.

Recall that the clips were of the top three finalists at international-level competitions.

All the “lesser” performers had already been weeded out in previous rounds. The remaining three were the cream of the crop, and at the highest level of competition, the top musicians are all talented, technically capable, and well-prepared. The differences between competitors are more a matter of style, taste, and nuanced details that are difficult to glean from short snippets of their performance.

If all three competitors are relatively evenly matched, doesn’t it make sense that judges would tend to pick as the winner of a major competition the musician who not only plays great, but looks more passionate, involved, motivated, creative, and unique? Who represents the complete package?

We want more

After all, we live in a day and age where the technical quality of performances is arguably higher than ever. So naturally, we demand more than just a great auditory experience. We want to have an emotional experience, to be moved, not just by the technical and musical elements of a performance, but by the entirety of what we are presented with.

We demand this of our computers, where perfectly functional (but uninspired) beige boxes no longer cut it.

We demand this of our phones, our cars, our book covers, our websites, and even our most common household tools. For instance, I have a plunger for my toilet designed by famed Princeton architect and designer Michael Graves. Why? Because it makes me feel better to look at it, and wasn’t really all that different in price than the ugly plunger which makes me want to…umm, basically not own a plunger.

Increasingly, we even demand this from the speakers and presenters we listen to, thanks to organizations like TED which have raised the level of our expectations.

Take action

At the end of the day, substance matters. Content matters. Skill and quality absolutely matter. But so too does style, design, aesthetics, and the unspoken messages we pick up visually.

Keep this in mind the next time you are preparing for a high-stakes talk, presentation, or performance. Videotape a dry run or dress rehearsal. Then give yourself an edge by taking the time to ensure that you're communicating the enthusiasm, passion, and conviction that your message deserves, not just to your audience's ears, but to their eyes as well.

Tags: emotions, emotions in art, music, noa kageyama, performance, showmanship, visual aspects of performance, visual feedback

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