The scientific case for live music


Music today is ubiquitous, both in public spaces like malls, elevators and offices and in the very private space between an individual’s ears, courtesy of personal music players.

But that’s all recorded music. Live music remains far rarer. Live musicians may occasionally show up in a public space, but you generally have to seek them out.

Which raises an interesting question. Do we perceive music differently when we watch it being played than we do when we are only listening to a recording?

Michael Schutz is both a noted percussionist and a noted researcher. Currently an assistant professor at McMaster University, he runs a research lab dedicated to studying the cognitive science of music, and the visual component of music is something he’s very interested in.

As he notes in an article published by the Acoustical Society of America, “while purists may argue that music is an auditory experience and therefore visual information is irrelevant, the enormous investment in clothing, lighting, smoke machines and other visual effects in live concerts demonstrates audiences clearly respond to and appreciate visual information as part of the musical experience.”

“Clothing, lighting, smoke machines and other visual effects” is rather too broad a collection of items to serve as the focus of a practical experiment, so Schutz decided to look at a much narrower question, i.e., “Do the gestures used by percussionists have any musical value irrespective of their acoustic consequences?”

This has long been a matter of debate. Some percussionists are adamant that using a sharp wrist motion produces a more staccato sound than a fluid motion. Others are adamant that gestures don’t matter: a percussion instrument will make the same sound if struck with the same amount of force no matter what gesture is used to produce the blow.

It turns out that they’re both right–or both wrong, depending on how you look at it–because there’s a difference between sound (acoustics) and the way that sound is experienced (perception).

Schutz and colleagues conducted two experiments. In the first, they recorded a world-renowned percussionist performing notes using long and short gestures on a professional-quality marimba. Participants rated the duration of each note twice: once while viewing the gesture, once just by listening.

The result: notes produced by long and short gestures were indistinguishable when judged by audio alone, but were judged to be significantly different when the accompanying gesture was seen…even though the participants had been specifically instructed to ignore visual information when making their ratings. Or, as Schutz puts it, in what at first glance seems a self-contradiction, “while gesture fails to alter the sound of the note, it…alters the way the note sounds.”

Earlier studies had suggested that visual information does not influence ratings of note length, but Schutz suspected his experiment revealed such an influence because of the particularly strong visual connection between the gesture of the marimba player and the sound produced. He predicted the results would only apply to percussive sounds, where the motion producing the sound is clearly visible.

To test that prediction, the researchers paired the original videos with notes produced, not only by the marimba, but by piano, French horn, clarinet and voice. A second set of participants followed the same procedure as before…and found that non-percussive sounds were unaffected by the visuals…not too surprising, since we obviously know that a man hitting a marimba won’t produce the sound of someone singing. (Interestingly, some visual influence was found in the piano…which is technically a percussive instrument.)

All of which seems to indicate that, at least for percussion, there is a very strong link between the sight of a live musician playing an instrument and the listeners’ perception of the sound…and that watching a percussionist play live is a very different experience from listening to a recording.

Percussionists, Schutz suggests, use this “musical illusion” to “align audience perception with performer intent.”

Quite likely, other musicians make use of similar illusions. Pete Townshend’s wind-milling arm may not produce any different sound from an electric guitar than the less flamboyant display of another musician–but that’s not the way we perceive it.

Our brains are so strongly affected by visual stimuli that we literally cannot ignore them…which means that, while recorded music has its uses, it can never replace the impact of hearing, and seeing, music performed live.

Bonus: no silly, uncomfortable earbuds required.

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  1. Hi Edward,
    Thanks for discussing my research – I recently found your blog/discussion and wanted to mention that Hamilton Live recently did a TV segment on this research, which aired last week on the evening news. It’s available online here at



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