Musicians Are Mostly Judged by the Way They Look, Study Finds…

The way a musician looks on stage is more important to listeners than the music being played, according to a study just released.  That is, even though most music fans swear that they are evaluating the music based on the music itself, and little else. 

Bulls–t, says Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London, who conducted numerous studies to test exactly how musicians are actually being evaluated.  “People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music,” Tsay concluded.

“However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance.”

Tsay assembled groups of both musical novices and experts, and over a series of tests asked them to predict the winners of several prestigious competitions.  Each group was presented with three finalists, and asked to select the ultimate winner (as originally picked by a panel of musical experts).

Here’s where this gets interesting: participants were asked to predict the outcomes using either audio-only recordings, videos with audio, or videos without sound.  Astoundingly, the prediction rate for those watching without sound was dramatically greater than those evaluating with the sound.   In fact, those listening to the music predicted the proper outcome about one-third of the time, the same as chance.

It gets even crazier: in one test, music professionals listening to audio-only recordings made predictions worse than chance, meaning a roll of the dice would have produced a better outcome.

And, perhaps more interestingly, the outcomes were highly similar for both novices and experts alike.  “Both experts and novices appear to be surprised by their own data, and experts in particular reported a severe lack of confidence in their judgment when they were assigned to the video-only recordings, not knowing that their approximations of the actual outcomes would be superior under such constrained conditions,” the study reported.

“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.”

The full study report is here.

23 Responses

  1. seanbeavan

    it would be interesting if they did a version of the test of the video with horrible sound. i think that the videos with horrible sound would all be judged harshest. People respond the most to visual cues but as any film person knows, bad sound will make people hate your movie no matter how good the visuals or how great the story. people have a wide tolerance for sound quality but once it crosses the threshold into “bad” people are unable to get passed it for any reason.

  2. mdti

    the image makes the music legitimate.

    for exampel: no image is better than bad image when broadcasting a sound.

    • Lori Bumgarner

      As an image consultant for recording artists, I’d have to say I agree!

  3. FarePlay

    Must be a very slow day for news. This “survey” is a joke. 3 performers from a talent show?

  4. PTSoundHound

    Does this study assume that the winner of the music competitions were “correct”? (i.e. did the experts judging the music competitions rely solely on the audio rather than a combination of audio and viaual to select the competition winner)

    If not then surely the “true” data is flawed and therefore any such comparison to that data must also be flawed.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      It’s all entirely subjective, and that’s the point. The original competitions were judged by ‘experts,’ presumably on the music itself. Those results were then used in the study, which means across the board, ‘listeners’ are making decisions on visual cues over auditory cues.

      The greatest correlations happened when testers couldn’t hear anything.

      • David

        Hey Paul

        Don’t think you mentioned this was a study on purely Classical Music competitions. Suggest that this would not translate so well to pop etc…

        • Paul Resnikoff

          Yes, worth mentioning but I don’t think this is ultimately genre limited. The larger conclusion of the study is that visual cues dominate over auditory cues when people evaluate music, and the author spread the conclusion outside of the genre and even music itself (gift-wrapping affects the way a gift is valued, etc.) So, it could have been jazz, samba… EDM even.

          Now here’s the crazy question: if visual stimuli are far more important, what visual elements make us react most strongly to music and judge it as high quality? Now that would be some interesting follow-up research.

          • GGG

            The study was also limited to “presitgious competitions.” I’m no classical expert, but if you’re in a prestigious competition, you’re not going to suck or fuck up. So it becomes about purely basing on fluidity vs roboticness.

            Image is CLEARLY absurdly important in pop and rock, but dunno if it’s really to this degree.

    • Peter Bogdanoff

      These competitions are generally live events–performing in front of a panel of judges (and audience), so the judges would also be influenced by the visual. I think the study is showing that this visual element proves to be of greater weight than the audible music for BOTH the original performance and for the study participants viewing it later.

      However, the less musically adept performers were weeded out earlier in the competition, so the finalists were probably very close in their musical skill to each other. The visual then can take over and overwhelm any interpretive qualities that would distinguish individual performers. On the contrary, those who listen to the audio only are able to focus on musical quality only without the distraction of the visual and hear the small differences that truly make a great musical performance–but being great doesn’t mean you’ll win the competition.

      So this study isn’t neccesarily showing that a bad musical performance that looks good is going to be more popular than a good performance that doesn’t look so flashy. It’s a contest between almost equals where the more visually styish one wins.

      I have a music teacher friend who sarcastically calls musicians who aren’t that good, but know how to manipulate the audience’s perceptions as “talented.”

  5. R.P.

    It’s the law of the golden ratio…

    We will, however, find the golden octave.

  6. Big Swifty

    Image and perception are how you market the product.

    Each music genre (punk rock, college rock, country, teen pop idol, jazz, adult contemporary, classical etc.) has a different take on how good looking you have to be.

    Some can be as ugly as you want, (see photo above) some being camera friendly is good enough being too good looking would be a detriment, others you have to be able to do a photo shoot with vogue. (see esperanza spaulding)

    There is no judgement about the quality of the music. The music just has to be good enough to justify the image creation.

    It’s all about marketing the product and if your look doesn’t fit the preconceived image than you might have to switch gigs.

  7. danwriter

    Plenty of studies in the past have shown that humans respond differently to auditory and visual stimuli, and that visual cues tend to predominate. You could also interpret the divergent paths of consumer audio and video over the last decade or so, as televisions and video moved ever further into high-definition environments while audio devolved into ear buds and data-compressed file formats. But if you really want to see a dramatic comparison, consider the effect that MTV had on music starting in 1981. There are entire swaths of music genres that would never have existed without a video component.

  8. emanuel from argentina

    it doesn´t matter which one is most important than the other..sound and image are both important, and this is a fact..history shows it, from the 50´s to this current times..from elvis to lil and image are a marriage. sound always will have main importance, because us musicians will always try to do our best to get a high quality sound. what kind of musician would like to sound bad?..none….and image is important as well, because, not just for musicians but for EVERY FUCKIN HUMAN BEING in the humans, we all love to look good!..this is obvious..and in the music industry, to create a “catchy” look may be a smart move to reach to the succes. it definetly helps. so, both are important. to argue about it its a waste of time, isn´t it?

  9. WilLie Peligrow

    Dont agree. Then jimi hendrix, stevie ray vaughn, jimmy page would be nobodies. Not good looking but sick as musicians. Now a days its not about music its about how “appearance.”

  10. Jon Wolske


    You are assuming that there was a ‘standard’ scale of ‘good looks’… that is not what this article said, but rather that people could pick the winners based on looks with better accuracy than guessing just based on audio.

    Jimmie, SRV, et al… had a ‘look’ and an ‘image’ – that is, they stood out as something different because they put a little effort behind their appearance – on top of great talent on their instruments.

    Think of your favorite band or artist, you don’t think of a logo or a clip from their video, you think of the image of the band, possibly on stage but maybe in a promo pic, looking comfortable, and COMPLETELY PUT TOGETHER in a ‘LOOK’… it is undeniable that it matters, no matter what genre you are in (though you wouldn’t know it form looking at modern metal bands)

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