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How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

By Shankar Vedantam | NPR
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chia-Jung Tsay was something of a piano prodigy. By age 12, she was performing Mendelssohn in concert. At 16, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall. Soon, she was on her way to some of the best music schools in the country — Juilliard and the Peabody Conservatory. And she was throwing her hat in the ring for different competitions.

Getting into the schools and competitions often required auditions, and different auditions had different rules. Some required audio recordings. Others required video. The judges all said they were evaluating her music, but Tsay started to notice a pattern.

"I noticed that for whatever reason I seemed to be doing better when I submitted video recordings, or when the auditions or competitions involved live-rounds kinds of evaluations," Tsay says.

Judging From The Film

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains why the judges liked Chia-Jung Tsay more when they could see her perform.

The researcher who published the study: Chia-Jung Tsay. In addition to her music career, Tsay is also a psychologist at University College, London.

In the PNAS study, she showed amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners, but there was a twist. Different volunteers were given different kinds of clips: silent videos, audio recordings or videos with sound.

In other words, some volunteers could only hear the music. Some could see the musicians and hear the music. And some could only see the musicians — they heard nothing.

You can guess what happened next.

"What was surprising was that even though most people will say sound matters the most, it turned out that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were able to identify the actual winners," Tsay says.

Incredibly, the volunteers were better able to identify the winners when they couldn't hear the music at all, compared with when they could only hear the music. In fact, it was even worse than that: When the volunteers could see the musicians and hear the music, they became less accurate in picking the winners compared with when they could only see the performers. The music was actually a distraction.

Tsay says this not only says something about the volunteers, but it also says something important about the original experts who judged the competitions.

"What this suggests is that the original judges — the professional musicians — had actually heavily overweighted visual information at the expense of sound," Tsay says.

That's why volunteers who only saw the performers were able to guess what the judges had decided.

Not Just Good Looks

Now, if the judges weren't going on the music, what was the X factor? Good looks? In a separate analysis, Tsay found it wasn't about superficial looks.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment," Tsay says. "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."

In fact, Tsay's study is only the latest to show that people's judgments on all manner of issues are shaped by what they see. We know we shouldn't judge books by their covers, but marketers know we do anyway. Economists and political psychologists have found that voters can predict the winners of elections when they watch videos of the candidates — with the sound off.

"There is a very real gap between what people say they value — what people truly believe they value — and what is actually being used in these important evaluations," Tsay says.

That's a useful reminder — for the next time we judge other people, and the next time other people judge us.

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