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Sex Shapes How We Hear Music

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Once a year, it seems, the worlds of gender studies, fashion and classical music collide at the Hollywood Bowl. The object of everyone’s attention is Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who dresses stylishly—some would say provocatively—when performing as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the historic outdoor venue.

Last year, she turned heads in a small orange dress; last night, the Los Angeles Times reports, she wowed in purple. This sort of sex appeal no doubt sells tickets, but does it impact the way people actually hear her music? A couple of studies we’ve reported on suggest it might—at least, if it exacerbates the gender-based prejudices we already bring to the listening experience.

One study reported that knowledgeable listeners described the same performance as more “precise” when performed by a man and more “dramatic” when performed by a woman. Another found that people told (accurately) that they were listening to a Brahms symphony conducted by a woman, Marin Alsop, judged the performance as less powerful and more delicate than those who were told the conductor was a man.

Music may be an abstract art, but our reactions to it are shaped by the assumptions and prejudices of our society.