Eye-tracking study examines audience gaze while watching a musical performance

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High-pitched voices affect where audiences direct their visual attention during an ensemble performance, according to research published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The eye-tracking study investigated audiences’ gazes as they watched a video of a singing duo performance. The study found that regardless of whether it was the left or right singer, the one assigned the soprano part attracted more visual attention throughout the piece. Shifts in a singer’s gaze also caused shifts in the audiences’ gazes.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Satoshi Kawase of the Nagoya Institute of Technology. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Kawase: I have long been interested in “looking” during music performance and have studied visual factors, e.g., eye contact in performer-audience interactions as well as inter-performers interactions. For example, when you attend a concert, you may worry about the visibility of the performers from your seat; when you watch a concert movie showing something (or someone) you do not want to see, you may think “I want to see other things right now.” Consequently, a question arises: what exactly do we look at while appreciating audio-visually presented music performances? In the present study, I attempt to answer to this.

I particularly focused on ensemble music performances in which the performer(s) directs their gaze toward their co-performer(s). Such inter-performer gaze-shift can have several functions, e.g., assisting the coordination of the performance. In my study, I especially highlighted a function of the inter-performer gaze that concerns joint attention, as this may attract the audience’s visual attention in much the same manner as a “spotlight.”

Additionally, I also examined how visual and auditory factors interact with each other, since previous studies on multipart music have suggested the dominance of a melody part or higher-pitch part over other parts in regard to the auditory attention of audiences.

Accordingly, I measured audiences’ gazes while appreciating the performance of a singing duo, one of the simplest music ensemble styles. The singers cooperated with the study to create stimuli that controlled the assignment of singing parts and gaze shifts. As a result, it was found that one performer’s gaze-shift toward their co-performer played a “spotlight” role that attracted the visual attention of audiences, although concurrent auditory information (soprano/alto) affects the overall duration of the audiences’ gaze.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our findings can help people involved in music understand audience behavior. This is because, to sufficiently express performance intentions to an audience, it appears to be important to properly attract the audience’s attention during the music performance. In terms of audiences’ auditory and visual attention, our findings can also assist creators of multimedia products such as movies, VR technology, games, websites, and educational or therapeutic materials that involve both auditory and visual factors. Of course, such an application is also beneficial for users and audiences of these contents.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Conducting field studies that allow the exploring of audience gazing in real concerts would be fruitful, since we controlled for multiple conditions that could emerge in a real concert; for instance, various types of cues other than gazing, such as body movement, facial expressions, stage settings, and lighting. In addition, studies of an audience’s gaze while appreciating a larger and more complex-sized ensemble are necessary. In contrast, using more simple stimuli or conditions (e.g., single tones) would be beneficial for clarifying the fundamental mechanism of audiences’ visual attention. These attempts can enable us to reveal an aspect of audience behavior during music performance.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I will continue to investigate multimodal communication during music performance. More up-to-date information about my research can be found here: http://satoshikawase.wixsite.com/satoshikawase/english-page

The study, “Audience gaze while appreciating a multipart musical performance“, was also co-authored by Satoshi Obata.