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Stevie Wonder famously sways his head left and right when he's performing on stage. I've always thought that it was a listening technique linked to his blindness; I assume you can locate sounds easier that way, but maybe he's listening for different aspects of the sound mix. I don't know whether he's ever discussed this.

So, is there anything that non-blind people can learn from this technique? Should we all be swaying on stage while performing? Should we be swaying in our studios while mixing? What aspect of our musical hearing would be improved?

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  • I think you'd really have to write to Stevie Wonder to ask him, but music has been around for thousands of years — it seems reasonable to imagine that if swaying offered a profound benefit, it would have been discovered long before Stevie.
    – Aaron
    Apr 15 at 3:47
  • I think it could be many things, it could be enjoyment, connecting or cue to audience, maybe a small amount of doppler, it could be varying the amount and content heard by each ear. To test it scientifically maybe you could rig two ears with microphones ;) Not sure if echolocation is necessary when playing piano, but maybe that helps manuevering.
    – Emil
    Apr 15 at 5:51
  • It's doubtful, given the sounds that are on stage - monitors, backline,etc. You'd have to move your head several feet to hear any significant differences. Wearing iems, that would defeat everything! He's just enjoying things. Have you actually given it a go?
    – Tim
    Apr 15 at 6:03
  • I suggested microphones for data collection (to calculate if there are any benefits on some computer). Maybe he wants to hear the piano better with one ear and the band with the other? But enough guesswork for today for me.
    – Emil
    Apr 15 at 6:07
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    Ray Charles and George Shearing too (from the unscientific list of videos presented by youtube) Apr 15 at 12:05
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I’m going to basically give a blanket “no” to this question. Without knowing Stevie or having heard him discuss this here are my reasons: Stevie doesn’t always sway, he does it mostly when he is not singing and he does it to the groove. There isn’t any aural advantage to swaying since sound is air moving and by swaying we are interfering with the way it hits our ears. Here’s a question for you, when you are trying to listen to something in great detail do you move around or do you stay still? I’m guessing the latter.

As to one of your questions: “Should we all be swaying on stage while performing?” I’d say not necessarily but if you feel like it go right ahead!

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  • It certainly adds to the visual performance on stage! Apr 15 at 13:03
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Agreeing with John. He uses a fixed mic to sing into, so can only sway when not singing. He also mostly uses iems (in ear monitors), so wherever his head is, he'll be hearing the mix he asked for, and not catching anything else around - probably not the audience at all.

He's most likely doing what the music is making him do - a lot of us move to music (it's often called dancing...) but those who can't move their legs - sitting on a piano stool precludes that to an extent - so swaying left and right is a good outlet. I considered he may be keeping the band in time, but with the quality of rhythm section he has, I somehow don't think that's necessary.

Blind or sighted, movee to the music. It often makes one do that anyway, and certainly helps keep in rhythm. And it looks to the audience like you're more immersed and enjoying the proceedings more compared to those who are statuesque.

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    Stevie's movements long predate iems.
    – Aaron
    Apr 15 at 14:48
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    @Aaron - what I'm hinting at is that when he does wear them, the movements won't have anything to ddo with listening. Thus it's the music making him move. Unless he just can't get out of a habit...
    – Tim
    Apr 15 at 15:03

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