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With Music, What You See Affects What You Hear

A flourish of the arm can seem to extend a note, even if the sound itself is exactly the same

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Live music is a performance art: an artist’s display can matter just as much as his musical skill. (Remember the early 80s?) But new research by perception researcher Michael Schutz reaffirms the idea that a musician’s on-stage gestures don’t just make for a good show but can actually control the sounds you hear.

“Using the marimba as a test case,” says McMaster University, “researchers found that notes may sound “longer” when accompanied by an extended swing of the arm, or “shorter” when the movement is subtle– even if the note itself is exactly the same.”

During a live musical performance, it’s important to note the difference between “sound” and our “perception of sound,” he explains. Our internal perception of the external world is the final arbiter of the musical experience. So even if the entire audience receives the same auditory information, they will experience it in different ways.

“Ultimately, the literal acoustic information is less important than how it is perceived,” adds Schutz.

Schutz’ work—which adds to a growing body of research on the topic—could also help explain why live music is just that much better: a musician who can harness this sense for performance flare can take an already amazing bit of music and turn it into something more.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Do People Hate Dissonant Music? (And What Does It Say About Those Who Don’t?)

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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