People hear with their eyes

This past summer, legendary local bassist, Jim Ingman reminded me: “People hear with their eyes.” You may be so engrossed in your sound recordings and web audio players and CD pressings and download cards that you forget this point – but don’t!  People really do hear your music with the visual cortex.

Hopefully if you are playing out live you already know this. Your stage persona, set props, lighting, fog, and hot young girls on stage are all methods for creating the mood of the music and the overall experience for the audience.  Are you paying attention to all of the little details that can make or break your show?

I think it’s about Forgiveness…

One nice thing about stimulating imagery is that it can actually distract an audience from noticing the faux paus – like an out of tune guitar player, an inconsistent drummer, or a keyboard player that fills things up too quickly. Many a female singers flat notes have been overlooked when sporting the right bustier.  Yes, you can get away with murder if you have a compelling stage show going on.

But it’s also about the noggin’…

Have you ever practiced developing better balance? One way to do this is by standing on one leg and seeing how long you can go without falling over.  Then working at standing longer.  But the most powerful way to reach good balance is to close your eyes.  Go ahead – try it.

The reason this will strengthen your balance is that we use visual cues to orient ourselves to the environment. When vision is deprived, we have to rely on the proper amount of fluid in our eustachian tubes.  Same goes for when we “see music.”

Visual and auditory cues feed upon each other to deliver your “viewing” experience. And visual cues absolutely dominate us, drastically influencing our experiences.  Beyond influencing the perception of sounds, visual cues also affect our conscious evaluation of sound.  That is, our brains can interpret sounds better when we utilize our eyes.  For instance, studies have shown that watching a singer’s lips move improves the comprehension of lyrics by 18% (Hildago-Barnes & Massaro, 2007).

Light is faster than sound

Yes, light waves travel faster than sound waves – like when you see a flash of lighting but there’s a delay to hear the thunder. When those visual cues are arriving so much sooner, they have a chance to influence the brain about your overall experience.  The next time you are at a show, watch the drummer – the longer the distance his/her stick travels to hit the drum, the longer the notes will be perceived to carry.  The band Mushroomhead makes excellent use of this device, to say nothing of how their lighted, liquid-covered drum heads and dramatic motions are affecting your impression of the music.


Now think about the tension and release in your music – could this experience be heightened by the visual demonstration of tension onstage? Heck yeah!  Other properties, such as timbre, loudness and pitch can also be affected by visual cues.

Vision doesn’t just affect live performance

Don’t forget that people are still hearing your music with their eyes when they see your youtube video, an album cover, a promotional photo, or a web site. And yes, they see the images first and then hear the tunes…or not – if your images are not that compelling, they won’t be selling (your songs).  So take some time to make the audience want to see your music because people hear with their eyes.

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