Musicians Are Better Able to Identify a World-Class Orchestra by Sight Than by Sound

Allowing musicians to both hear and see an orchestra playing actually lowers their ability to tell if it’s world-class

Photo: Derek Gleeson

When it comes to professional orchestras, you'd think it would be all about the music. Sound, however, turns out to have less to do with communicating world-class pedigree than sight, according to new research published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

More than 1,000 professional and novice musicians took a look at video clips of various orchestras playing, some of which had world-class standing and others that were less acclaimed. Some of the clips were silent, while others included audio. In both of the videos, the conductor was absent. The participants also listened to the orchestra's music without seeing any footage. 

From the silent footage, 64 percent of the participants—a higher proportion than mere chance would predict—were able to pick out the world-class groups. The participants only guessed correctly around 50 percent of the time when watching the clips with sound or listening to the recordings. "The mere presence of sound in the recordings actually detracted from the predictive power of video-only recordings," the lead author said, in a statement. "This research suggests that the ultimate music ensemble astounds not its listeners but its viewers." 

The researchers are not sure what it is, exactly, about the visual dynamics of world-class orchestras, but apparently it is enough to set them apart from their less highly ranked counterparts, even when the music itself cannot.

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