The Sight Of Music

by Matt Sitman

Peter Reuell explains a study offering insight into the visual side of music:

In a study by Chia-Jung Tsay, who last year earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior with a secondary Ph.D. field in music, nearly all participants — including highly trained musicians — were better able to identify the winners of competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings. The work was described in a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a very counterintuitive finding — there have been some interesting reactions from musicians,” Tsay said. “What this suggests is that there may be a way that visual information is prioritized over information from other modalities. In this case, it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.”

Alva Noē meditates on the way music is more than just “sound art”:

When we listen to music we listen to a performance, in the literal sense. We pay attention to what someone, or a group of people, is doing before us. Music is action.

This has has been obscured somewhat by recording, whose advent has influenced how we think about music. The idea that music is about sound, peeled off from its inherence in the tapping, plucking, smacking, stroking, blowing, fingering and vocal actions of real people, or, divorced from the thoughts, feelings and ideas of performers, seems somehow plausible in an era where you buy pieces of plastic, or download digital files, to get at music. In addition, electronic music has seemed, to some, to be the final blow to what may now come to seem a quaint idea: that music is an art of the body, an art of the analog transduction of physical energies.

And so we easily lose sight of the fact that what we care about, when we care about music, is not sound, but musicians and their use of movement, the body, and material instruments, to articulate significance.