Our eyes and thoughts deceive us when we’re listening to music


(Rasmus Aagaard illustration)

There’s far more baggage that comes with listening to music than most people realise.

When reviewing a concert, I frequently have to close my eyes so that I can make sure that they are not trying to sell my ears a bill of interpretive goods. That’s because, whether or not I wish it, a performer’s appearance and gestures inevitably influence how I hear the music.

I’ve compared notes with others, over the years, so I know anecdotally that this is true for most people.

Once in a while, an academic will pop up with corroborative research.

For example, Tom Jacobs, writing in the latest issue of Miller-McCune, picks up on a recent study that shows a bit of gender bias in how audiences perceive conductors. The researchers used Marin Alsop, the well-loved music director of the Baltimore Symphony, to show that people tend to perceive interpretations led by a female to have more “feminine” and “lyrical” components.

You can read Jacobs’ Miller-McCune article here.

The best part of the article is its conclusion — one that relates to my eyes-closed listening:

Perhaps the most interesting component of the study was a manipulation given to certain participants in the first two experiments (the ones featuring the undergraduates). Some were given a nine-digit number to remember; others were instructed to listen to the music very carefully, “remembering as much as you can.”

The distracting task and the close listening had the same effect: Greatly dampening the likelihood of lapsing into stereotypical thinking. Intense focus on the string of numbers, or on the performance itself, monopolized the participants “cognitive resources,” the researchers write.

Too preoccupied to pigeonhole people, they simply responded to the music.

What else do people think about while listening to music?

How much concerted and concentrated attention are we really capable of before the brain slips into some sort of distraction? (Some performers are convinced there is a 12-minute limit to a listener’s attention span.)

If you feel like trying this out, pick all the ways besides the style of the music itself in which Canadian violinist James Ehnes (with the Kungliga Filharmonikerna and Marin Alsop, just to make it more fun) differs from Sarah Chang (in Toronto this week to perform with the Toronto Symphony and conductor John Storgards on Thursday and Saturday):

John Terauds

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One thought on “Our eyes and thoughts deceive us when we’re listening to music

  1. Sometimes, however, watching closely can really help. For example, I once played a recording for a professional musician of Krystian Zimerman playing one of his favourite pieces, Chopin’s 4th Ballade. He found the rubato too much compared to what he was used to. But when I gave him the DVD later, he fell in love with it and said “when you watch him play, it makes perfect sense.”

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