Sound Judgement and Visual Music


A recent NPR segment discussed research by classical pianist and psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay. She noticed that her musical recitals were being judged more by their visual quality than by their musical quality. The results of her research confirm this. Here is the final sentence of her abstract:

“The dominance of visual information emerges to the degree that it is overweighted relative to auditory information, even when sound is consciously valued as the core domain content.”

I bring this up for an important reason. When I started working in a classroom at a Deaf school and learning ASL, I noticed that many students had heavy metal and rap magazines. One student dressed as often as possible (given the school’s dress code) like thrash metal stars he saw. Another student came to class one day rapping as much as possible not in ASL, but like Big Daddy Yankee, a reggaetone artist that was most popular in the early 2000’s. I couldn’t complain. My own teenage years were spent in my neighbors house listening to CDs of Metallica and the Bell Biv DeVoe. But it was clear early on in my experience that being Deaf had nothing whatsoever to do with ignorance of sound. Deaf teens fully participate in what I might call the “social circulation of music”. Sloppy term, perhaps, but I mean that music is not just a sonic experience; instead, music is a complex set of social practices which includes sound as one element – and perhaps not always the most dominant element. The importance of music is not just the music itself, but the social practices and networks around music. (This has been explored in greater depth by researchers such as Dr. Gill Harold of the University College Cork in Ireland.)

Back to Tsay’s research on piano performances. What Tsay shows is that when hearing people listen to music, we believe we are really just listening to music. We are taught – or we learn, or we think we learn – to say that we are “listening” to music, even though we are most certainly doing so much more than that. Now that we’ve internalized this belief, it becomes possible to musically discriminate against people who physically cannot hear. It is tempting to think music is irrelevant to individuals who are deaf when we wrongly think that sound is all there is to music. And it helps me to understand why Deaf teens’ interest in music culture cannot be reduced to cultural imitation.

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