Do Musicians Perform Better with Eyes Open? Or Closed?

Have you ever had one of those strange out-of-body moments during a performance, where you suddenly realize where you are, what you’re doing, and you kind of marvel at it all? Where you see your fingers flying around all over the place, and think to yourself “Gee, look at my fingers go. They’re moving awfully fast. Hmm…are they going to be able to keep that up?”

Or maybe you’ve had one of those days when eyes start wandering into the audience, and as your fingers continue to chug along on autopilot, you suddenly lock eyes with some random person, which sort of freaks you out (and is probably really weird for them too).

As a young kid, I noticed that some musicians performed with their eyes closed. At least part of the time, anyway. And I often wondered why they did this. Was it mostly an aesthetic thing? To communicate how engaged they were with the music? Or did it have some sort of functional performance benefit?

I experimented with it a bit over the years, and found that there were certainly times when it felt like playing with eyes closed was helpful. But then there times when it felt a little weird and somewhat disconcerting.

So what does the research say? Is there any performance benefit to performing with your eyes closed? Or is it better to just keep your eyes open?

Where do peoples’ eyes go?

I’m not aware of any studies which address this question directly, but a series of studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin provide some interesting clues.

In one study, they took 19 students, and asked them 30 recall questions on 10 different topics. In each topic area, one question was geared towards short-term recall, another towards intermediate recall, and the third towards long-term recall. For instance, “Name a current professor” (short), “Name a professor from a semester ago” (intermediate), and “Name a professor from 2 semesters ago” (long).

Participants read each question from an index card, and were given 10 seconds to provide an answer.

Meanwhile, the experimenter kept an eye on the participant and observed whether they looked away from the experimenter or the question card towards the floor, wall, ceiling, etc. Or if they closed or covered their eyes.

Probability of looking away

The researchers found that the more difficult the question, the more often participants looked away or closed their eyes.

When answering short-term questions, they averted their gaze 37% of the time. For intermediate questions, 40% of the time. And for long-term recall, 53% of the time.

In essence, it seem like the more brainpower is required to answer a question, the more likely people are to look away or close their eyes. Which is pretty interesting, but doesn’t answer the question of whether there’s any performance benefit from doing so.

So they conducted another study to dig a little deeper.

Eyes closed vs. nose

In a follow-up study, 29 participants were asked to answer 30 general knowledge questions, and 30 simple math questions. Like the previous study, a third of the questions were easy, another third were moderate, and a third difficult.

But in this study, participants were given specific instructions about what to do with their eyes. On half of the questions, they were asked to think about the answer/solve the math problem with their eyes closed. On the other half, they were asked to think/problem-solve while looking at the experimenter’s nose.

A performance benefit

As predicted, performance seemed to be enhanced by thinking with eyes closed, as in both the general knowledge questions and math problems, participants got a higher percentage correct when they did their thinking with their eyes closed.

From Glenberg, A., Schroeder, J. and Robertson, D. (1998). Averting the gaze disengages the environment and facilitates remembering. Memory & Cognition, 26(4), pp.651-658.

Why?

Research in this area suggests that cognitive performance takes a hit when we are looking at distracting, task-irrelevant visual stimuli, because some of our brainpower is diverted to the task of suppressing or ignoring what we’re looking at.

Normally, it’s pretty important that we be tuned into our surroundings. That we notice the smell of smoke (cookies burning in the oven), be aware of cars running red lights (instead of texting while crossing the street), or recognize that strange silence which often signifies that the dog is up to some sort of mischief (taking dirty clothes out of the hamper to make a bed for himself).

But when it comes to performing, much of what’s in our immediate environment is actually not relevant to the task at hand (unless we’re talking about an orchestral performance, of course, in which case your conductor might beg to differ). So when we engage visually with the audience, puzzle over the meaning of the piece of tape on the floor in front of us, or marvel at how our hands are moving across the keyboard, this diverts precious resources from creating and shaping the phrase we are actually playing at the moment, potentially leading to a performance that’s slightly less awesome than it could have been.

Takeaways

Based on the type of tasks involved, these studies are most directly applicable to classroom tests, and suggest that we can might be able to do better on challenging exams if we do some of our thinking with our eyes closed.

And while it’s not clear from these studies if the results would necessarily transfer to motor skill performance, it does seem like it might be relevant. That playing with eyes closed might potentially help with memory. And at the very least, help us stay more focused on our performance, and be less prone to being distracted by the audience, audition committee, or random details about the hall.

But I’m curious about your experience – what are your thoughts on the eyes open vs. eyes closed issue? Do you find one more helpful than the other? Does it matter to you whether the performer plays with eyes open or closed when you’re watching from the audience?

And while we’re at it, I thought it might be fun to do a quick poll too:

Do You Perform With Your Eyes Open? Or Closed?

  • Eyes mostly shut...helps me stay in my own little world. (11%, 85 Votes)
  • Sometimes open. Sometimes closed. (57%, 450 Votes)
  • Eyes wide open...not sure I even blink. (32%, 257 Votes)

Total Voters: 792

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Comments

20 Responses

  1. I’ve heard that, when posed a question, depending on what part of the brain we’re using (left or right), we look to the left or the right when considering the answer.

    1. If I remember right from my neuropsych class, you look to the side is you’re primarily wired to be auditory, up if you’re visual, and down if you’re kinesthetic. Looking left if you’re remembering, right if you’re thinking of the future or making something up, and side to side if you’re considering. Noa, is that correct?

      1. Hi Bryn,

        I’ve heard something along these lines in the past, and I think it does work out this way sometimes. But the literature in this area has found this to be inconsistent; there are a number of other factors which can influence gaze direction, so it’s not always totally reliable. Fun to look at folks talking though, with this in mind.

  2. Though it is not part of my profession, I am one of those strange people that does not mind standing in front of groups of people and speaking – as long as it’s a topic I’m comfortable with, which is the only time I speak to groups. I’m not as comfortable playing my trumpet, but when I perform at the local jazz ‘open jam,’ I scan the audience and try to lock eyes with people actively watching while I’m playing, kind of in an attempt to connect with audience members in the same way as when speaking. Part of this is also a strategy to keep myself from ‘overthinking’ my improvisations, because I ‘think’ I get too caught up in doing certain technical things and lose flow. It is a tricky balance, that I will probably never get quite right…

  3. I’m a pianist and have done extensive study on performance anxiety, fueled chiefly by the fear of forgetting something we’re playing from memory. I learned early on the”memory triangle”: seeing, hearing, feeling. We engage all of those senses when we play music–pianist or not. These senses are stimulated in a predictable fashion in the practice room, and as we improve in that setting, the expectation is that we can replicate that good performance in another setting–on stage. But what’s different? It’s usually what we see, or have the potential of seeing. Any upset to the predictable sensory stimuli accumulated in the practice room has the capacity to startle our reflexes and cause an upset. When we deliberately “challenge” those senses in practice situations, we solidify our memory. Try playing a piece from memory with earbuds inserted, listening to a different piece of music–hearing challenge. Try playing a piano piece on a harpsichord–feeling and seeing challenge. The possibilities are endless. An awareness of all three senses involved in the music-making process from the very beginning is enormously helpful. How does that leap of a 7th feel? Is the key to which I move black or white? How does that diminished 7th chord look, feel, sound? Too often we don’t actively examine all of the elements involved in learning a piece of music with a conscious awareness of the specific sense involved. After the memory “challenges” to determine if the performance holds up when one of the senses is challenged, return to the practice room with the goal of enhancing the role of each of the senses in the performance. For pianists, the visual sense will be disrupted if we gaze out into the audience or look up and see an unfamiliar conductor. Instead, keep your eyes on what you know, what you have practiced: the keyboard. It will always be the same. Reducing the number of variables that are possible in a performance can help to maintain whatever artistry we acquire in the practice room.

  4. I love the research you’ve brought to bear on this concern. I am a blind musician, and I am sensitive to bright light, so I always wear dark glasses when performing onstage. However, I do not perform with my eyes closed. Somehow, closing my eyes makes me feel cut off from everyone. I don’t conscientiously watch anyone (I can’t follow a conductor visually), but I like the feeling of having my eyes open when I sing.

    I think it is wise to question how much we need vision when performing or even rehearsing music. In many ensembles, I have met colleagues or conductors who can’t believe that I can follow nonvisually. I’m a choral singer, so perhaps the challenge would be intensified if I were an orchestral musician. But I think we must veer away from the idea that there is one kind of musician who relates to the music in a prescribed way (by ear, by eye, by touch). Our bodies are musical bodies, and we can learn from the different ways each musician performs.

    1. Our brain uses a LARGE portion of itself for visual processing. When we close our eyes, it shuts down visual processing so our brain can do a better job performing other tasks required to perform complex tasks…one example of this is playing music 🙂

      Blind people often have other senses heightened, perhaps because it frees up other parts of their brain also, so when we close our eyes it hijacks the rest of the brain to perform optimally.

  5. I find that closing the eyes is particularly helpful in the practice room. It helps to heighten the sense of hearing, and calm/focus the mind as visual distractions are eliminated. The visual sense is so powerful, and so immediate, that I think we often have a difficult time making a different sense the predominant one and closing the eyes is a way to do that. I also find that my students hear and experience things more deeply/intensely when I have them close their eyes. When performing, there are times when closing the eyes is helpful, but I try not to think of them consciously. If we are self-conscious about when the eyes are open or closed in performance, I suspect this would be distracting. Better to experiment in the practice room and let it happen without too much conscious thought in performance.

    If you haven’t done one already, it would be great to see an article about where/how to look in performance if you are performing by memory (sorry if there already is one – I did a brief search and didn’t see any). I know that many people struggle with this.

    1. Hi everyone, I haven’t read all of your comments, but just wanted to say very quickly that shutting down one sense is likely to give rise to the heightening of another, and so I think that closing the eyes, or in some way shutting down the visual, leads to more active listening – and also perhaps, as I’ve noticed in my own case, more assured movement. As a pianist and piano teacher I notice that people looking at their left hands are usually listening only to the right and only really observing the left….

      Sorry if all this has been said before!

  6. I normally feel better performing with my eyes closed. somehow I cannot look on to the audience, since I know it would disturb me greatly, especially if there is someone there I know who is not my teacher.. I don’t know why it’s like that, it does disconect me in the human sence from the audience, but then it lets me be more sincere. though after the scary experience of turning 180 degrees on stage, I do feel the need to open my eyes from time to time, just to check, which is pretty uncomfortable.. Still some times I feel that it’s better to keep my eyes open, so I do.. and then discover it was a mistake and close them againXD maybe it depends on the situation.
    Still, two very good teachers told me that I have to keep my eyes open, I still don’t know why, but I guess there has to be a reason

  7. As a professional singer I can tell you that we are explicitly trained to ALWAYS perform with eyes open because closing our eyes cuts off the most expressive tool we have to communicate with the audience. Imagine watching a singer (pictures from my childhood of Celine Dion on Whitney Houston being what I thought at the time was being deeply involved with the music come to mind) who is totally engrossed in their performance, but ignoring the audience completely; it would be boring for the audience! Music is, above all, about communication and the exchange of energy between performer and audience. Next time you perform try embracing that exchange of energy–you don’t have to make eye contact, just leave the windows to your soul open. You’ll be amazed at the difference you feel in the energy and proficiency of your performance!

    1. Well said, Jennifer, and it makes sense if you are performing for an audience that appreciates that connection with the performer. This might be especially true for singers.

      Other people (and I happen to be one of them) are there to hear the music rather than see a particular performer. As long as the musician does a good job and doesn’t get in the way of the music, I’m happy.

      I had this same conversation recently with my dad and his friend Paul, both pianists. Paul loves connection with the performer. His favorite performance was a pianist who spent the first four minutes of the concert just looking into the audience, making eye contact with each one. He found it riveting. I would have found it very disconcerting (pardon the pun).

      My dad, on the other hand, once had a reviewer say he “played as if he was the only person in the room”. Paul thought that was a criticism but for my dad, it was high praise. It meant he *was* “leaving the windows to his soul open”. He wasn’t “ignoring the audience”, he was letting the music flow through him so people could forget the performer and enjoy the music. I found it riveting. Maybe others thought it was boring.

      I don’t think there is a right and a wrong answer, just different kinds of performers and different preferences among the audience members.

  8. If its a song Ive played many times, I close my eyes during long passages of times to lock in, but when I feel changes, or the end coming, I open my eyes to keep them on everyone else.

  9. I don’t perform in formal recital settings. When I do get to play for people, I’d never deprive myself of their reactions, hopefully enjoyment. I was playing Debussy and a young couple were listening over my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see them clasp hands to share the music, and this made me want to play better for them. Another time, I was playing Tchaikovsky and a young child spontaneously danced around the piano like the Sugar Plum Fairy. Who’d want to be oblivious to that?

    I also play on the beautifully designed ‘street pianos’ and I find the visuals enhance the experience of playing, sometimes transcendantly. At one event, I discussed the experience with the designer.

    I believe something has changed our ability to process multiple stimuli not as a distraction but as a unified experience — perhaps an adaptation to the digital bombardment of our modern culture (e.g., Times Square). E.g., I like to write code in noisy clubs — the loud music and energy does not disrupt my concentration, it excites it. I’m pretty sure that’s a new neurological development. When I was in school, I needed quiet to concentrate.

  10. Watching a soloist playing with closed eyes can be very disconcerting. I once attended a guitar recital and the guitarist played the entire concert with eyes closed. There was a strong sense that he was somehow encapsulated in his own sound world to the exclusion of us, his audience. No matter how expressive his playing, it didn’t ‘cross the footlights’. Frankly, difficult though it must be, classical musicians must learn to engage with their audiences more, like cafe violinists!

  11. Perhaps by removing one sense, our brain will establish link between parameters of our process by taking information from our intern muscle sensations directly , and so we will be able to solve the puzzle quicklier with fewer pieces of puzzle. The pieces of puzzle obtained with eyes can be very useful too, especially concerning making our bows going straight. But for us at first, it might be difficult to solve the whole puzzle (trying to assemble too much pieces of puzzle at one time might paralyze us by the amount of combined analysis we do). So perhaps we might be better and more intelligent to solve the puzzle with fewer pieces and to do so by closing our eyes, and then to integrate missing or additional pieces later on, and to do so by opening our eyes.

  12. I was rather intrigued when I got a notification for this article, as I recently attended a recital where the artist kept his eyes closed for the majority of the performance. Whilst this may have helped with the recall of the music, it made it awkward as an audience member to look at him during the performance. Despite his talent and the amazing technique and tone he presented, this made the performance less interesting.
    I believe having a mix of eyes open and closed would be a better performance strategy to keep the audience engaged when performing.

  13. This is a really interesting read. I’m a drummer and often perform with my eyes closed. I tend to do this mostly when playing to backing tracks and someone makes a mistake like a premature section change etc. This means I have to ignore what they’ve done and try to bring them back in with the backing track. This is where the eyes squeeze shut to ignore the impulse to change section with them!

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