I have often thought about this but I could never reach a concrete answer which satisfied my ever inquisitive brain cells. I understand that it is a tricky question and may vary from situation to situation (is that so?) but however I am certain that there must be a set of optimal guidelines that the judges must follow without any bias.

A few points I want to contribute to this (feel free to object any of these too) :

  1. In order to judge a competition fairly I think all performances must belong to a particular genre. Every genre has their very specific nuances which may differ greatly from other genres. Thus comparing two musical pieces from two different genres might be the same as comparing apples with oranges.

  2. Everyone's opinion and interpretation of a musical piece is different and depends on their personal experience with music. Music is indeed quite subjective rather than objective. However, I don't think that must make the rankings deviate by a lot.

  3. So initially I assume there must be a defined judging criteria to be followed strictly. Each performance must be given scores across each of the attributes and summed to make a total score (and averaged across all the judges). Maybe something like:

  • Musical Interpretation - (30%)
  • Intonation - (30%)
  • Rhythm - (30%)
  • Creativity - (10%)

But now, with these initial thoughts I have a lot of questions. How do we rank two performances where one plays a pretty straight forward piece really smoothly with full accuracy, whereas the other attempts a great difficult piece but with say 97% accuracy. So, in this scenario, if the judging criteria is followed strictly, won't a person playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star win against someone playing say, Bohemian Rhapsody?

Let's say two people have played the same piece, but have adopted the piece to make it their own by modifying it. One is quite simple and straightforward technically, but the other one is pretty complex. How would one optimally rank them? Who says a complex piece is 'better' than easy anyways?

If you made it to the end of the post, I guess you have one or two similar queries of your own which crept into your head at some point. Drop in those too for others to review. And I request someone experienced to please throw some light on these points and how in your opinion a music competition must be judged fairly? What in your opinion are the more suitable judging criteria?

Thanks in advance!

  • Welcome! Please take a minute to read about the topics covered here, and how to avoid opinion-based answers. As written, this question might attract votes to close it because of phrases like "What in your opinion are," but I think there is a good answer (and I intend to give it!). This problem has been faced plenty of times before, every time there is an audition or competition, and people have tried to find fair ways. Oct 3, 2022 at 12:53
  • 1
    (Though the short answer is that you've already covered all the bases. Yes, it's silly to compare disparate genres, and serious competitions wouldn't do that (only TV talent shows). Yes, you want multiple judges and to average their scores. Yes, you do best if they grade on a "rubric" considering multiple aspects, rather than just pick an overall score out of their subjective impression. Yes, serious competitions must compare pieces of similar difficulty (often, they require contestants to play the same piece). And yes, at the final levels it will often come down to subjective taste.) Oct 3, 2022 at 12:57
  • 1
    By visiting some exam sites - ABRSM, Trinity, Rock School, RGT (LCM) come straight to mind, they already have answers to this question. They lay out what weighting certain attributes have in the marking process, covering all you have and more. You're also asking for opinions, which invalidates this question from this site, so unless re-phrased radically, will most likely get itself closed.
    – Tim
    Oct 3, 2022 at 13:51
  • Do you have particular scenarios in mind? This could (should?) be narrowed down to exams, auditions for orchestra places, auditions for a place in a pop group, for a vocalist, or instrumentalist, for example. And would age or particular instrument be part of what you ask about (as referred to in Andy's answer).
    – Tim
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:16
  • 1
    @Tim - The impression I got from the question is that it was narrowed down to Honens International Piano Competition-like competitions...or Kiwanis Festival, I guess.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:38

1 Answer 1


These kinds of situations happen often—people's performances get assessed and compared—and have happened for centuries. And yes, when the stakes are high, people have tried to find ways to make them as just as possible and eliminate opinion and bias as much as possible. (But, spoiler: "as much as possible" still leaves a lot to chance or preference.)

One question has to be what the goal of the assessments is. I've been a part of violin auditions at a university music department, where one could audition for the college orchestra, for private violin lessons, or for both. We would see a broad range of abilities, from near-beginner through to the Tchaikovsky concerto. Part of the goal of the auditions was to sort and distribute the students—who got into the orchestra, who didn't, who went to the first violin section vs. second, and which teachers got which students, trying to distribute them in ways that were fair to the teachers, but also didn't give lessons to the beginner while denying the more advanced student. I've had students perform as part of their grade in a course, and had to figure out how to grade all students fairly. I've also judged auditions for a large kids' music school that had three orchestras and chamber groups; there, the question was not "did you get in" but "into which ensemble." Other auditions might be for a job—say, a concertmaster in a professional orchestra, or a part in a musical or opera. And then of course there are competitions that exist for their own sake, like the Tchaikovsky Competition—simply to see who will win.

These all have different goals. The music-school auditions are like Harry Potter's "Sorting Hat." They can have many right answers and assess many different levels. An audition for an on-stage part is more complicated; it's actually casting, and besides simple talent it must take into account whether the person fits the part well. Auditions for orchestra section chairs might also take into account a person's communication, leadership, and organizational abilities. Auditions to join a rock band might emphasize "soft skills"—sure, the applicant has chops, but do they "mesh" with the existing members, in personality as well as musical idiom?

For some of these assessments, "fair" matters less than others. For a leading role in a show, you can totally deny a person a role because they're too old, or too tall, or just lack that "star quality." For joining a small combo, the people-skills might actually matter more than the chops. But for events like an audition for a concertmaster or a musical competition, the thing that (supposedly) matters most is performance and the stakes are high, so people take a lot of steps to try to ensure justice (or appease accusations of injustice).

You've touched on a lot of the best ideas already. Yes, these events usually use a panel of judges rather than just one, and average their scores. For an orchestra, this often includes people who have an interest in the outcome, like the conductor, any owners or board members, and other section chairs. Ideally, organizers might intentionally seek out diversity in this panel; for instance, including an old-school traditionalist teacher and someone with more modernist tastes. I'd like to hope they sometimes seek out racial or gender diversity on the panel, though the cynic in me doubts you can find much in an orchestra board to begin with.

Measures are taken to avoid biases about the performers. At early levels of a competition, a section of wall or opaque screen is placed between the performer and judges, so they can't see gender, race, or any physical characteristics. A carpeted runner goes from the door to the wall to muffle footsteps that might give away, say, high heels or body weight or a wheelchair. The effectiveness of these measures is somewhat limited because, once the applicants have been narrowed down to a short list, the wall is removed; in fact, finalists might even be "tried out" for one concert each to see about that "good fit." So any potential biases are suppressed only long enough to keep a candidate from getting close.

And, on the other hand, some argue that this anonymity impedes diversity. In 2020 an editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini argued that the screen should be removed. The "blind audition" perhaps smacks of dated rhetoric about "color-blindness"—that we can get a just society by ignoring race (or gender). But Tommasini and others would suggest that if we value diversity we must seek it out actively, with open eyes. (There was a predictable backwash of controversy following the editorial, ranging from "nuh-uh" to "it's complicated"—suffice it to say, if the screen impedes diversity, it's not the only part of the system that does.)

And yes, it can be challenging, as a judge, to compare performances, especially as they stretch over multiple days. To keep us from saying "Gee, I dunno, I guess maybe a 7?", the kids' music school had us consider a rubric, giving scores to intonation, rhythmic accuracy, steadiness of tempo, and expression. (I used the same rubric when grading private students, but assessed them at the beginning and end of the term and graded on improvement.) These categories made sense at student levels, where they are definitely not guaranteed; at professional levels, you'd hope everyone had the right rhythm and a steady tempo—and hopefully, good intonation. Other attributes might take their place, like "clear articulation in fast passages" or "warm tone in lyrical passages." And of course judges judge in different ways. Not only might they disagree about what they like, but they might have different scales; one might say "That was great; 10 out of 10!" while another says "Well, it's not the greatest thing the human race has ever produced, so I'd better reserve '10' for if that ever comes along." But as long as each judge is consistent, then averaging across them should help equalize this. (One concerning study found that judges on a parole board judged more leniently at the start of the day, but more harshly as they got tired and hungry. Hopefully this effect might be offset by holding multiple rounds of auditions!)

But ultimately, especially in a pure competition, much is left to chance and to subjective taste. For one thing, just like the Olympics, a performer might have an "off day," or even be off their stride throughout the rounds of auditions, while they might play better another time. For piano competitions, all performers play the same piano, but for violin, flute, etc., the instruments vary wildly—not in their quality, necessarily (since that's a subjective matter too), but in their nature—"bright" or "dark" tones, different powers of projection or clarity. And ultimately, the highest echelons of competitors will have very similar abilities, and the prize may come down to the judges' preferences, even as a panel. How fast "should" the piece be? How reserved should Brahms be? How outré should Mozart be? What matters more, clarity or nuance?

And ultimately, the outcome has to be just that. Not "this is the best player in the world," but "this is the player who best satisfied the body that created this competition... with the performance they accomplished on this day."

  • 1
    What an excellent answer. +1. Seems you've covered all OP asks about, and more! When I ran an exam centre for RGT, examiners would arrive with a recording device (minidisc then!) so they could share their results with other examiners throughout the country at all levels (for graded exams). Thought it was a great way to 'level the playing field'.
    – Tim
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:20
  • Little audition story: turned up for an audition on bass, at the allotted time. Band was already playing. Plugged in, joined in for several numbers, not a word spoken. After about 25 mins playing, packed stuff away, went home. A bass player pal had the same sort of experience before me on the same day. Never heard from anyone...
    – Tim
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:01
  • @Tim I could imagine multiple punch lines—"And they said I didn't communicate well enough" or "And what was up with the blue face paint?" Oct 3, 2022 at 16:43
  • There was not even eye contact, as the two guitarists appeared to be too occupied gazing at each other. Not sure what to make, to be honest. But glad I wasn't asked to join...
    – Tim
    Oct 3, 2022 at 16:47

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.