Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Vision and Judgement

Just let me discuss three recent analyses of the topic before I get out of your hair?

"Experts" and Winners of Classical Music Competitions
So, among the more than 1000 people in the study on musical excellence that you agreed to take part in are ordinary people, musicians, and "experts," the last being the sort of people who judge the winner of the Tchaikovsky or Paganini International Competitions. There are many of these competitions, worldwide, and winning one may get you a tour or a deal to record a few CDs. You signed up for this study, and randomly any one of you are assigned to either 1.) only listen to the top three finalists and then try to guess who won; 2.) view and listen to the top three and guess who won; or 3.) only view the top three but not listen to them play.
Of course, this is a major competition, so all three are shredding, hot-assed players. They all kick ass and play gorgeously. Give it your best shot anyway.

You can probably "see" where this went: the third group - who only watched and never heard a note - guessed correctly at far above chance the actual winners of BigTime International classical music competitions. The group (made up randomly of musicians, ordinary people, and "experts") that only listened to the top three did the worst at guessing, but the group that both watched with the sound did only slightly better.

This suggests a few things. One: we have an unconscious bias towards visual data even when dealing with the judgement of audio data. Visual data even seems to interfere with audio data. Two: "experts" once again tend to be full of crap. Three: As a longtime rock guitarist, this makes me laugh because it has always been quite an "open secret" that the coolest-looking guitarist will always be more impressive to the fans than the guy who is not all that attractive but plays circles around the cool looking dude. 

But classical music was supposed to be different. And I wondered  why so many of the female violinists on the covers of my classical CDs were so pulchritudinous. (Aye, but they play marvelously too! I don't hold their looks against them.) 

Funny: Here's how the study got going: Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay has PhDs in Organizational Behavior and Psychology, and a PhD in Music from Harvard. She studied piano at Julliard. As a kid, she entered piano competitions and noticed that the reception of her auditions seemed slightly different depending on when she only sent in an audio recording of her playing versus when she sent in a video tape. Tsay played at Carnegie Hall at age 16. Ah...and here is a classical music glamor shot of Dr.Tsay:

After doing her study, Dr. Tsay says she thinks the experts aren't judging solely on "superficial" (by which I think she means: hotness?) criteria, but that there's something about visual information that is very compelling to our brains. We have always been told we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but publishers and marketers know that we do anyway. When instrumentalists seem to be "hamming it up" they may be merely acting because they think it's what the audience wants, or their playing may be so embodied that they emote in a strikingly visual way, all while being far more "aware" of what they're doing musically rather than what they're doing with their body or face, or both. I have known both types of players. I have been both types. 

In the end, I think we might need to reconsider the idea of "purity" usually assumed by performance: if you're moved by a performance...you're moved by the performance. Just be aware that the visual aspect  (if there is one) probably shaped your experience. I think we can't get away from this; it's how we're wired. Maybe we should be a little easier on ourselves. It's biology! 

Link to a brief discussion of Tsay's study HERE. NPR and Tsay discussing her study, with a photo of famously emotive virtuoso pianist Lang-Lang.

Long ago I saw the piano virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli play on the old Arts and Entertainment channel back when cable TV was "new" in the US, and they'd show an entire concert without commercials. He was near the end of his career (he died in 1995), and had let his hair grow long. He was a really hot player, firing off Liszt, but exuded a bitchiness come la prima donna, and he reminded me of when I'd recently seen Ritchie Blackmore play live: sneering, swaggering, total command over technique, dressed in flamboyant black, with a hint of lasciviousness. I found both Blackmore and Michelangeli captivating, even thrilling. 

Nicolo Paganini the Genoese came on the 19th century violin scene at a time when the "free agent" musician could make a lot of money and not have to answer to royalty, beg the aristocracy for money or rely on patronage. The new, more powerful "middle class" (AKA bourgeoisie) of Europe loved him. Paganini's technique was otherworldly, and he greatly inspired Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann. But Paganini also cultivated a "demonic" image, which also put asses in the seats. He was the first Jimi Hendrix or Ozzy Osbourne, in a way. But he also pioneered dazzling violin techniques. Paganini may have been the first to exploit his visual, emotive self in a "flamboyant" way in an effort to accentuate his musical self.

HERE is Blackmore acolyte Yngwie Malmsteen's showmanship: the entire rock vocabulary, mixed with Bach, Paganini, and Hendrix.

HERE is Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg playing the finale of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, on American TV, accompanied by a pianist. She flubs a bit, but she's fiery and kinetic as all hell, an Italian-American "tomboy" who loved to play baseball in the street as a kid. I always found her incredibly emotive visually, in addition to her "pure" playing.

Experiment: click on the next link and LISTEN without seeing anything. Then watch the guy play. Do you recognize the name? Is he any good? He's a white guy wearing a t-shirt, apparently at an audition. 

The McGurk Effect
This one's really weird: it turns out that what we "see" people say influences what we think we heard, and we can be fooled. And it seems we can't do much to make amends for it. Vision influences hearing here, too. "Reality" seems to be warped in a surprising way. Watch the video!

The Demeanor Assumption
This is a term from lawyer and fraud specialist Robert Hunter. Emily Pronin of Princeton, who studies our ability to detect lies, calls it "the illusion of asymmetric insight." What is it?

I'm drawing on Ian Leslie's piece from New Statesman.

This month a court in England ruled that a muslim woman must remove her hijab/veil when giving evidence. Some experts applauded this, but thought this didn't go far enough: no one should be allowed to veil their faces in court, ever, reasoning that the more body language and facial expressions we see, the better for juries, lawyers and judges to ascertain who's telling the truth. Or who's lying. (I loved the CSICOP-sounding group the "National Secular Society.")

But it turns out we humans are under the illusion that we can determine who's lying. Studies show we're not very good at all. Frankly, we kinda suck at it. Liars can look you straight in the face and get away with it. The innocent can appear twitchy and nervous and suspicious. When I read about this, I thought of Kafka, and especially Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles's The Trial. Also, growing up a snotty thin long-hair "hippie" kid in a town that was not accepting, I was used to telling the truth and not being believed by adults. 

Ian Leslie's article made me want to read his book, Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit, about research into how lousy we are at detecting lies. He argues that, contrary to the court's opinion, we might "hear" the testimony and evidence better if everyone were veiled! 

When you meet me, most prominent in your mind are two things: 1.) my face; and 2.) your own thoughts. You probably think you can read my thoughts while your own are private. But...I'm meeting you, too. Why wouldn't things be the same for me? Leslie sums up this cognitive bias thus: "I am never quite what I seem; you are an open book."

How does this data about how bad we are at detecting lies reflect on the stuff about judging musical performances? Does the Demeanor Assumption throw off classical music "experts"?

I previously wrote on the topic of deception HERE.

Trailer for Welles's interpretation of Kafka's The Trial:


tony smyth said...

Great stuff, as almost always Michael. I'd just like to plomp in 2 things. One : I absolutely HATE Malmsteen.I dont care how technically good he is, I just majorly dislike him as a prime example about how electric guitar playing has gone downhill since oh Hendrix, Page, etc. Malmstenn seems mostly about show and technique ONLY. There sessm no souls there at all, atleast to me. Now, Gary Moore on the other hand, also plays with blistering technique when needed, but was a truely superb guitarist IMHO. And always FEEL based. Theres a huge difference

Second and final point: In NLP people process info either visualy, auditorily or kinaesthetically (can be some combo too). However 60% are visual. Hence the visual element is very important for a majority of humanoids. It doesnt make the music better at all, but visuals are important to those 60% predominantly Visual.

Anyhow, Nice post. Sayonara form Tokto

Prove your not a robot: iour nsa8 = I our NSA (is this some kind of sneaky joke??)

Eric Wagner said...

Nice piece. Charles Rosen has written about how seeing the conductor helps the audience follow orchestral music.

I love Michelangeli's playing. Your discussion of Paganini reminded me of Welles' discussion of him in "F for Fake" and the wonderful word paganinism in Finnegans Wake. Liszt also seems a prototypical touring musician with a reputation for womanizing. He played with that reputation in his with his "Reminiscences of Don Juan," adapted from Mozart's Don Giovanni.

michael said...


I thought about working NLP into the discussion, but thought it took me too far into ideas about hypnosis.

I appreciate Yngwie, but your view seems to be held by many. I was on the LA scene at the same time Yngwie appeared, and it was astonishing to see a guy play like that live. My favorite Yngwie is his one record with Alcatrazz, because it constrains his playing within 4 minute songs. His solos are melodic, thematic, and very articulate. He knows how to begin, build up, and get out. Although Blackmore and the very-underrated-in-Unistat Uli Jon Roth had used classical argeggios, the diminished 7th, and the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale, Yngwie took it to a new level of viruosity. His first solo record is still the best of all of them, in my view. He seems to have said the same thing over and over since then.

Like Paganini, who gave way to a following generation who took off from his technical brilliance but added sophistication (check out Vieuxtemps, Sarasate, Wieniawski, Bazzini and Ernst), a next gen of players have taken Yngwie's technical shred to a more musically sophisticated level. I think an instrument must have its pioneer technical explorers. Yngwie filled that for metal. Since him, the good players have said, "How can I take my Yngwie-like technique and not sound like him? How can I express myself, maybe using more jazz, chromatics, or unorthodox arrangements?"

You mentioned Gary Moore, also underrated in Unistat, and I've heard this idea come up a lot when talking with other guitarists who admire him: he wasn't "pretty" enough for audiences here to get into him in a bigger way. I think there's something to that idea, and it dovetails with the findings of Dr Tsay. I love Gary Moore and was sad to see him go.

michael said...


Liszt-o-mania! The gloves! The hair! The transcendent chops. All those women and he ended up a Man of God. Among the Top 10 Most Romantic Lives on the 19th Century, Liszt has to be on anyone's...liszt?

I like Rosen's idea about the conductor.

tony smyth said...

First concert I ever saw was Xmas 1970, In Dublin. I was 15, Gary M was 16, and already really good then. First time I'd ever heard a Les Paul played, never mind played so well. One of the formative experiences of my life.

michael said...

Gary Moore was one of THE great Les Paul players. He also played a Strat really well, but it seemed like a different player - or a different aspect of his playing - that came out when he played a Strat.

Jeez: his wide, fast accurate bends, his blinding speed coupled with singing melodies really killed. And he had this inimitable way of mixing staccato with legato. What a great, great player. I forget who he was playing with when he was that young: wasn't he in a band called Skid Row in Ireland? I should look it up.

I thought his contribution to Thin Lizzy's Black Rose album was stellar. I also liked his fusion stuff and his blues playing was insanely good, and if a person in Unistat knows him, it's for "Still Got The Blues," which actually received lots of air play here.

His shredding on Corridors of Power was a seminal moment for me and a lot of my guitarist friends.

gacord said...

To me, Paganini always treated the orchestra like his "backup group."

This piece reminded me of a story my old classical guitar teacher told me back when he was finishing up his doctorate in performance guitar. He got horribly sick the week before one of his final judged performances but could not reschedule. The entire time on stage all he could think was "god I hope I don't vomit, just get through this without vomitting... etc ad nausium". Just as he finished the last piece he heard one of the judges say to another something like "Did you see how emotional he was there? Fantastic." That nailed down an aspect of human perceptions that I've carried with me all these years since.

michael said...

I think a lot of virtuosos see the other musicians on stage as a backup group. Not all, but some.

Your anecdote was perfect. It makes me wonder about all the actors who perform auditions, or cold readings in a group of suits. No one has to dig very far before reading about some actor who says they landed the great part while feeling beaten-down, exhausted, and defeated, and were sure they gave a bad audition.

Some musicians I've talked to and others I've read about have copped to some aspect of "I haven't been practicing...better make up for it by emoting more than usual." Meanwhile I've found little bits of research that suggests that forcing yourself to emote may make your playing a bit more expressive; what's unclear is...expressive to whom?

Of course, with actors the physical looks of the performer ARE a stated value. With musicians, only pop stars cop to this. Lots of rockers openly joke about their "guitar face" being something to work on.


It's one of the things I love about jazz: you can be unbeautiful and just stand there all night and people LISTEN.

gacord said...

Ah, but there's a certain joy that tends to be on the face of a jazz player... "listeners" might be mesmerized, or just want to experience a piece of that joy.

Of course, there are those Django moments where a guitar player thinks, "fuck it, maybe I should just cut my fingers off and sell this instrument of doom." Jazz can be dangerous!

michael said...

Horn players have their embouchures to deal with, which makes them a more difficult read. When a guy seems to play a better-than-usual solo, then stops and people clap, they smile and nod...sometimes I get the feeling that, even though they smile and nod, they didn't think their solo was all that great. But it's hard to tell, really. Sometimes I think the diphragmatic/lungs/breathing, embouchure makes horn playing the most "embodied" of the instruments.

I've seen stunning jazz pianists solo and they seem like they're in a trance, watching their fingers move, just as surprised as we are at what they're doing. Because of the nature of the piano, it seems even more constraining as an instrument to "emote" with, and I think part of that is why Lang-Lang has gotten so much criticism.

I sat a few feet from Allan Holdsworth one night, and he stood there and played his unorthodox voicings on a Strat, then when he soloed, he went into a trance, his eyes would close and seem to roll around under his lids, and he was BLOWING...on an electric guitar! Wild, legato lines with jagged edges.

Lately I've been listening to Django. There are some bits where he's so fast and articulate it just seems completely impossible to believe he was basically only using two fingers.

Indeed: jazz CAN be dangerous. I still haven't come to a satisfying understanding of the heroin addictions.

As rhetoric, it seems as emotionally and intellectually sophisticated as anything classical has to compete with.

gacord said...

Weird, I've been listening to Django lately too. Just randomly. Hence my reference above. It was on my mind. There seems to be a synchronistic hum lately around several RAW fans I read/talk to... neat.