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no such thing as a fish

Did You Know... Judging Music By How It Looks?

By carysmegansound

Recently I have become pretty obsessed with a podcast called No Such Thing As A Fish, hosted by 4 of the QI Elves. For those of you who have not seen the BBC programme QI, it's a panel show where celebrity guests give 'Quite Interesting' answers to the slightly bizarre questions Stephen Fry (and as of late, Sandi Toksvig) ask. Behind the scenes there are people known as the QI Elves whose job it is to research these odd and fascinating facts for the show, and in March 2014 a few of them started a podcast just to share their favourite facts they discover each week.


In a recording from June 2016 with special guest Tim Minchin, Anna said "My fact this week is that we judge music more on how it looks than how it sounds". 

Anna explains this information comes largely from a study conducted in 2013 by Chia-Jung Tsay from UCL, titled 'Sight over sound in the judgement of music performance', where it was discovered "people can reliably select the winners of classical music competitions based on silent video recordings of performances".

The 'boring' bit: To summarise, 886 participants (a mix of novices and professional musicians) were given either video-only, sound-only or video and sound versions of short clips of top performances from 10 international competitions. Before the study 83% of the novices and 96% of the professionals say that sound mattered most for their evaluations of a person's musical performance. The findings of the study were that 20.5% of experts identified the winners of the competitions when listening to sound-only recordings (no better chance than random chance), whereas 46.6% correctly identified the winners when watching video-only recordings. If you're interested in seeing how you'd do, below is a YouTube video from the conductor of the study showing you how!

Dan Schreiber, producer and one of the elves, relates the study to watching Mumford and Sons live, saying that the pianist is properly rocking out even though 'he's only playing G', and simply because of the visual cues it gives the audience the impression that how he's playing affects what he's playing.

... I hope I haven't lost you yet!

This all really interested me, being fascinated by the psychology of music and sound, and it made me think about my gig experiences and how my best memories are when the bands were particularly energetic and wild on stage. I saw Enemies live in I think March 2016 at The Lexington, and if you listen to Enemies you might not particularly associate them with mad stage energy (mostly because they're so easy to listen to just as background music), but still to this day I don't think I've seen or felt energy on stage in quite the same way as I did at their gig.

I don't have any contest with this study - before I heard about it I hadn't thought about the fact that the visual aspect of music massively affects a person's perception. I thought I was comparing a live sound with an album recording, but now I realise it's not just live vs recorded; it's greatly to do with the visual and performance given. On the right is a photo taken at a Tim Penn gig in The Ram Jam, Kingston of saxophonist Ayo Odea. You can see his eyes are closed and he's leaning back, both things that wouldn't be on a recording and things that would enhance a person's perception on his playing ability and performance. Thinking about it, musician's also seem to 'follow' their music they're playing; for example 'dropping' when the music drops - which I guess helps you to 'see' the music too!

Ayo Odea performing in The Ram Jam 

Ayo Odea performing in The Ram Jam 

Tim Minchin in the podcast also mentions what he called 'The Stradivarius Effect', wherein there's actually little difference in sound between playing 'a £1m Stradivarius violin and a £1k violin', but that doesn't mean it doesn't make a difference psychologically. Tim says "maybe it doesn't matter that it's bollocks because the musician feels more passionate about the music when they play it" and I think that's 100% what to take away from this study and listening to the podcast, and that is what you put in physically and emotionally into what you play makes the difference. It's not what you play, it's how you play.

Thank you for reading and I hope this study was even half as interesting to you as it was to me!

If you'd like to find out more, the episode of No Such Thing As A Fish mentioned above is Episode 117, they start the discussion at around 14:00 and the soundcloud link is just to the left. 

If you're more interested in the study by Chia-Jung Tsay, here is the link to the PDF, it's a relatively short read (for a study)!