Sound Science: Why We Prefer Live Music

Like most people, you’d probably rather see live music performed than listen to a recording.  But do you know why?  Actually, it is in part because we get visual cues from seeing musicians perform.  These cues inform how we feel about what we are hearing.  A few years ago, psychologists at McGill University tried an experiment: they recruited 30 musically-trained participants and played them a Stravinsky clarinet piece.  Some of the subjects saw the musician play, others just heard the music.  Each subject used an electronic slider to signal the level of tension they felt from moment to moment, and the impact of the musical phrasing.  What were the results?

“At times, the experience of tension and phrasing for participants who both saw and heard the performances was enhanced compared to judgments made by participants receiving information from only one sensory modality.  At other times, the addition of visual information served to dampen the intensity of emotional response – seeing the musician may have revealed complexities in the emotional character of the music, leading to a more comprehensive interpretation of the piece or to greater aesthetic satisfaction.”*

In other words, being able to see the musician perform lead to a fuller, richer experience – one quantitatively different from just hearing the music played.  Given this, it is unsurprising that 91% of theatergoers say the best part of Broadway is live music.  By replacing live music with recordings, some Broadway producers may reap extra profits for themselves, but it comes at the cost of the audience’s experience.

But now that you’ve read this, you know something those producers don’t want you to know: that seeing live musicians perform leads to what these psychologists called “greater aesthetic satisfaction.”  That is why we need to get the word out about the threat of recorded music on Broadway, so that people know what is going on! That is why we ask that you sign the petition against recorded music on Broadway, and why we ask that you share this page.  Only when deceptive producers know that the public has wised up to their tricks will they stop trying to cut corners at our expense.

*Vines, B.W.; Krumhansl, C.L.; Wanderley, M.M.; Levitin, D.J.  “Cross-Modal Interactions in the Perception of Musical Performance.”  Cognition Volume 101, Issue 1 (August 2006): 107


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