Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Implicit Communication and Musical Performances

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition this morning reported that Chia-Jung Tsay, a classical pianist and a psychologist at University College, London recently published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that amateur and professional musicians could best predict the winner of classical piano competitions when they could only see, but not hear, the competitors performances, better able to predict than even both those who either only heard the performance, or, surprisingly, both saw and heard it. NPR said, “Incredibly, the volunteers were better able to identify the winners when they couldn't hear the music at all,” suggesting that the original judges “heavily over-weighted visual information…” 

Since good looks did not seem to be a factor, Tsay concluded, ‘There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance.’  This ability to predict winners has also been shown to apply to voters predicting winners of elections when they watched videos of the political candidates with the sound off. Both Tsay and the reporter seemed to intimate that people actually do judge a book by its cover, but I saw Tsay’s finding to be commensurate with what neurobiology has shown about the power of implicit communication.

Because there is joy in the communion of shared emotional experience, and as we are hardwired to read the intentions of others through implicit cues (gestures, facial expressions, prosody, etc), and, furthermore, as these cues are more important in understanding another than even the spoken word (or, musical note, as it turns out), then it makes sense that visual cues about the musician during a musical performance heavily contribute to the enjoyment of the experience beyond just what is pleasurable to the ear.  As it turns out, Tsay’s experiment adds to the growing body of knowledge that the contribution of implicit cues is more heavily weighted by the human brain.  She says so herself when she states that visual information better conveys passion, involvement and creativity. I can’t think of a greater joy than being caught up in a shared experience of passion and creativity, be it in dance, debate, music, making love, or delighting in a toddler’s joy at discovering an acorn can roll down the sidewalk.

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