Battle of the Senses: Enhancement or Distraction?

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Should symphony orchestra concerts feature giant video walls with dynamic images synchronized to music? Or should such concerts emphasize only music, offering an audio-only alternative to today’s hyper-sensory environment?

Multisensory Performances. Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured an overview article about symphony orchestras collaborating with video artists “to create immersive, multisensory performances that reimagine the traditional concert-hall experience.” Large, high-definition video screens project images inspired by – and in synch with – the music. Luring younger audiences is one rationale.

Ensembles experimenting with this include the Philadelphia Orchestra, L.A. Phil and New World Symphony (NWS). According to the article, NWS’ director of video production creates a multitude of video segments, some only a few seconds long, and carefully cues them to specific musical passages.

Screen-Time Overdose. Most people agree that sensory overload is a defining characteristic of today’s society, with audiovisual bombardment as close as our smartphones. Add computer use at work and school and it’s easy to see why “screen time” overdosing is rampant.

One Australian survey found adults spend nine hours daily in front of screen – six for leisure and three for work or study. This is more than the recommended eight hours of sleep!

New World Symphony - video wall

New World Symphony

Hampered Concentration. While we’ve not yet attended a full-blown video extravaganza in a concert hall, we have experienced a similar effect on a smaller scale at several high school “Pops” concerts. Musical medleys from Disney soundtracks (“Beauty and the Beast”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, etc.) were accompanied by slides of movie stills. We found that even these basic visuals hampered our musical concentration. At some beginner-level concerts, we realize audiences may appreciate the diversion. However, we often closed our eyes to better focus on listening.

Distracted Listening? Closing your eyes is obviously not advisable while driving, but we think an auto analogy is worth a spin. In the U.S., the National Safety Council claims that distracted driving is a public health threat, killing over 3,300 people in vehicle crashes during 2012. Even hands-free cell phones are culprits by causing “cognitive distraction” through sensory multi-tasking.

If talking on a cell phone impacts the brain’s ability to process visual information, wouldn’t the reverse be true? Does auditory engagement and appreciation suffer when the brain is forced to process visual and aural sensations simultaneously? The answer probably is as unique as each one of us. Personally we prefer a traditional concert hall environment, where the stage and house are united aesthetically and acoustically. Instead of being jarred and jolted by images of the outside world, audience members are blissfully isolated from it.

What’s your opinion? Do you prefer your classical music served straight up – or blended with video?

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