You're Not Weird for Preferring the Live Version

A new case study shows that audiences can actually enhance an artist’s live performance.
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(Photo: Ben Hanbury/Flickr)

(Photo: Ben Hanbury/Flickr)

For artists, live music is the way of the future. Even as the music industry as a whole continues its slow implosion, revenues from music festivals continue to break records. That's in part because live music is just better, empirically speaking: Recent research published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that music listeners prefer performances recorded in front of a live audience.

“I noticed that some pianists give splendid performances when they perform in front of an audience,” says Haruka Shoda, a researcher at Doshisha University in Japan and lead author on the study. “This idea contradicts the research in music performance anxiety, in which the presence of the audience has often treated as a distractor or ‘noise.’”

In the first part of the study, researchers recorded 13 pianists as they each played Träumerei, the best known piece of Robert Schumann's Scenes From Childhood, both alone and in front of a live audience. The researchers then played the recordings back to 153 individuals listeners, most of whom thought the live recording sounded better—even though they had no way of knowing which recording was live since the authors took care not to record noise from the audience.

Psychological theories suggest that people prefer average faces, voices, and melodies because they're easier to process. While some studies show that listeners like mundane music, others demonstrate that we value individuality when it comes to our musicians. 

One theory as to why live performances are preferred over studio recordings relates to a phenomenon called social facilitation, whereby skilled performers carrying out simple or familiar tasks tend to perform better in the presence of others. To find out how the presence of an audience influenced the musicians' performance, researchers analyzed differences in each pianists' artistic interpretation of the piece—how fast or slow they played each section—between their live performances and the solo-recordings.

The researchers found that the pianists’ performances in front of an audience were more alike than their respective solo performances. There was less of a difference in tempo across the various sections of the live piece, indicating that the performers exhibited more control—or less of their own artistic license—in front of an audience, according to the authors. 

“The live recording sounds better and moves listeners more than the studio recording. It’s remarkable that such experiences can be explained by the temporal and the dynamic expressions by performers,” Shoda says.

Another explanation, backed by increasingly bland pop songs, rests on our musical unsophistication. Psychological theories suggest that people prefer average faces, voices, and melodies because they're easier to process. While some studies show that listeners like mundane music, others demonstrate that we value individuality when it comes to our musicians. 

At what point individuality trumps uniformity is still unknown, but culture may play a role. The study was carried out in Japan, where, according to Shoda, a more subdued emotional demeanor is valued. “Quality of music performance is affected by many factors such as culture, expertise, place, and so on,” Shoda cautions.

Musical training matters too, at least for Shoda: "As an amateur pianist, I believe such the spontaneous improvisation can occur in classical music, and this can make the live performance more fascinating."

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