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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
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 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
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 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
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 6:03
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    Could be also that he never saw what it was looking like when he does that ;)
    – Tom
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 9:32
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    Ray Charles and George Shearing too (from the unscientific list of videos presented by youtube) Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 12:05

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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, move 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
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 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
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 15:03
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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! Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 13:03
  • "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?" When trying to locate the source of a sound, sure I move my head around! I think it helps greatly in getting a sense of where stuff are. Seeing musicians often look around to keep track of each other on stage, so maybe. I'm not sure if it does anything for the music itself, but it might. At least I wouldn't be so quick in writing it off.
    – EdvinW
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 23:26
  • @EdvinW I and probably a large majority do the things you mentioned. I rarely sit completely still when either playing or listening to music. However in reference to this specific question, what Stevie does is a rhythmic swaying to the music as if he is dancing in his seat. I think you’ll agree there is a difference. Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 3:33
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This post is a couple years old now so don't know if anyone is really checking responses anymore, but wanted to contribute something closer to an answer.

If you notice, he does it even when not singing. I work at a school for the blind, and many of my students do this. When you are blind or visually impaired, that is a big type of sensory input that you are lacking. Often times my students sway or rock back and forth and it is a way for their brain to receive a sort of sensory input that lets them know where they are in space. They'll do it while sitting down and listening to a teacher talk, they'll do it while standing in place waiting for instructions or sighted guide, etc. The type of movement, how big, how frequent, etc. will vary from person to person or what they're doing (some students might have more intense movements if they're more excited, gentle if they're calm, etc) and of course not every single blind person will do this, but it seems to be somewhat common for blind and visually impaired folks.

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  • Welcome to Music: Practice & Theory! Don't worry that the question is old - if, as here, your answer offers something beyond the existing answers, then it's always going to be welcome.
    – AakashM
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 9:15
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I haven’t read/watched anything regarding Stevie Wonder’s swaying but I do believe it may have something to do with what Tim mentioned. I don’t think Stevie is keeping the band in time. I think swaying is a way to keep himself in time. When we sing or listen to music, we keep the beat by either hitting our thigh, snapping our fingers, tapping our toes or repeating a 4-count in our heads. With Stevie playing the piano and singing he is limited on ways he can keep the beat. I noticed he sways his head to the beat of the song. Sometimes his swaying is gentle like when singing “Overjoyed” or “Ribbon In The Sky” and other times more animated and aggressive like when singing “Isn’t She Lovely” or “I Wish”. And that’s due to him keeping tempo. Also bring blind, Stevie’s hearing is extremely acute. Things that most of us would miss he doesn’t.

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  • to keep himself in time +1. I sway left to right, and I rock the drum throne backwards and forwards on its legs. I don't 'count'. In my mind's eye, sometimes there's four white karaoke balls; when they move they tell me which limb to use. Other times there's a single white dot flying around in a laid down figure eight (basically, the path his head is tracking). - He (dances like no one's looking) looks funny because he's never had visual feedback to know that he looks silly doing it. See, Anna Eberhart, who also DGAF what they look like when they're making music.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 15 at 15:57
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I have seen other blind people swaying their head when playing the piano. On YouTube there is a blind girl named Lucy who does this while playing a piece by Chopin. I have no idea why they do it but Stevie Wonder is not the only one. I have never seen any sighted person do this exaggerated head swaying while playing the piano.

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    Thanks for contributing, but this doesn't seem like an answer to the question, just a commentary. Please use the "comments" section for this. (For what it's worth, I think the answer is "Why would a performer need to locate other instruments spatially on the stage? And many performers move expressively; I suspect it's coincidence.") Commented Jun 17 at 14:09

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