Does It Matter What Your Music Sounds Like? Maybe Not, According To The Most Depressing Scientific Research Ever

taylor-swiftDoes it matter what your music sounds like?

Maybe not.

According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the way you look when you perform may be more important than the way you sound.

Researcher Chia-Jung Tsay reports that “People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music. However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance.”

Tsay performed seven experiments, designed to test the the relative influence of site versus sound in judging musical performances. In the experiments, the researcher used recordings of actual music competitions and tested how well people could pick the winners, based on audio alone, video alone or video with audio.

Tsay found that people can reliably select the actual winners of live music competitions based on silent video recordings. But neither musical novices or professional musicians can reliably identify the winners of music competitions based on audio recordings of a performance.

“The results highlight our natural, automatic, and nonconscious dependence on visual cues,” concludes Tsay. “The dominance of visual information emerges to the degree that it is overweighted relative to auditory information, even when sound is consciously valued as the core domain content.”

Is this the most depressing scientific research ever?

Leave a comment and let us know what you think……


64 thoughts on “Does It Matter What Your Music Sounds Like? Maybe Not, According To The Most Depressing Scientific Research Ever

    • That’s because you are scientific ! other ones just just look at the dancing butt, which also an interesting waveform in a way.

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    • I dunno, but I can judge a lot about a performer’s confidence, competence, and honesty based on sight alone and that’s probably what the study discovered – people judge performance partly on kinaesthetics. No surprise.
      That and the fact that a lotta people don’t hear like a trained listener, which is no surprise either.

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    • I analyze recordings while listening. If I find that a section of music to be inspiring, then I’ll switch into writing mode. Chopping samples from FLACs for my sample library is a great way to “listen” to music you really wouldn’t listen to in the first place and add to your sample library. YMMV

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    • You don’t watch a performer if you listen on your iPhone / computer / CD / car. You *listen* – to the *music*.

      If I go to, e.g., a classical concert I listen with my eyes shut so that I may appreciate the rich tapestry of the sound and not be distracted by what is on the stage. This is basic music appreciation – taught in good high schools – it was in mine… I am not interested in how a performer moves – but what they play.

      That’s why it’s ridiculous dismissable nonsense. It’s a product of the action-oriented 2s me generation to assume that we have to see something to appreciate it and it has to be changing visually for there to be something better about it. It’s *MUSIC* – aural.

      Blind listeners must be missing out a whole lot – not….

      D.

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      • Point of clarification. I don’t mean to say that I don’t sometimes *enjoy* seeing a performer perform visually. I do – I think that’s not the point here though and not what the study is highlighting. The judging a performance part is the issue.

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  1. Looks like the experiment was done with classical performers, too.

    To me this means that the expression you bring when you play music is more important than people think.

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  2. Could it be that musical and visual appeal are just strongly correlated (and that is all)?

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    • Well, no that can’t be all – from the abstract of the actual study: “People reliably select the actual winners of live music competitions based on silent video recordings, but neither musical novices nor professional musicians were able to identify the winners based on sound recordings or recordings with both video and sound.”

      If it was just correlation, judges should be able to do it in both modalities, and certainly when they have both at the same time!

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  3. Using competitions is a terrible way to gage it. Most music shows only rely how the performer looks. Most all of the songs are covers. I’m not buying this.

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    • If by covers, you mean professional classical musicians playing classical music, then yes. These are piano and violin competitions that are being judged, not American Idol.

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  4. Some folks will be aghast at this study. some will obviously ignore it. yet there is a semblence of truth in what is being researched into : Proof ? Stadiums filled with audiences cheering and having a time of their lives on some utterly pedestrian quality music. amid lazers, lights and how the high queen or king of pop might look like – be it DJ tiesto or Shakira or Bjork .. You have to look good. The producers will make you sound good …

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  5. yep thats why a get a haircut before a show..
    but seriously theres some good literature about this kind of thing, nothing to cry over but society is primarily visual. I bought my first album (licensed to ill by the Beastie Boys im proud to say) because of the album cover and discovered many albums that way, but thats kinda seguing into artwork territory. I reckon a big part of music comes from stuff like fashion, peer groups, all kinds of non music stuff. In the more niche musical categories people tend to be more aware of sound, the mainstream peeps are the dumbest by far.. but nothing to be concerned about, good muzak will win out in the end..

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  6. The way you sit , facial expression, movement of your fngers &body parts has always been used for judgement in Western classical & even to rock/metal acts. It also is the reason why some non-melodic , non-musicial, non-artistic, non-mathematical illogical song also becomes an instant hit. Thankfully some of us will stick to making music that sounds good on a device recorded or live to your hear.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  7. Umm, guys – if this is the same study I heard about recently, it said that visible signs of passion, intensity and technical skill are perceived as more important than the actual sound being produced. Still not what we would hope, but better than Taylor Swift, right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  8. “people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance”
    should really be
    “some?/most? people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance”

    But as stated mixalis, who really cares?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  9. Without seeing more knowing more about the study, I think this data seems to say more about how we judge “competition” and not how we “enjoy” music. The act of judging a musical performance and the act of listening to music are actually very different. Live, most of us want to experience a performer… not simply a virtuoso. When listening to music at home… away from the live stage… I would still believe the results of this study would be much different. Hook up EEG readers to people is private as the listen to music and see how their brains respond to various musical performances; virtuoso’s, pop drivel, etc… I think that test would tell us more. Remember… Talent TV shoes (American Idol, some country Got Talent, etc.) have not produced anything close (in terms of a performers) to the hoopla given them and often the real “musician” is forced out in favor of the “cool kid”…
    There will always be a difference between a pop star and a virtuoso musician… not saying one cannot also be the other… but there is a difference… A BIG one….

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    • I agree. The idea of music competitions accurately reflecting how we perceive music in regular circumstances is nonsense. Think about your favorite bands. On one particular day, if you held a competition between them based on the same criteria, the one you picked as the winner would change. I love Frank Zappa, but some times he wouldn’t make my top three, because I wasn’t in the mood. I love Brian Eno, but he wouldn’t always make the top three. And so on and so forth.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. The point is: how are the collected data to be interpret? How can you say that there’s a proof of a “nonconscious dependence on visual cues” here?
    IMO the right interpretation is on a cultural level, not psychological nor neurological: contemporary western culture (which is already present in China) is mainly based on ephemeral visual esthetics. Appearence, spectacularity, theatrality,
    They would have obtained different results by doing the same tests with people from different cultures

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  11. Doesn’t this merely reveal the shallow nature of such competitions? Lets be clear – we are talking about commercial pop music where it is well known that image is everything for the majority of idiot consumers.

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    • No, let’s be clear, we are NOT talking about commercial pop. I know that they put a picture of a pop singer in this story, but the research was done with piano and violin performances of classical music by trained musicians.

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  12. This is not news to anyone who has worked to develop their performance craft. My eyes were opened years ago when working with a producer while playing in a cover band. He said, “whatever your next guitar solo is, act like you are playing the most amazing thing in the world and watch the audience response”. The next song in the set was, “I love rock and roll”, which has a really lame easy guitar part. I hammed it up and the audience went nuts. Reforming live was never the same again.

    You wonder why DJs like Deadmous who play inane repetitive music are hugely successful, or why every singer today needs to be auto tuned to be remotely in key? Because 1- people will listen to any damn thing you play for them, and 2- if the performer is putting on a show like they are awesome, and some advertising or another person also tells them its awesome, they will believe it. Humans don’t innately know what good art is. We have to learn it. So if we ourselves don’t study a craft, we are left only to believe what seems to be the opinions of others. Sad, but true.

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  13. BTW, why would this be depressing? It should be liberating because all it means is that you can keep playing whatever you want. Just start acting like you are hot shit and people will start liking it! :)

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  14. I wish this were surprising… But I am curious what types of performances were used to gather this data. Was it “top 40″ music?

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  15. They either drew the wrong conclusion or they chose an improper study to prove their thesis.

    We are very visual creatures, to be sure. And we are capable of reading many subtle qualities with our eyes. And skillful artists will demonstrate physical and emotional qualities that may give clues as to their overall mastery. I think that is the take home from this study.

    If they wanted to determine if pop stars like Taylor Swift are popular more because of their looks than their sound, there might be an easier way to do that.

    Perhaps they could the same recording and have it lip-synced by 4 different groups– (none of them the original artist in the recording). See what impact the appearance of the lip-syncers has on the choices. Perhaps also see if they rate the song higher with the more “attractive” performers.

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  16. If this research was done with classical music competitions, the level of playing was probably exceptionally high – so it may mean that exceptional musicians are better and conveying emotion and passion through their faces and bodies when they perform.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  17. There’s an awful lot of snobbery in these comments, and an almost uncontested consensus that autonomous listening is in some way “true” listening, and that listening which admits so-called “extra-musical” experiences (such as setting, time of day, visual stimulus etc.) is somehow corrupt or impure. There is also tacit agreement that looking at something is inherently of less worth than listening to something.

    I would say that people inform their listening by looking and vice-versa, because ultimately music, like any art, is a form of communication. Music is, at least in part, a kind of behaviour; we observe a person behaving in a specific way and we react accordingly. In most cultures music and visual stimulus are closely correlated, often inseparable. Indeed it is only in Western Classical music (and only recently at that) that autonomous listening has been given such pride of place, “the piece” taking precedence over “the performance”. The listeners at a Classical concert sit in serried ranks as still as possible while the performers play what is required of them, and no more so as not to corrupt the inner logic of the music they are part of creating, all resembling nothing so much as the devout at prayer. I think that this as a good thing, I think that in the West we have created a unique and quite wonderful way of listening to music, BUT, it is a deeply unnatural way to listen to music and that ought to be remembered.

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  18. 1. Great post synthhead, thanks for the link & debate!
    (slightly misleading picture though)

    2. Competitions are problematic by themselves.
    Wrong way to judge music (since music is not about exclusive choices, there’s a time&place for most of it), but maybe a good way to gauge performances.

    3. Classical music has had huge problems with racism and elitism (essentially major German/Austrian orchestras were run by out-and-out ex-nazis for a long time, and we know German orchestras are the best of the top ;-)
    That’s why they had to introduce veiled listening, to find ANY women or non-whites that could be allowed to perform.

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  19. This seems to say that the judges used visual cues to help decide winners and that the people in the study also used visual cues.

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  20. To anyone who has ever listed to current chart music, this will not come as a surprise. The music industry is, in fact, a lifestyle industry, as we all know…

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  21. As a student of the MIT I have to say that I also done a lot of researches concerning correlation between sounds and videos, the result is that 50% of those who listen to Rihanna want to fuck her and the 50% want to beat her to death :100% don’t give a shit about her music, 100% believe that it’s her butt that is actually singing.

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  22. Back when I mixed live music I made it a point to NOT look at the band forcing me to listen with the ears rather than the eyes.

    We must get music back in schools. The masses are uneducated sheep and the industry is based on that.

    As much as I love the current technology it does allow for a lot of bad “music”. People referring to themselves as musicians are most accurately editors at best. Put on a sparkly outfit, throw in some filthy language and baby you’re a star.

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  23. I worked in bars with live music for about 3 yrs and it took me a while to figure out why some bands were more popular than others. I think this article is right. A band would play excellent music but the musicians would be looking down at their fingers and fail. The next week a band would play awful stuff but would smile and jump around and look like they were having fun. This would always work.

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  24. I don’t know why they have a picture of Taylor Swift, here, but I am a music snob — particularly a vocal snob — and I’ve started listening to her because she has excellent voice control. I’ve never seen her perform, and had only seen a couple of photos when she popped up on Pandora… I now listen to her because her style has moved into more pop stuff (which is one genre I enjoy) and seems a lot less insipid. But, my choice is not based on the visuals….

    I think there is a lot of pressure in all of music to bring appearance along with talent. you see some variations — people who choose to wear dread locks, or have an affectation of always using a prop, like a special stool they must always have onstage, this kind of thing. But there’s undeniably a crafted visual element to music. Part of it may indeed be kinesthetic — it’s more stimulating and involving to see people jumping around to the beat or wearing clothes with swinging beads and the like — than watching a bunch of head-down strummers. And it can be generally part of a whole experience — I love the crisp appearance of a symphony, everything from the tuxes and dresses to the arrangement of the players’ positions onstage. Visualness brings more engagement to the music. However, I think that without the musical talent — SOME musical talent — that effect would last only very briefly on its own. Like, a performance, at most.

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  25. Most of the best music I’ve heard was created by less than photogenic types, with a few being real mirror-crackers. If its not worth listening to, they’re damned well not worth looking at. Show a little stagecraft, sure, but get your chops in line first. Its a great way to avoid being accused of using flash to gloss over your lacks. Only you can prevent Milli Vanilli. :P

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  26. If this is true, then I think Taylor Swift is the greatest musician in the history of the world. This is why I can’t stand listening to Chopin. I don’t know what he looked like. This is just more useless information ground out by nerds needing to justify their employment. We all know this stuff-it’s not new. Americans have a long history of believing anything told to them by someone in an expensive suit. “Well, shoot, he mus know sumthin’-he’s got all that money! In a word: duh. Americans are WAY too easily seduced by their eyes-and the eyes lie. This study tells me nothing about music. It does, however, tell me a lot about morons with no culture or education. Thanks for sharing, geeks. Now go do a study on why Americans keep electing professional politicians to office when all of them from both parties are in the hip pocket of industry and the voters even know it. Again: duh.

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  27. The conclusion seems to forget at least 70000 years of sound-music-making-humans. And for instance, I don’t think that visual is that important for an audience listening to a râga. And “mélomanes”, are they all just a bunch of hypocrits? Not to speak of musicians. In fact music doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion of the eyes… It is an interesting experiment, but as always, “science” lakes of a little bit of modesty(especially considering the protocol). A truth doesn’t have to be kind of absolute to be congruent.

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  28. Don;’t know why they say thiis is depressing. It has always been enjoyable to see a great performer even if I had no interest in buying their album. I support accomplished musicians by buying their music, I support performers by buying tickets to their performances.

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  29. Thanks for sharing, but this “study” says much more about our culture than it does about music, they way we perceive music or anything meaningful about the human nervous system. Most people have been CONDITIONED by television. Of course ,that is depressing as well but for different reasons.

    Also, the human brain might be able to discern who the winners will be based on all sorts of unconscious cues like posture, which is a huge part of being a good musician. Of course, I don’t actually believe the previous statement, I’m just offering a “devil’s advocate” position.

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  30. It adds up; we human beings receive the bulk of our input and knowledge visually.

    Are there times when the Great Unwashed Masses (everyone here excepted, naturally) unfairly pass over a worthy musician with zero kinetic skillz or no charisma? Sure.

    But stagecraft/stage presence is a big deal at a performance since audiences want the whole enchilada. I learned this in my college band (late 80′s/early 90′s, Baltimore). We were pretty good, and we usually opened up for the local powerhouse band All Mighty Senators–who are still going strong. But they were a tough act to…precede! ;)

    They commanded the stage. They packed every venue. Period. Plus, their music is great (funk-jam-rock-ska-blues-?-mix).

    But their stage look starts making them stand out, immediately: their front-man/singer, Landis, is about 6’4″ AND he plays drums front and center on the stage…AND he does it all standing up! Over the years there have been any number of wild costumes, fire breathing, projectors, confetti–you name it. It’s a friggin party amidst the great music. And it differentiates them like crazy.

    But…I doubt many people would flock to shows only involving the stagecraft. Gotta have the all-important music.

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  31. This is the stupidest thing I think I’ve ever seen. It’s hard even to know where to begin. Leave it to a “researcher” to suck all the magic out of yet another area of life. The research itself might be interesting if such a global conclusion, which is frankly absurd, hadn’t been reached. Or perhaps it’s the website article here that’s at fault and not the researcher. Either way, it’s really stupid.

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  32. Not depressing at all – I find it totally motivating instead. Now I have a reason to finally go out and get my guitar a haircut. It’s rather shaggy when it has long hair.
    And I wonder what Ray would have to say

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  33. Hallo everyone

    Interesting article, true to some people. But not for all.
    For me the way a tune sounds, and actually hits my nervs, is way mor eimportant than what an artist looks like while doing his/her thing on stage.
    I enjoy music through my soul, not my eyes.
    The most tunes from the 80s i remember and love just for what they sound like.
    I recently started to invest some time to see what the music videos or even live performances for any tracks available are/have been looking like. Mostly i was plain disappointet. So this is it? Sounds so good to me and it just looks that hilarious? I went back to pure audio experience.
    If a tune can not reach me by its pure audible aspect, if it can not make my heart sway and my soul vibrate, i’m in no way interested into the artists name, performance or a music video.
    For a modern example, i’m actually listening to ‘pryda’ by ‘eric prydz’ and i do enjoy every single bit of it (it is a set of three CDs). I have no idea of any visuals to it. I found it in my recommendations, bought it and started listening to it.
    I like i so far and have no visual input to it.
    Maybe the study should be redone by having audio tracks only.
    For classical performances/performers i can see where that study comes from.
    Having seen David Garret performing live, he really brings the excitement when one looks into his face. He enjoys what he is doing on stage.
    But like i said, for me it is the pure audio track that has to convience me of the quality of the actual music rather than the visual aspect. In that sense, without always calling back Mr. Garretts facial expressions when listening to his music, i could not enjoy it at home the same way i could doing so live in concert.
    Back in 2006 i got aware of something called ‘visual kay’, lot of japanese bands acting over the top emotional and putting on their maskara and extra ordinary stuff. Left quite an impression on me, but on the audio part of the whole circus it did not last long enough. There was nothing new after all. And once the i got around the visuals, when i bought some CDs from these acts, i realised how much they failed to deliver for the home entertainment, for when i will sit in front of my stereo and enjoy the pure sound.
    For enjoying the music in its purest form, do away with the visuals. That is the real way how to experience it, the real way to determine if you are into a certain style of music or not.
    But then people are people, and we are all different.

    Greetings from Germany

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  34. This study is going to bring the burka to music performance. It’s all part of the plot. You’ll see. Mark my words.

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