Piano Street Magazine

Do We Judge Music by Sight More Than Sound?

August 30th, 2013 in Articles by | 36 comments

During the summer several interesting articles that deal with the conception of audibility vs. visibility have been presented by international media.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an expert from University College London, concert pianist and psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay has brought forth a theory that general physical appeal and visual aspects of performance are more important than actual playing in the judgment of musical competitions.

In fact, experts polled as part of this study were given three musical examples of just the contestants’ playing and were asked to evaluate. The experts chose a consensus winner from among the recordings as the best musical performance; however, in many cases, their choice was not the eventual winner of the competition.

The author notes that inferior playing won the day by looking more passionate, skillful and composed. The author conducted six other experiments in addition to the experts listening to recordings.

Nrp.org: How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

The new visual generation

At the same time new generations of musicians investigate the possibilities of audiovisual composition. Recently, there were two performances of special note at the Bristol Proms.

At one performance, a choir sang in complete darkness from memory and without a conductor. At the other, pianist Jan Lisecki performed Chopin with 20 cameras studying his every move.

A master’s degree student attended both performances, and her impressions were intriguing. She noted the special bond necessary between musicians when performing without a conductor and in total darkness. The performers must feel the rhythm of the ensemble in addition to the rhythm of the music and rely on each other for entrances, cues and cutoffs.

She then remarked that the technology present in the piano performance was distracting because the transition between cameras was always a split-second behind despite the best efforts of the technical team. She praised the team, however, for an exceptional effort in an extremely difficult medium.

Edited: 31 Aug 2103

Reader poll

With an increased share of classical music consumed in various audivisual formats in relation to audio only, a relevant question to ask is whether it disturbs or enhances the musical experience of a classical composition.

We have selected four distinctly different types of videos with respectable performances of the same work, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Listen and watch a few minutes of each and then cast your vote!

1. Audio only (listen with closed eyes)
Khatia Buniatishvili

2. Follow along score
André Laplante

3. Live performance, close-up footage
Daniil Trifonov

4. “Video drama” production:
Khatia Buniatishvili

Which visual category do you prefer for an optimal experiece of the musical composition?

View Results

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After voting:
1. Post a comment below about your choice and whether the different versions are enhancing or distubing the musical experience.
2. Share this page with any of your friends that would be interested in voting.


  • Wayne Johnson says:

    As a pianist, I probably have different criteria than the average listener. But for me, the video drama is contrived and totally distracting. The live, close-up video portrays an enthusiastic, but sweaty and not particularly stellar performer. He makes it hard to really listen objectively. The follow-along score version is OK, but any competent pianist should have his or her own score if they really need It. The audio only version is the only way to judge the true merits of the performer.

  • Ted Jones says:

    I prefer audio only for all music, not just piano and classical. The only exception is watching a player in order to learn about physical technique; that aspect, used with discretion, can sometimes be helpful. I post many dozens of my recordings on the internet, but as I am certain the spectacle of my idiosyncratic, ursine groping at the instrument would do absolutely nothing for listeners, I have never posted videos and do not intend to.

  • Clarice says:

    I prefer live performance video close-ups usually because I become more involved with the music and I enjoy observing the skills and artistry of the pianists, and musicians in general. However, in this particular case, it was not such a good experience because of the poor quality video.
    I disliked intensely the video drama production since this was visually distracting and contributed nothing to the performance that I was able to discern.
    I find video with follow along score `useful` at times, especially if I am wanting to learn to play a particular piano sonata myself.It is a helpful introduction to a piece of music to follow the score whilst listening to a competent musician demonstrating how it should be performed.
    However, in this particular case ,I found it quite difficult to `follow` along with the score as I `ve not heard this particular sonata before and it was quite `hard work` for me.

  • suzyb says:

    I preferred the up-close footage of the live performance. I enjoy seeing the connection the musician makes with the music.

  • Michael BB says:

    As Chauncey Gardner said in the film “being There”, “I like to watch”. I listen to a LOT of music in my car, but, when I am home, I do plain performance video whenever I have access to it, in all genres, jazz, rock, classical. I usually learn something about either performance itself, or the keyboard techniques involved. Lang Lang is an absolutely SHAMELESS mugger for the camera, but he CAN play, you know! Video of Pogerelich and Kissin has been quite illuminating, as has archival and later concert footage of Horowitz, Richter, Michelangeli, and Arrau. Glenn Gould is fun to watch to learn what NOT to do, and as a teacher, I have to be able to tell young people where to see these techniques in action. MBB

  • Studying the technique and approach of the live performance was much more enjoying for me. The video drama was unwatchable. My second most enjoyable was also following along with the score,

  • Mary J says:

    The video drama is horrendous – ugly to look at and totally distracting. The sweaty pianist was no more attractive, though watching his hands was quite mesmerising. Reading the score is interesting, challenging and requires analytical listening. For pure pleasure of whole musical experience the audio only version has to be the only one. This cannot of course be confused with the even greater pleasure of live performance.

  • Dagmar Feyen says:

    It is not that I like to follow the partition that much, but I liked the interpretation more than the “fast and furious” version of the two other pianists.

  • hallain says:

    I prefer audio only for the critical listening experience of the selection. The others have their own merits and tend to direct attention to that rather than the music. The closeup of the performer in this case was distracting to the point that I closed my eyes. His “expressions” were excessive and distracting. I generally enjoy watching videos of piano concerts when the histrionics are kept to a minimum.

  • Conal says:

    I found this interesting. The video drama definitely distracts from the music. This composition isn’t good film music for that matter since I think to be effective film music needs to be more spare and impressionistic. The audio and visual were clashing with one another here. I don’t think reading the score ever makes for either virtuoso performance or listening. The live performance close up footage is fascinating and was a close second for me but I really do believe that listening with your eyes closed makes for the optimal experience of hearing the music and all the other versions are obtrusive. However it does not surprise me if most people want sight and sound and actually judge the quality of the performance by the attractiveness of the performer rather than the evidence of their ears.

  • Andrew Frederick says:

    Video of player seems to be most satisfying. Plus there is the option of the listener closing his/.her eyes if need be for some or all of the performance.

  • Gavin Smithers says:

    The audio only method helps us to concentrate most on what the pianist is doing interpretatively and with colour. For me the Buniatishvili is by far the most interesting version musically.

    Although she is sometimes just too loud, she seems to me to have a fabulous technique and real musical intelligence. Trifonov is too fast and disjointed, although he is going to be an exciting pianist. Laplante is from an older generation; less excitable; for me, less involving too in the voice he finds.

    The gothic aspect of Liszt is interesting but you could equally argue that the sonata is very much a spiritual journey, like late Schubert or Beethoven. The more voiceovers, or even visuals, we have, the harder it is to concentrate on and really hear the playing. Following the score takes us a degree away from the sound . So just the audio is the best way to appreciate the music making.

  • Kristine J says:

    I thought the audio alone was the most enjoyable. The score was something that might be interesting to a pianist of a higher standard, and the live performer was just too sweaty for me to watch. The drama was something that I might use as a teacher for a younger non-musician to connect to the music, but I personally found it distracting. When I close my eyes and listen, I find that my auditory skills are far more focused and sensitive, but I think that may be part of the years of musical training I’ve had.

  • Victor MIguelez says:

    I like audio only most of the time. When I want to learn a particular composition, I like to follow the score and when I already know and dominate the piece, I like to watch the live performance in order to observe particular technique aspects of performance.The video show is not really something I would consider useful

  • Susan Hammond says:

    I agree with those saying they learn from watching the technical approach of great players. In fact, I sometimes play along with video footage of Horowitz, Lisitska or some of the other great pianists on youtube. I do this not to copy, but to catch the sweep, gesture, tempo and confidence of my Ipad “accompanist”. After any phrase, I can pause and ‘try out’ the idea. Oddly here, I was intrigued by the video drama that was distracting, but sometimes felt ‘wide’. But, I was always relieved when they went back to the pianist playing.

  • Dee says:

    This is an interesting question. I think to really judge a performer’s skill, the audio version is best, as there are no distractions.

    The video drama is definitely out because it distracts from the music.

    As a pianist myself I do appreciate following with the score as I get to notice tiny details that the performer is bringing out which I may miss by just listening to the audio.

    However, for the ‘optimal experience’ of the music, I think a live performance makes a huge difference because I am experiencing the music with more senses – sound, sight and the energy/technical difficulty that is involved in producing the correct sound. Having said that, I think for me this applies more to piano music and would be different for orchestral compositions (as I do not know what technical challenges are involved) in which case, just the audio would suffice to appreciate the music.

  • Derek Hartwell says:

    As a musician and pianist audio only is my preference for listening to a recorded performance. Video recordings can be, and often are, a distraction especially with close-up camera shots.
    Obviously, best of all is a live ‘in the flesh’ performance in concert/recital hall, but I assume here that only recorded performances are being considered.

  • Simon says:

    As a serious amateur, I disliked immensely the Vido Drama, which does not allow you to concentrate on the interpretaion. Quite ridiculous and cheap scenes. Following the score does not add anything to the experience, although I sometimes do it in order to learn a difficult score faster. The Live Recording can be interesting at times (not this one – Daniil seems at times to be in great distress during the performance) in order to observe technical aspects of difficult passages. But undoubtly the great experience is the good áudio recording, with your eyes closed. Music can be so ethereal and metaphysical that the only ggod way to enjoy it is to close your eyes and let yourself go…

  • Doug says:

    The audio comes out best for me in these sistuations. Folloing the score is a study program, the actual performance is destracting, and focusing on the hands is not amusing. The idea was someone’s else interpretation of the music. Most of my listening is with audio. I can interpret the music to my satisfaction and change it from time to time. I once saw a college pianist perfom and the music was fine, but I could not stand to watch her gymnastics at the keyboard. Thanks for listening.

  • Nancy Drake says:

    I totally with Wayne. When I attend recitals/concerts I spend 90% of my time with my eyes closed. If the performer is known for his/her histrionics I will watch for a short period, but then shut the picture off.
    One might ask, “why go to a live performance if you aren’t going to ‘see’ it”…but just experiencing the moment with the artist, complete with slips, makes it special and a once in a lifetime event. It will never be repeated exactly the same ever again!

  • Noris M says:

    My answer is “it depends” … I like all options but #4 in different situations – for example #3 is close (or sometimes better!) to what one experiences in the concert hall while #2 is great when trying to learn and understand the architecture of a music piece. However, for me, there is nothing better than close my eyes and just “actively” listen to the music as in #1.

  • Daniel says:

    It’s been demonstrated time and again that visual perceptions are distorted by listener bias. Many a musician has achieved a measure of success by their dramatic stage presence. Conversely, many superior performers have not received the recognition to which they are because of their lack of skill in personal presentation. for enjoyment, give me a live video. For assessing the quality of a musical performance, give me just the audio, please.

  • James Conely says:

    The question is the “musical experience of the composition” – not the performance. Accordingly, my preference is following the score – either yours or mine – in order to experience/study/understand the composition. Otherwise, to experience the performance my preference would be audio only. As for the “video drama,” I watched 3 seconds and couldn’t tolerate more; it is a complete waste of space.

  • Daniel Poon says:

    For this to be a real controlled test, it really ought to be the -same recording – with static cover art, score-follow-through, live video, and irrelevant video.

    One of my ears is very much better than the other, and when I go to live performances I often find I must choose between looking at the performers’ hands/feet and listening for full detail. I wish that every concert venue piano had a handscam and pedalcam.

  • Ron K says:

    Maybe it is the geek in me, but was surprised to find I really enjoyed following along with the score. Audio only was my least favorite.

  • Steve Rodd says:

    Audio only would still be my main everyday use, but for a change the live performance close ups are fantastic to compliment the library of music.

  • Sylvia L says:

    As an amateur, mediocre pianist who has a car license plate reading, “Liszt, F,” I found the video version to be ridiculous, out of place and demeaning to Liszt’s great talent. When possible, I love the chances to follow a score while listening when visiting piano websites that sell sheet music. Watching the sweating young man reminds one of what we read in books about Lizst and how dramatic and over-the-top he was in expressing his pianistic passion, but our young, sweaty pianist is a live cartoon. Thanks for the chance to see these and vote. It was fun!

  • George Petersen says:

    I studied this piece a lot but to no avail. I couldn’t master its complexty. I think the pianist did a terrific work. Lots of pp and ppp, crecendos and the like, very sensitive, poetic and terrific manual dexterity. I enjoyed it very much. Congratulatons,

  • Niek says:

    I am afraid to say that if a beautiful woman is playing a beautiful piece of music, i always get distracted. But this beeing in a nice way, the video of Trifonof and the clip were not. All three pianists played really well, but beeing able to read along the score enhanced my experience, and triggered my fantasy into the direction of other possibilities for interpretation. It was overall fun and a learning experience, thanks!

  • I agree with Daniel Poon. As an experiment, this was poorly organized. Various artistic interpretations are mixed with various presentations, and the result is a scientific mish-mash.

    The audio and contrived music drama feature an artist who takes extraordinary liberties with the opening lento tempo, uses excessive rubato, and makes up fermata that are not in the score. Sorry, but as a pianist who plays this work, I thought her interpretation was excessively libertine.

    Laplante gave the best rendition, the truest to Liszt’s concept. This is not a tone poem, not a piece of program music. It is the only sonata by Franz Liszt. It is music, pure and simple, without any links to poetry, painting or any other art. It is right there on the score, and La Plante stayed true to the composer. I would vote for his interpretation with or without video, drama, or the score.

  • Venetia Jayamanne says:

    I generally prefer listening to music with my eyes closed. It helps me feel and connect to the music better. But in this case I liked the ‘follow along score’ version as well because I felt it gave me a deeper understanding of the music. I didn’t feel it but I listened to it for a longer period of time than I did the other versions.

    However I did not enjoy the live performance that much since the performer’s facial expressions distracted me. Usually I feel I listen less when I watch a piece of music being played than when I listen to it. The drama was exciting though a bit confusing.

    This is the first time I heard this particular piece and I enjoyed it immensely!

  • Bill Ross says:

    Maybe it’s just a personal thing, but I find that viewing a close-up of the hands on the keyboard adds another diension to the enjoyment. The clip I enjoy most is that which accompanies the credits at the end of the movie The Pianist. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this had it been audio only, but I feel watching it enhanced the thrill. Indeed, what I found particularly enjoyable was the fact that it was only one camera shot instead of the irritating switching between the keyboard from close-up to distant, to the performer’s face, to the audience, back to the close-up etc. I wish television producers would realise that we don’t all need a change of scene every eight seconds to avoid becoming bored.

  • Bill Ross says:

    If anyone is not familiar with the clip from The Pianist I mentioned in my earlier post: http://youtu.be/b-7P_HyrRWM

  • tamar shkolnik says:

    I think of it mainly from a negative approach.
    I do not like listening to an acrobatic pianist and prefere either to listen to him without viewing him than joining his physical performance.
    One of the greatest pianists nowdays is an elderly short very civilized
    pianist and his music is heaven.

  • David says:

    The best philosophical answer to this quadrilemma, is, I suppose, it depends. It depends on the listener’s goals and means of achieving those goals. Someone who is less familiar with the piece might enjoy the visuals (video or live) at first. I don’t think anyone would disagree that repeated listenings enhances appreciation of the art music, so a viewer seeing Daniil drench the stage with seriousness, might give the piece another listen to see what he’s on about. (The movie “Shine” is a good example of this too via Rachmaninov’s 3rd pf concerto.) Maybe clear sound projection is not necessary to convey the emotional meaning in music….? But as a pianist, I am listening for specific musical aspects, even more so if I know the piece well or am trying to learn it. Pure enjoyment of the music can only come from audio only, which is how I voted (but I like LaPlante’s rendition best). Sight distracts from sound, and vice versa: who turns down the car radio to see where they are driving? But my close second is watching the score to see how the performer brings it to life – different ideas on playing can certainly inspire! I just performed List’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 recently where I used older recordings and followed the score to detect any ‘historical’ nuances, and try them out. We could add another category too of playing with or without the score (e.g. Richter young vs. Richter older). Now, if it were Liszt playing, I would be there in the moment of magical, musical creation!

  • cecilia says:

    I enjoyed the audio only version and stayed on it longest. Close up of the pianist really depends on the performer. In this case I found it rather disturbing because he often looked so distressed and that was a turn off from the music. Following the score was surprisingly engaging but less enjoyable because it was work rather than relaxation. The video performance was just plain silly and irritating. Total distraction from the music. Couldn’t stay on it for much more than a minute.

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