When judging a musician's skill, do you pay more attention to what your eyes or your ears are telling you? The answer might surprise you. It turns out that musical novices and experts alike rely more on visual information — like stage presence and movement — than on sound when judging high-level music competitions, according to a study by University College London psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay, PhD.

Tsay, who is also a Juilliard-trained pianist, says the research was inspired by her own decades of experience in piano competitions. She had noticed for years that how she placed in competitions seemed to differ based on whether the competitions required a video tape, audio tape or live performance.

"The question had been forming in my mind throughout childhood, but it was during my university years [studying psychology] that I began thinking about how to test it empirically," she says.

In one of a series of experiments published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tsay showed 185 non-musician participants short clips of the top three finalists in 10 international music competitions, then asked them to guess which finalists had won. Some of the participants watched silent video clips, some heard sound-only clips, and some got both audio and video. Tsay found that, if anything, the sound was merely a distraction: The participants who saw silent video clips chose the correct winner at a significantly higher rate (46.4 percent) than either participants who heard only sound (28.6 percent of whom chose correctly) or those who got both visuals and sound (35.4 percent of whom chose correctly).

Tsay then repeated her experiment with expert participants — 103 professional musicians — and found the same results, even though 82 percent of them said sound mattered most in their evaluations of other musicians.

"It really shows the degree to which we musicians, as experts in the domain, don't seem to be aware of or acknowledge how much visuals influence our thinking," she says.

In recent years, many orchestras have switched to "blind" auditions to combat possible racism, sexism or other biases in their hiring. Tsay says that she supports the intentions behind the implementation of blind auditions, but that her study does raise the possibility that musicians chosen through blind auditions might differ from those chosen in non-blind auditions.

In the future, she plans to examine how audiences use visual and audio information to judge groups of musicians, such as chamber groups and orchestras.

— Lea Winerman