Our choir often practises in sections e.g. the sopranos sing their bit while the rest of us wait their turn. I discovered by accident that as I look at any particular singer, I can very clearly hear their individual voice, even if they are quite quiet and there's a dozen singers. I cannot do it if I don't look at them.

Does this phenomenon have a name? Is it common and why does it work this way? How can I expand on this useful skill?

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    Not certain so just a comment, but one factor could be that you can correlate their particular timing variations by seeing their mouths and matching that to their vocal contribution. There’s probably all kinds of interesting cognitive research that could be (or has been?) done on this question. Nov 5 '21 at 17:23
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    I'm having trouble answering because I'm skeptical. When you look at a person, do you turn your head to face directly toward them? Does it work if you merely give them side-eye? If the latter, then this is about some kind of cognitive association; if the former, it's about acoustics. I'm skeptical, too, that this skill would work in rooms of other sizes and reverberance (in an echoey cathedral?). If it does, I'd have to wonder whether it's just confirmation bias (how do you know you're hearing that one person's voiceprint, not just imagining it?) Nov 5 '21 at 17:23
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    Other scientific-method ways to zero in: Does this work when watching another choir in concert, or only with the singers whose voices you've grown used to over frequent rehearsals? Nov 5 '21 at 17:24
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    I am not sure I understand the skepticism. Our choir-master can tell "Sarah is flat on this note" when we are all singing together in harmony so why is this hard to believe?
    – Mr. Boy
    Nov 5 '21 at 17:30
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    (Well, actually, maybe I do harbor a bit of doubt; if we wanted to be super-scientific about it, we definitely would have to rule out the possibility that we think we hear a particular person. And frequently as a conductor I'd make lucky/educated guesses to preserve the "ears in the back of his head" aura. Nov 5 '21 at 17:57

That's known as the cocktail party effect (being able to focus on particular speakers in a noisy environment), in this case aided by crossmodal sensory integration and attention. It's one of those things where it is hard to get anywhere close to human performance with computing because it is a core tenet of visual and auditory processing that tends to be continually exercised.


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