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Sight Over Sound
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Sight Over Sound

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It'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 to greater and lesser degrees. The musical standard at top level pipe band or solo competitions seem to rise each year with the gap between the top competitors narrowing to nonexistence. These are not easy contests to judge. The subjectivity of the judges at these events may play a large part or a small part in the final tally, who knows? With the performances so close, what elements separate them? Well there is a study published a few years ago 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, as well as experts, 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. In a top-level solo piping event, where each performer can be equal in quality, how much do those visual elements—pre-performance tuning, composure, posture and movement, Highland dress—factor into a piping judge’s final opinion?

The results of this study suggest certain things for the competing piper. We all tend to brush off “dress and deportment,” but at our peril. It matters. “Looking the part” would seem to be not just an aphorism, but a requirement if one wishes to succeed. A composed, relaxed tune-up coupled with smooth marching and movements during your tunes projects the right visual message of professionalism and competency. But the results of this study also have implications when the visual elements are not in one’s control. The Grade 1 competition at the World Pipe Band Championships is the pinnacle of pipe band performance. Glasgow can also be dodgy when it comes to weather. Many Grade 1 qualifying or final events have been marred by pouring rain over the years. A few unlucky bands might play in a downpour while others get the benefit (or detriment) of blazing sunshine. The image of the best bands in the world playing their set as their shirts are soaked through, or the image of splish-splashes off of drum heads not only is something that has an impact on the bands' performances, but it also has an impact on the visual aspects from the perspective of the crowd (who typically cheer loudly when these bands finish in those conditions) and most likely, as the aforementioned study reveals, how they are judged as well.

This is an important thing. The BBC and the city of Glasgow have made it known that they are invested in growing the World Pipe Band Championships to appeal to a wider audience. It is in their interests to make the “visuals” as appealing as possible, eliminating variables that can not only interfere with public regard for the event, but with the final result of the competition as well. Outdoor solo events are not free from this. Some of the most prestigious solo prizes are given at outdoor Highland games on the worldwide circuit, subject to all the poor weather that can interfere with a good performance. Creating the best visual performance is sometimes not just about looking good and deporting yourself well, it’s also about having the opportunity to not look bad.

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Vin Janoski Vin is a long-time piper based on the east coast of the USA. He has been on the Executive Committee of the EUSPBA and been the editor of the acclaimed Voice magazine. Recently, he has played in the Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, and the Grade 1 Stuart Highlanders pipe band. He currently produces the websites Pipehacker.com and WhiskyTunes.com.... And, needless to say, he spends way too much time than is allowed for any one person playing, writing about, and thinking about bagpiping.

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