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World-class orchestras best judged by sight not sound

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World-class orchestras can be accurately identified by silent video footage of performances, but not through sound recordings, a new study has found.

Both professional musicians and musical novices are better at identifying top-ranked orchestras from non-ranked orchestras when shown silent video footage, suggesting that such judgements are driven at least in part by visual cues about group dynamics and leadership.

When shown two 6-second clips, one from a world-class orchestra ranked among the top ten internationally and another from a regional or university-based group, participants were more likely to choose correctly when shown video-only footage than when played audio clips.

Previous research has found that observers overlook the degree to which visual cues can affect the judgement of music performance when assessing individual musicians.

Now, through a series of six experiments, with 1,062 expert and novice participants, researchers found that same principles apply to the rapid judgement of group performances, such as those of orchestras and chamber ensembles.

"It was surprising that providing even a subset of visual information - the sight of just one musician - allowed participants to identify the outcomes of ensemble competitions, and at a higher rate than achieved by participants given both the visuals and sound of the entire group," Dr Chia-Jung Tsay from University College London (UCL) Management Science and Innovation, author of the study said.

"The mere presence of sound in the recordings actually detracted from the predictive power of video-only recordings. This research suggests that the ultimate music ensemble astounds not its listeners but its viewers," said Tsay.

One of the experiments investigated the importance of visual cues in assessing symphony orchestras.

In each clip, the designated leaders were not visible, allowing for a closer investigation of the influence of group dynamics on performance judgement.

Participants scored significantly better than chance, with 64 per cent identifying the top-ranked orchestra from silent video footage. However, when given sound-only clips, this fell to 53 per cent.

"Some orchestras have implemented blind auditions as part of efforts to reduce the effects of various biases, but the results of this research suggest that musicians chosen through blind auditions are not necessarily those who are chosen through live-round competitions," said Tsay.

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