Can you tell the sex of a conductor by listening?

Can you tell the sex of a conductor by listening?


norman lebrecht

May 01, 2015

Would you believe this is the subject of academic research? How do these people justify their jobs?




Perceptions of gender in orchestral conducting

0% complete

Page 1: Introduction

This survey seeks to discover whether the gender of a conductor can be determined by listening alone. And, by extension, whether our visual perception plays a part in how we understand gender in orchestral conducting. It is not a quick survey. However, it presents the issue in an innovative way and should be of interest to anyone involved in orchestral performance as participant, observer or both.

If you are interested in taking part, you should allow up to 45 minutes in order to complete the survey. As well as open-ended questions, the survey asks you to listen-to and watch two recordings of orchestral performances. Ideally, the survey should be completed in one sitting. However, it is possible to take a break from the survey at any point.

The survey falls into four sections:

  1. Some open-ended questions about your experience of observing women and men conductors. (approx. 5 minutes to complete)
  2. Identifying the gender of conductors in a short audio-only recording of seven excerpts, each conducted by both a woman and a man. (20 minutes)
  3. Watching and listening to the same recording with vision added, and noting your reaction to this experience. (15 minutes)
  4. A few demographic questions and space for further comments. (5 minutes)

Many thanks for your participation.

Nicholas Logie MA, PhD (Open)

Honorary Associate at the Open University (music department)


More here




  • Nicholas Logie says:

    Dear Norman,

    Thank you for posting this link on your website. As I only launched the survey yesterday, I am impressed by the speed at which it has reached you.

    Just one small correction. I am not a salaried academic, I do not receive any remuneration for academic work, and I am not in receipt of a research grant. This research project is being carried out in my spare time and is, I hope, an engaging approach to an important contemporary issue.

  • william osborne says:

    I assume the key part of the study is the effect of gender on how conductors are perceived, a valid and important topic.

  • Janis says:

    Given the way that Hollywood can “cover” actors with digital characters as in “Avatar,” I admit that I’ve been curious as to what might happen if conductors are “covered” by digital avatars of the opposite gender. I would LOVE to see one of those old dust-covered, hidebound orchestras get their comeuppance by being subjected to an experiment where they thought they were being conducted by a man/woman and were really being conducted by a woman/man. Let’s see how that stuff REALLY plays out.

  • voice of music says:

    But, I’m sorry, to discuss Gender and Conducting may be one thing, but to ask the question of whether you can hear their gender in the music is absurd and is itself insulting. It’s like asking if you can “hear” the color of the conductor’s skin. The question is offensive.

    • Marg says:

      I agree with you. This is quite offensive in its presumed premise. There is no rationale provided for undertaking the research study – what is the basis for believing such research is needed? One can only guess here, ranging from something that is perhaps legit (though I cant think what) through to a topic no-one else is likely to have tackled and thereby getting attention for doing something different. While I can understand the importance of examining the relevance of visual cues in relation to audience responses to conducting based on gendered thinking, it is disturbing that an academic committee would approve a study seeking to identify differences based on aural cues. The result is already known – no significant difference.

      • william osborne says:

        We may know that gender doesn’t make a difference in conducting or other forms of music-making, but it hasn’t been subjected to much formal proof, so people continue to hold on to the belief that it does. This study could thus help allay chauvinistic beliefs. The blind test could serve as a useful control measure for comparison with other parts of the study. The problem is that web surveys aren’t entirely scientific since people can fill out the forms several times under different identities, but even a generalized sampling that gives us an impression of how people are thinking might be useful.

        In spite of all the hopes proposed by cultural feminism in the 70s, it is turning out that women truly aren’t any different than men…. Or are they? Is it a hope worth holding, or is it merely another doorway to sexism? (And of course, I know this is a very poor forum for thoughtful discussion of such matters.)

        • Peter says:

          Modern neurological science now knows for sure, that there are mental differences between men and women, in statistic significant manifestations. Physiological differences are already obvious. The idea that men and women are not different, is an outdated and yet ideologically overcharged subject for quite some time now.
          Stating the obvious, namely that there are differences, does not make a statement about one side being better than the other. That’s the stupid yet common fallacy, that too many are falling for in discussing this subject.

          • william osborne says:

            No one has proven these differences create perceptible differences in the performance of classical music.

          • Peter says:

            That’s correct. Nobody has proven that Furtwängler was a better conductor than Tonscanini either. 😉

          • william osborne says:

            But you can hear and prove perceptible differences exist in their conducting.

          • Peter says:

            Actually not. You can’t prove that (anymore). Because you can’t exclude other factors. You can prove differences exist, but not unambiguously connect them to the conducting only, except maybe the beginning tempo.
            The only valid research would be one with the same orchestra at about the same time, only different conductors. Then you could make some kind of assessment. Otherwise it is like comparing apples and bicycles.
            You can’t study the influences of the conductor, if you change the orchestra players, because different players perceive and react differently.

          • william osborne says:

            Not true. One could, for example, compare the tempi in the recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies by Walter and Toscanini with numerous orchestras and demonstrate differences that are quite consistent.

          • Peter says:

            I already agreed about the opening tempi. But that’s it. You can’t conclude much else from a recording, if you want to compare the conductor’s influence unambiguously. The only reasonable test would be with an identical orchestra, only thing changing the conductor.

          • william osborne says:

            Only opening tempi? I would have like to have seen some hapless musicians back in those non-union days try to resist Toscanini’s tempos which varied throughout works. OTH, today’s jet set conductors do little more than glorified readings with orchestras. The differences between their performances are less pronounced.

  • Harry Kirschner says:

    Mining data for preference and perception is a very big deal. The algorithms that implement them will soon become as standard in the fine arts as they have become in the rest of daily life.

    Our host scoffs at his peril.

  • Martin Locher says:

    Although I find it irrelevant if a man or a woman conducts, I guessed the majority (5 out of 7) right.
    Will be interesting to see the results.
    Norman, you don’t have to give every viola player a hard time, they suffer enough.

    • M2N2K says:

      Since you are reporting a relative success of your guessing (unless it was completely random in which case the numbers are irrelevant), you must have used some kind of criteria, which means that you did expect to hear certain differences in musical results achieved by male vs female conductors. It would be interesting to know what considerations guided your guesses when you were correct and what exactly went against your expectations in those two instances when you were wrong.

  • Stagedude says:

    What issue is this trying to resolve?

  • JohnR says:

    I have always found a very few male conductors In the highest rank to have a decided ability over the acknowledged best female conductors. I would love to be proven wrong someday.

    • M2N2K says:

      Why would you “love to be proven wrong”? What exactly does not satisfy you in the situation as you have described it? Would you be happier if male conductors become much better than their female colleagues? Why would that be better than, for example, the reverse? For me personally, the best scenario would be for all conductors to be great musicians.