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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Listening Bias

I recently conducted an interesting experiment with my saxophone class at James Madison University.  I explained to the students that we were going to listen to two recordings of the prelude from the first Bach cello suite.  One recording was of a noted master, and the other was by a student cellist.  We listened to each recording and then, I opened the floor for comments.

First Listening

The students were roughly split down the middle about which recording was the master musician.  They made excellent critical observations about both versions, often stating that they had a preference for one or the other.  After a vigorous discussion, some of the the students actually changed their minds about which recording was which.

Second Listening

We listened again.  Some of the students were even more firm in their resolve about which recording was the actual virtuoso.  Although there was no consensus, there did seem to be a bit of a "group think" effect that caused some of the students to change their minds.  One student even admitted that he was having a hard time discerning the student from the master, and that he was vacillating back and forth.


Which recordings did I play for the class?








Janos Starker (RCA, 1997)                              Yo-Yo Ma (Sony, 1983)

                                               


We all had a good laugh, and everyone felt a little better about having a hard time deciding which recording was "better."  Obviously, both of these recordings are historically significant contributions by undisputed masters of the instrument and the repertoire.  Once we had established that neither recording was by a so-called student, we listened again.

Listening with Different Expectations

This time, the commentary took on a decidedly positive tone, and criticisms gave way to observations about interpretation.  Some of my students noted that they tended to focus more on the positive aspects of the individual recordings, where they had previously been looking for weaknesses that would reveal which musician was inferior.  At this point, everyone was becoming familiar with the recordings, so we just listened to about the first minute of each version.

The Expectations of Short-Term Memory

For our final listening, I changed the order of the recordings (a fact that I did not hide from the students).  A very peculiar thing happened when we swapped the order.  In each of the last two listenings, I noticed that I had a relatively strong preference for the first recording.  This took me by surprise, but when we listened to Starker first, I found him to be thoughtfully romantic, and Yo-Yo Ma sounded hurried and slightly cool.  When we reversed the order, I found Ma to be elegant and logical, but Starker sounded jagged and hesitant.  (I use these terms very loosely and in context of my "gut reaction," as I know both versions quite well and admire them both!)  No matter the order, the second recording was always held up in my mind against the strong memory of the first recording.

The Prejudice of Preconceptions

I expected this to be an enlightening experience for my students, and in many ways, they learned exactly what I had hoped for.  They formed preferences based on the preconception that one of the recordings was inherently better than the other.  They also influenced each other with a combination of insightful critique and  peer pressure, even if that pressure was mostly unintentional.  Something as subtle as the character of the audio recording influenced individual opinions, as some people preferred the warm presence of the RCA recording, while the Sony was a bit more distant, as if the listener was seated in a larger space.  One student commented that he was concerned that he was being influenced by a perceived difference in the loudness of the two playbacks (which we corrected after the initial listening).

Experience and Expectation

The moral of the story is clear:  Our listening experience is profoundly connected to our expectations.  If we believe something is great, we will tend to focus on the positive, where a negative connotation will immediately shift our attention to any apparent weaknesses.  Neither of the aforementioned recordings are perfect, and tiny imperfections can easily be ignored or magnified, depending on the posture of the listener.  We also tend to form preferences quickly, but those preferences are not impervious to self-doubt or peer commentary.

A Fragile Reality

It is important to remember that prejudice can prevent us from hearing deeply into the music.  We must do our best to keep an open mind, and to be cautious about blindly accepting the opinions of others. Our ability to discern is imperfect at best, and it is easily influenced by all sorts of external elements.  Internal factors, including one's mood or recent experiences, can also steer the formation of preferences and opinions.  Reality is merely cobbled together in our minds from one moment to the next.  As a musician, it is vital to develop a critical ear, and the ability to discern between quality and trickery.  Listen often, and well!


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