Visual Perception of Live Music

I want to share with you this insightful reflection on the visual aspect of live singing by my brilliant housemate and fellow singer.

Reflection no. 4: On the Visual Perception of Live Music

A couple weeks ago I went to see a vocal recital given by a recent UVic graduate. She was accompanied by piano and guitar in a program of 19th century repertoire by German and French composers. I was familiar with everything on the program and was aware that the singer was busy at the time of the recital and hadn’t had as much time to prepare as she would have liked. Any audience member brings a certain set of prejudices and expectations to a performance. Though I didn’t realize it then, I brought with me preconceived notions of how the pieces to sound and how a singer to look while in concert. From the moment she stepped on stage, she looked uncertain and, though her voice was lovely, I found the performance a bit shaky throughout. I remain uncertain as to how much of that perception was due to how she sounded from an objective standpoint and how much was due to her appearance on stage. As we found in our study of the sometimes arbitrary distinction of art from craft, the context under which something is presented will affect the way we view it. In this case, if a singer looks uncertain, the audience will expect them to sound as such.

I believe musicians tend to think of music as an art that is experienced mostly aurally. Daniel Levitin writes that “musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about” and details the ways in which the brain deals with different aspects of music (Levitin 84-85) as well as the physical process of hearing (101). This article completely leaves out an important aspect of live classical music: the visual. While the theatrical nature of something like opera is evident, the degree to which visual cues can inform our perception should not be underestimated. As Levitin writes, music is complex and many different parts of the brain are involved in its interpretation. If a listener’s brain is primed to listen for something in particular — in the case of this performance, I was listening for vocal uncertainty, pronunciation issues, and underdeveloped phrasing and musical choices — it will stick out all the more.

I don’t know how much I would have noticed the singer’s relative under-preparation had she not also looked uncertain. Her posture was slouchy and she occasionally grasped the edge of the piano or music stand as if seeking physical reassurance from that contact. It is important for performers to remember that the first impression the audience has of them is not the first sound they make, but the first step they take onto the stage.

The way something is labelled changes the way we perceive it and interact as a work of art (Jefferson). The same is true in performance. Musicians must remember that, while appearance won’t make up for shoddy preparation, it will change the way spectators are inclined to perceive them before they make a single sound.

Works cites

Jefferson, Margo. “Beyond Cultural Labelling, Beyond Art Versus Craft.” Critic’s Notebook, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2005.

Levitin, Daniel J. “Chapter 3. Behind the Curtain — Music and the Mind Machine,” from This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin Putnam, 2006, East Rutherford, NJ, USA. Scanned copy on Coursespaces accessed 2 Oct. 2016.

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