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Do Better-Looking Musicians Make Better Sounding Music?

Listeners tend to blend sights and sounds when judging musical quality.

In a few weeks, two media-heavy music events will be upon us. Touted as "Music's Biggest Night," the Grammy Awards will be televised just one week following the musical-visual spectacle that is the Super Bowl halftime show. If you consider the musicians who'll be at these events—Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, and Rihanna headline the Grammys, and Beyoncé stars at the big game—as well as other successful performers in the music industry, you might conclude that today's audiences believe that the best music is offered by the best-looking people. Or perhaps they just prefer to open their ears to those who are also "easy on the eyes." Of course, this is not just a modern phenomenon, nor is it limited to popular styles of music. The classical world has long featured performers who take the stage adorned in elegant gowns or suits, their appearance further ornamented by makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. Beauty, it seems, is a staple in most all kinds of music performance.

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Research has established that what we hear in music—or perhaps more accurately, what we think we hear—is affected by what we see. Musicians (and producers) realize this and choose visual aspects of performance accordingly. As we saw over the recent holiday season, Christmas music usually comes with wintry images for the secular songs and religious ones for the sacred. New Years Eve performances are put on amid eye-catching party scenes. As for the performers themselves, facial expressions, bodily movements, and other visible attributes can heavily influence audience perception of musical quality. This includes the performer's physical attractiveness.

It's no secret that physical beauty can make people think and behave differently than they normally would. TV news programs seem to routinely run hidden video social experiments on how beautiful women affect the behavior of men (here's one I came across recently). Typically, two people act as motorists stranded on the side of the road; one is an attractive woman and the other is…well…not. The cameras capture just how quickly men stop to help the damsel in distress. Of course, visual bias hasn't always worked in women's favor, as veteran symphony musicians can tell you. Female musicians were largely excluded from orchestras until behind-the-screen auditions were commonly instituted (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). Sexism notwithstanding, beauty bias seems to extend beyond our highways and into our concert halls, and often serves to advantage musicians who have the right look.

There is research that suggests that listeners hear music as more appealing when it comes from a more attractive musician. Over the last 15 years, an assortment of studies has shown that people tend to rate musical quality higher for performers who are judged to be physically attractive, as compared to those not judged as such (North & Hargreaves, 1997; Ryan et al., 2004; 2006; Wapnick et al., 1997, 1998, 2000, 2009). And it's not just stage presence that's more highly appraised. The quality of their sounded music is rated higher. This effect has even been found among highly trained musical evaluators (graduate level music study).

Simple physical beauty may have an effect, but there are other factors that influence how visually attractive a live performance will be. As I alluded to in a previous post, audiences are affected by the visuals cues of a performer's wardrobe, bodily gestures, and stage behavior. We perceive the sights and sounds of a music performance together. These two forms of sensory input interact with each other (Kopiez & Platz, 2012), and both are filtered by our preexisting tastes and beliefs (e.g., the prestige effect). These cause us to form expectations for performance, which surely vary according to our knowledge of the performance conventions of different styles of music. What is considered attractive in terms of wardrobe and bodily gesture can differ greatly from one musical subculture to the next.

With this in mind, I would suggest that physical attractiveness bias in performance is not merely a matter of a musician's absolute beauty (if there exists such a thing). Rather, we form expectations of what a "good musician" looks like, and we use them to judge whether particular performers look the part. The journal Psychology of Music recently published a research study smartly entitled "Posh Music Should Equal Posh Dress: An Investigation into the Concert Dress and Physical Appearance of Female Soloists" (Griffiths, 2010). As the title suggests, people's opinions about the appropriateness of various performance attire—in this case jeans, a short nightclubbing dress, and a longer concert gown—were related to whether the performer played classical, jazz, or folk music. Judgments of appropriate dress coincided with higher ratings of musicality and technical performance ability.

The author of the "Posh" study says her research reinforces the idea that judgments of musical ability are connected to physical appearance. She makes specific application of her findings to the performance practices of female classical musicians. "Women wishing to project a body-focused image," she writes, "should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability" (p. 175). This research underscores the fact that attractiveness is culturally defined, and certainly different musical subcultures define it differently. It brings to mind the controversies that can be stirred up when classical musicians stray from traditional concert dress. The concerts of pianist Yuja Wang often yield reviews that spend just as much attention on her dresses as on her music making. And when critics have taken issue with her fashion sense, others have taken issue with that.

Though some may disapprove of her wardrobe choices, I imagine that fewer people would dispute that Yuja Wang is an attractive young woman. As mentioned above, a musician's physical attractiveness can contribute to favorable evaluations of her performing. But could it be that some people actually become better musicians because they are better-looking than others? There is some evidence to suggest this. The studies by Wapnick and colleagues indicated some bias toward attractiveness even when the performers were not seen. In these cases, the performances rated highest in audio-only conditions tended to be those of more attractive musicians (as judged separately). In explaining this, the researchers have theorized a deeper bias: as young musicians develop through training and other performance experiences, those who are more attractive garner more attention, opportunity, and encouragement. "It is conceivable," they write, "that the effects of attractiveness on progress in music may begin early in life, may be long lasting, and may be profound" (Wapnick et al., 1998, p. 519).

Be it from a natural human mixing of sensory signals or the pervasiveness of beauty-driven media, there clearly exists an attractiveness bias in our modern society. It should not surprise us that it is so evident in music. Though music may primarily be an aural phenomenon, it is well established that visual elements are quite consequential in the appraisal of musical quality. In a meta-analysis of studies on audio-visual music perception, Kopiez and Platz (2012) conclude that the visual dimension is "not a marginal phenomenon…but an important factor in the communication of meaning" and it "exists for classical as well as pop and rock music" (p. 75). It seems that many of the top musicians of today understand this and stage their concerts accordingly. Perhaps with music, audiences shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but research suggests that it's an awfully hard habit to break.

References

Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of "blind" auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.

Griffiths, N. K. (2010). 'Posh music should equal posh dress': An investigation into the concert dress and physical appearance of female soloists. Psychology of Music, 38(2), 159-177.

Kopiez, R., & Platz, F. (2012). When the eye listens: A meta-analysis of how audio-visual presentation enhances the appreciation of music performance. Music Perception, 30(1), 71-83.

North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1997). The effect of physical attractiveness on responses to pop music performers and their music. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15(1), 75–89.

Ryan, C., & Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Attractiveness bias in the evaluation of young pianists' performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 52(2), 141-54.

Ryan, C., Wapnick, J., Lacaille, N., & Darrow, A. (2006). The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators' performance ratings. Psychology of Music, 34(4), 559-572.

Wapnick, J., Campbell, L., Siddell-Strebel, J., & Darrow, A. (2009). Effects of non-musical attributes and excerpt duration on ratings of high-level piano performances. Musicae Scientiae, 13(1), 35-54.

Wapnick, J., Darrow, A., Kovacs, J., & Dalrymple, L. (1997). Effects of physical attractiveness on evaluation of vocal performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(3), 470-479.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (1998). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on violin performance evaluation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(4), 510-521.

Wapnick, J., Kovacs-Mazza, J., & Darrow, A. (2000). Effects of performer attractiveness, stage behavior, and dress on children's piano performances. Journal of Research in Music Education, 48(4), 323-336.

 

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody

 

Source of image: PianoNOLA on Flickr Creative Commons

Robert H. Woody, Ph.D. is a music professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an author of the book Psychology for Musicians.

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