Kinesics for the Musician, by Alice Warren

As a flute performance major, I’ve put most of my time into achieving a good performance, but generally only so far as the music goes. Only recently did I begin to the think about the visual aspects of the performance and how important they might be. Of course, every sixth grade band student knows to some extent that the visual matters, or else why would their teachers ask them to come to their first concert in black dress clothes, or not to fidget and remain composed during the performance? However, I’ve recently become interested in some of the more subtle aspects of the visual during performance and what their impact might be on the audience. This awareness alone has led me to notice more about the impact of kinesics on a performance, but I was interested to see if any studies had been done to confirm and provide more detail about some of the things I was noticing.

One of the studies I found actually brought something to my attention that I had never even noticed or thought about, which is the gaze of the performer and, specifically, how often they look up at the audience. On reflection, I don’t think that I or many of my classmates do this much, at least within the flute studio. I, for one, tend to get somewhat buried in the music and forget (or try to forget) that there is an audience out there at all. According to the article, aptly titled “Looking at the Audience Increases Music Appreciation,” I ought to be taking a cue from the man in the picture and directing my gaze toward the audience every now and then (Antonietti et al, 2009).


This article essentially outlines two experiments which both determined there to be a correlation between looking at the audience and the audience responding positively to the music. In each experiment, a pianist was videotaped playing three different tunes. In the first experiment, the pianist also sang, but in the second, he played instrumental tunes so that they could see if the presence or absence of words would have any effect on the results. In both cases, the pianist had to be recorded playing each tune three times, once without looking at the camera (and thus, the “audience”) at all, once looking at the camera three times, and once looking at the camera six times. The pianist had to do several takes until he was able to produce performances that were virtually identical, with the exception of his looking at the camera (Antonietti et al, 2009). He certainly has my sympathy.

When the experimenters had the footage they needed, they conducted two trials of 70 college students each, one for the songs with lyrics, and one for the instrumental tunes. The trials were arranged so that each subject was shown all three pieces, each with a different amount of looking as stated above. However, it was arranged so that all the pieces were shown equally often with each of the three amounts of looking, and also so that each piece was equally often shown first, second, or third (Antonietti et al, 2009).

The results of each experiment showed that, without regard to the presence of lyrics, emotional response and liking of the piece increased the more the pianist looked at the camera. This is consistent with what Nonverbal Communication says about gaze, in that it can be used to communicate liking, intimacy, and empathy (Burgoon et al, 2010, p.322). Clearly, gaze creates some kind of a personal connection between the audience and the performer, although it isn’t a case of emotional contagion in this instance, as the performer in the experiment was instructed to keep his facial expression neutral (Antonietti et al, 2009).

Though this experiment was intended to test the effects of gaze only, it would be interesting to see how different facial expressions or duration of gaze come into play. It would be quite difficult to do a study on these, however, since there would be so many variables. Liking of music is so individual and subjective anyway that I’m surprised the results of this study are as clear as they are. At my next recital, I really need to remember to look at the audience and maybe try a few of these other ideas too.

Burgoon, J.K., Guerrero, L.K., & Floyd, K. (2010).  Nonverbal Communication.  Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Antonietti, A., Cocomazzi, D., Ianello, P. (2009). Looking at the Audience Increases Music Appreciation. Journal of Nonverbal Communication, 33(2), 89-106.


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