Sight Over Sound in Bagpipe Performance

rain2013WorldsIt’s often said that bagpipe adjudicating can be a very subjective thing. Individual taste and personal opinion are often thought to play a part in a judge’s final decision. Another World Pipe Band Championships has passed with the “top six” bands probably being the closest in quality they have been in a long time. Not an easy contest to judge. The subjectivity of said judges may have played a large part or a small part in the final tally, who knows? What is interesting is that there is a recently published study out of London that suggests that people actually depend more on visual components than on sound when judging music competition. From the abstract:

“People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music. However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance. People reliably select the actual winners of live music competitions based on silent video recordings, but neither musical novices nor professional musicians were able to identify the winners based on sound recordings or recordings with both video and sound.”

The results of this study draw attention to the natural, unconscious reliance we all have on visual cues. The notion that our experience of music depends so much on visual information, and that that visual information can interfere with our decision making has huge implications, as the study also suggests:

“Professional musicians and competition judges consciously value sound as central to the domain of performance, yet they arrive at different winners depending on whether visual information is available or not. This finding suggests that visual cues are indeed persuasive and sway judges away from recognizing the best performance that they themselves have, by consensus, defined as dependent on sound. Professional judgment appears to be made with little conscious awareness that visual cues factor so heavily into preferences and decisions.

We all like to think that the “sound” of a musical performance is the most important thing and place our trust in the specialized experience of judges. But, whether we are aware of it or not, we are more likely to pick the winner of a competition because the performer “looks” like he or she is a winner. It is not really the subjective nature of musical taste and experience that plays a large part in the judging of bagpipe competition, but the (very) subjective nature of visual cues.

This year’s Grade 1 competition at the worlds was most unbalanced in terms of weather. A few unlucky bands played in a downpour while others got the benefit (or detriment) of blazing sunshine. The image of SFU playing their medley as their shirts were soaked through, or the image of splish-splashes off of Shotts & Dykehead’s drum heads not only was something that had an impact on the bands’ performances, but it also had an impact on the visual aspects from the perspective of the crowd (who cheered loudly when these bands finished) and most likely, as the study reveals, how they were judged as well.

This is an important thing. As a competition like the World Pipe Band Championships grows to appeal to a wider audience, with BBC television coverage and major public support, the visuals are going to play a large part of that appeal. There’s a lot at stake to be ruined by bad visuals. “Visuals” are the reason the RSPBA does not allow rain capes to be worn in the Grade 1 circle. “Visuals” are why many of the Grade 1 bands sported band-branded cufflinks this year. Nevermind how good these bands sound, what their performance looks like is going to determine their own success and the success of the event itself. What does this mean? It means that the poor visuals of soaking rain on a world class, Grade 1 pipe band during a performance at the World Championships should never be allowed to happen.

  • AVDawn

    Fair points, Vince, though “visual judging = success” is not universal in our competition milieu. At Maxville this year, our band was the Shotts or SFU of the day – the one band who played in a 5-minute deluge while our competitors played in fine weather. Neither the judges nor the enthusiastic crowd’s lack of ‘good visuals’ impacted our performance results.

    However, the decided choice of one judge to IGNORE the visuals and judge purely on sound did. At the roll-off, our DS snapped a stick. He had the forethought to flip it and play backstick to continue playing until a unison part when he could grab a spare stick and resume proper play. Of course, playing backstick led to a very heavy, unmatched left hand – a comment the drumming judge clearly listed as a major consideration in our placement, even though it only lasted through part of the first tune.

    Most people, seeing what happened, were shocked and impressed that we kept composed, made no errors, and killed the set despite the start. Yet the judge, who never saw what happened, just heard a bad balance and marked off accordingly.

    Too, some would dispute the fact that rain/visual really impacted Shotts & SFU at the Worlds. Yes, it rained horribly (as it did on my band at Maxville) but the bands played on. The tenors still spun, the snares still played, the pipers kept their hands on the chanters. While it would be nice for every contest and every run to have equal weather conditions, few ever do. It’s how you deal with the weather and still put out the expected performance that will set you apart. When it is raining cats and dogs, no one cares that your cufflinks match.

    I guess the upshot is, while visuals matter (I’m a flourish tenor… Of COURSE visuals matter!), at the end of the day, judging art is a subjective thing and there will be “unfair results” no matter which path the judges take – visual/no visual, circled/concert formation, rain/shine – there will always be something unexpected to disprove any rules or findings that would say what result is “right.”


    • pipervin

      Thanks Dawn! I think the point the study actually makes is that it is not possible to ignore the visuals (good or bad), that they have a big influence on music judging whether the judge is aware of it or not. In your case, it is more likely the judge just didn’t see the stick thing happen. Even if he did, he chose to ignore the atypical visual and judge more deliberately, thereby proving the point of the study! I think it’s certainly possible to deliberately ignore what we see, but it takes a conscious effort, and still might influence our decisions differently. With regard to the worlds, the visuals of the Grade 1 event matter more and more each year. It’s not just the judges on the field you have to worry about, it’s the crowd in the stands and those watching at home who are going to factor in. For the event to be regarded as something worthy of support and success, it needs to look the part, and buckets of rain falling down on bands just doesn’t cut it.

      • thevoidboy

        It’s fascinating how much of a disconnect there is between our rational mind and the decision making process. We always want, and will defend the idea that our decisions are rational. But they simply are not. Study after study has shown this. From advertising to judging competitions.

        We are not the rational animals we imagine ourselves to be.

  • mike

    I wondered why it seemed everyone was wearing French cuffs…. but a nice bit of dress up I thought, regardless. I wonder how so many bands came to the same conclusion… no doubt one started it, others didn’t want to be outdone so followed … and it does look more refined;… unlike the screaming white hose phase we went through.

Content Protected Using Blog Protector By: PcDrome.