Auditioning the Audition


Expert listening is central to music, and the life of a musician is punctuated by competitive performance events where they are required to be a professional listener. However, recent empirical evidence suggests that music assessors are not as well prepared to assess sound as they imagine, have limited vocabulary to describe what they hear and are influenced by visual and extra-musical aspects of performances. This has profound implications for future generations of musicians who are required to be expert listeners in the music profession. There is a growing need to prepare tertiary level performers to think creatively, to extend their craft beyond performance, to be critical thinkers about musical ‘sound’. Music educators have a responsibility to enhance students’ critical listening skills for performance evaluation, and equip them to redefine the way in which the music profession critically evaluates performers.


Arts-practice knowledge is multifaceted, and can be described as explicit, tacit and ineffable. Explicit knowledge can be put into words, tacit knowledge is an embodied skill developed in artistic practice and ineffable knowledge is the intangible processing which cannot be described in words (Biggs, 2004). New strategies are needed to expand the one-to-one learning paradigm in music training and to equip students with transferrable musical skills to apply to their future musical careers (Harrison, 2014).

The goals of this study were to expand music students’ experiences of music performance evaluation, first in a live moot audition, and then a recorded audition with a variety of audiovisual presentations (with and without sound).

Key issues

Evaluating music performance

Expert listening is fundamental to the music profession, where sound is foremost in the mind of audience members, critics and competition and audition panellists when evaluating music performers. Musicians instinctively make sense of performers’ ‘sound’ in every listening context and regularly make instant judgments about a performance and a performer (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001; Mitchell & Kenny, 2008; Smith, 2004; Stanley, Brooker, & Gilbert, 2002). Listeners automatically synthesise musical, technical and aesthetic cues to form a holistic impression of the overall ‘sound quality’ (Handel, 2006). While listeners know a good performer, a bad performer and a truly great performer when they hear them, even experts struggle to articulate the reasons for their sound evaluation and are influenced by the look of a performer (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001; Mitchell & Kenny, 2008; Stanley et al., 2002).

Processing music performance

Listeners display tacit knowledge about sound evaluation, which is remarkably difficult to quantify or qualify. Little is known about the perceptual processes they use to even distinguish one performer from the next. The difficulty lies in listeners’ limited use of descriptors to express how they hear each individual (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001; Kenny & Mitchell, 2006). It would seem that even trained professionals find it hard to explain the process of how they perceive an individual performer’s sound. Experts do share some core descriptors for performance evaluation, it would seem that even trained professionals find it hard to explain the process of how they perceive an individual performer’s sound with other musicians (Wrigley & Emmerson, 2013).

Describing music performance

Verbalising sound quality presents a challenge to musicians and pedagogues in describing a complex sensory phenomenon. In music, the modality of the stimuli (aural) does not match the task for evaluation/explanation (such as verbal description), yet we rely on verbalisation to communicate our perceptions of sound quality. Listeners tend to form a global impression of the performance or performer (Stanley et al., 2002) and use a limited selection of verbal descriptions to explain the reasons for their judgment (Kenny & Mitchell, 2006). They focus on the more easily verbalised technical and performance components rather than describing overall quality (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001; Stanley et al., 2002) or the individual composition of characteristics which make a sound unique (Kenny & Mitchell, 2006). Verbal descriptions may only be effective when a performer’s sound translates easily and completely into words. A verbal overshadowing (VO) effect can occur when we use words to describe other sensory experiences (such as sight, taste or hearing) and the act of verbal description impairs later recall and identification of the original stimulus (Perfect, Hunt, & Harris, 2002; Schooler, Fiore, & Brandimonte, 1997). While there is a growing body of knowledge focused on categorising terminology used in describing sound quality, there is still much to be learned about how listeners recognise, isolate and communicate about individual performers through their sound quality (Mitchell & MacDonald, 2009, 2011, 2012).

Hearing (and seeing) music performance

Music assessors have intriguingly noted performers’ dress and stage manner at the expense of describing sound quality (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001) and are influenced by stage manner (Platz & Kopiez, 2013) and the way in which the performer interacts with their audience (Wapnick, Mazza, & Darrow, 1998). Blind auditions (where candidates perform behind a screen) are designed to focus attention to sound, and to remove perceptions of bias, by removing the visual extra-musical factors (Goldin & Rouse, 2000). However, it appears that listeners may have an unconscious dependence on the visual aspects of performance to identify performers (Mitchell & MacDonald, 2014) and evaluate their performances (Platz, 2012; Tsay, 2013). The idea that music listeners need visual cues to listen is a scientific curiosity, but has profound implications for the music profession, particularly for training the next generation of expert performers and listeners. In competitions, examinations and even auditions, expert panels are presented with performers by sound and sight and are charged to make and justify expert decisions about sound. Traditional tertiary music training rarely includes promotion or awareness of recent empirical research findings (e.g. Mitchell & MacDonald, 2014; Tsay, 2013), and more importantly, has not incorporated them into effective training for music students, to equip them for their musical careers, where they will face tasks as expert listeners.

Project aim

This project aims to (1) develop music students’ awareness of sound in performance, (2) equip them with skills to assess and articulate the sound of performers and (3) explain and rationalise their performance evaluations through the archetypal setting of the music audition. It will form the basis for an educational model for training music students to be expert listeners.