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Seeing Music For What It Is

Hands raised up high, clapping at a concert.

Music is not sound art, even though musical ideas find natural expression in melody and harmony, timbre and rhythm. Music may be carried in sound, but only in the way that our applause at a concert is carried in sound. Applause is clapping; it is stomping and shouting. These are noisy, but they are not noise. They are not sound as a physicist might think of sound. Music is to sound as gesture is to mere movement. Physics is only part of the story.

When we listen to music we listen to a performance, in the literal sense. We pay attention to what someone, or a group of people, is doing before us. Music is action.

This has has been obscured somewhat by recording, whose advent has influenced how we think about music. The idea that music is about sound, peeled off from its inherence in the tapping, plucking, smacking, stroking, blowing, fingering and vocal actions of real people, or, divorced from the thoughts, feelings and ideas of performers, seems somehow plausible in an era where you buy pieces of plastic, or download digital files, to get at music. In addition, electronic music has seemed, to some, to be the final blow to what may now come to seem a quaint idea: that music is an art of the body, an art of the analog transduction of physical energies.

And so we easily lose sight of the fact that what we care about, when we care about music, is not sound, but musicians and their use of movement, the body, and material instruments, to articulate significance.

These claims gain some support from new studies just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London.

Ordinary listeners are presented with recordings of classical music competition finalists. Their task: to decide who won the competition. When they are given an audio recording alone, they are very poor at deciding whose performance is best and who is likely to have won. They are at chance in guessing the winner. Their performance improves somewhat if they are given a video performance to accompany the sound track. They perform like experts, however, when they are given the video track alone, without sound.

Put another way, listeners find it easy, as a group, to decide which performance is best, but only when they get to see it without the distraction of hearing it, too!

Of course, if you ask them what they key on when evaluating a performance, they will insist that what they hear is all that matters.

You might be quick to suggest that this just goes to show how poor our ordinary powers of auditory musical discrimination are. Precisely what makes a musical expert a worthy judge is that the musical expert knows how to listen without getting distracted by mere visual noise.

It turns out, according to Chia-Jung Tsay, that experts also perform like novice listeners when focused on sound alone. A group of experts are unable to agree on which snippet of recording is a winning performance. But unanimity is swift and secure when they ignore the music and solely pay attention to the soundless video track.

Now, you might chalk up this surprising result to "visual capture," a phenomenon well-known to psychologists. The sound appears to come from the ventriloquist's dummy's mouth, and not from its actual source. That's visual capture. We seem to hear what we think we see.

I suspect, too, that there may be a temptation to think that these findings somehow debunk or undercut our love of music. As one musician friend of mine put it, this is every musician's worst nightmare. It's not the music that moves people, it's what they see!

But these worries are misplaced. What is challenged by these empirical results is not the value of music, or the legitimacy of the results of musical competition. Music is human performance, just as recorded music is a trace made of such performance. Music is as people do, and what people do — how they express themselves, articulate, emphasize, intone and sing — is manifest not only in the sounds they make, but also in their visible display.

It should not surprise us that what we see makes a difference when it comes to making sense of, and evaluating, what we hear. We are interested in ourselves, after all. Not noise.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

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