I just came across a reference to a paper written by Noola Griffiths in the journal Psychology of Music on how our visual impressions change our aural perception of the music we hear. Griffiths carefully conducted a ingenious study where she carefully selected four female violinists, filmed them performing the same piece at the same tempo in different attire, and then dubbed in a single performance so that the same performance was heard on each video. Then Griffiths had the musical performances rated by other musicians. The results were unsurprising, but interesting.
Musicians rated the performance as better when the violinists wore concert dress compared with jeans or nightclubbing dresses, even though the performance was exactly the same. This was in spite of the fact that the musicians rating the performance were highly trained and, in some of the cases, members of a a professional symphony orchestra. We might expect that musical experts would be able to look beyond the appearance of the performer and concentrate solely on the sound alone, but this turned out to not be the case.
The implications of this study confirm what I’ve been recommending my students for years – dress for success. I’m continually amazed to find students auditioning, performing recitals, and playing jury exams in their street clothes. Even though I try to base my rating or grade on the sound alone, I can’t help but think that the student isn’t taking their performance seriously. At one university where I used to teach we actually had to require students to wear certain attire for their recital hour performances because too many of them simply showed up to perform in jeans and a t-shirt. I still see many music students show up to play auditions or juries this way.
It’s a very simple thing to dress up a bit and there is no additional time or practice involved. For such an easy way to boost the impression your audience has on your performance I would think that music students would jump at the opportunity to dress nicely, but I’ve found the reverse to be more typical.
There are other significant issues that Griffiths raises in this recent study, namely that of gender discrimination among musical auditions. Her study only used female students. I would be interested to see how the results might change by including male students as well. I would imagine that the results might be similar, so that when the males dressed up their performance would be rated as better also. We might also find a bias towards rating one gender or another as generally superior based solely on the sex of the performer (the hiring rate of women in professional symphony orchestras increased when blinded auditions were adopted). It would also be interesting to see if the gender bias is partially based on the instrument type, so that if performers on certain instruments that are associated with the sex of the performer (e.g., flute for women, percussion for men, etc.) would be influenced by this cultural background.