Home Feature Articles Capturing the Decisive Musical Moment: The eyes have it

Capturing the Decisive Musical Moment: The eyes have it


Live concert performances, especially in intimate settings, deliver powerful musical and visual experiences. They surge and subside, encompassing quiet, loud, slow, fast, familiar or unfamiliar passages. But which point in the performance represents the decisive musical moment, when the artist is truly immersed in their art? When does pressing the shutter-release capture the very essence of the performance? In my opinion, the eyes have it.

Musical virtuosi

Performing long, technically demanding classical works from memory, such as piano or cello concertos, ranks high on the list of supreme human accomplishments. Improvising inspiring jazz solos on piano, guitar or saxophone, keeping the form and remaining within the tune’s harmonic framework, means performing at the limits of human skill and creativity.

These musical feats impose varying degrees of cognitive demand on the performer. They are translating musical information stored in their heads into intricate muscle movements in their fingers or vocal cords. Often, this takes place at breathtaking speed, while listening intently to the sounds they, and sometimes other musicians, are making. Those playing instruments relying on resonance, such as violin or cello, are also processing feedback from physical sensations experienced while holding it.

Capturing the decisive musical moment

How can a photographer hope to capture a snapshot, a brief moment, representing these bursts of human inspiration?

My approach has been to emphasize the musician’s eyes. In particular, their eyes when closed.

Based upon conversations with musical acquaintances, as well as my research, there appear to be several reasons why musicians close their eyes when performing.

Firstly, it’s a strategy for managing that cognitive demand: they are minimising the number of stimulatory inputs received by their brains. Processing images seen through the eyes, particularly faces observed in a crowd, demands considerable mental ‘compute power’. Closing their eyes, perhaps subconsciously, spares musicians from this unnecessary demand. As a result, they can devote more available ‘brainpower’ to their performance.

The emotional journey

A second, in my view more important, reason to account for this ‘eyes closed’ behaviour, is the emotional impact of the music itself. Just as the audience is moved by a beautifully crafted progression to a climactic ‘high C’, musicians are moved by the power of the music they create. A natural human response to experiencing the sublime, particularly in music, seems to be the closing of one’s eyes.

An accomplished musician and teacher shared a final thought. When learning a new piece through extended practise, people learn both the music and the emotion triggered by the music. If they closed their eyes during a particularly moving passage while practising, they will do so while performing.

What effect do these facial expressions, especially the closing of eyes, have on the listening audience? Most people say direct eye-to-eye contact with a musician is not a requirement for enjoying a performance. But as a species, we are highly attuned to the messages conveyed by facial expressions. We therefore naturally enter more deeply into the performance as we see how the music is affecting the performer.

The decisive musical moment seen through closed eyes

So, if a photographer can capture one of these transcendent moments, where, signalled by the musician’s closed eyes, everyone is experiencing the deep emotional impact of the music, they have a fighting chance of distilling the occasion into a single image.

Throughout this article, I have shared my attempts to create such images. The musicians all have their eyes closed. In each case, I believe both musician and audience were on an emotional journey. The emotion experienced might be melancholy, for example, in the adagio movement of a cello concerto. Or, it might be elation, as the band finds its groove and the musical temperature reaches boiling point.

All photographs were taken with Leica cameras and lenses, usually with manual focusing at high ISO and fast shutter speeds. But, technical details aside, in each case I pressed the shutter-release as the musician closed their eyes, entered their inner world, and led the audience on that emotional journey.

I count myself fortunate to have been in the audience, watching, listening to, and photographing these outstanding musicians. Prints of these images are on display at the Coronado Public Library, the venue at which they were taken.

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  1. Dear Keith, a wonderful and surprising article. We are all trained to ensure that the persons we are photographing have their eyes open. You are capturing special and intimate moments that bring the musicians closer to us – despite the fact we can’t look in their eyes. Very well done, and compliments on your mastering the rangefinder camera. This is far beyond beginners’ work. JP

    • Thanks Joerg-Peter! Yes, a regular portrait or group shot would indeed be a ‘fail’ if the subject has their eyes closed, but for musicians, it seems appropriate. They tend to move a lot while they perform, and so achieving an accurate focus can be a challenge. I am steadily working on fast accurate focusing with my rangefinder. Unfortunately, the poor indoor lighting makes a small aperture and zone focusing a non-starter! Cheers, Keith

      • .

        “..a small aperture and zone focusing..” wouldn’t give you what you want: a small aperture would put even more of each photo into sharp focus ..so we’d never know that your intention was to “..emphasize the musician’s eyes. In particular, their eyes when closed”.

        For that, you need a -w-i-d-e- aperture – so that only the distance which you’re concentrating on (..their eyes..) is in sharp focus – and you’d generally need more of a telephoto than, say, a 75mm f2.4 lens. More like a 90mm f2, or an old Leica-fit Nikkor 105mm f2.5.

        Just as the musicians are using the right instrument for what they want to deliver – whether sax, cello, guitar, human voice – you, too, need the right instrument for what YOU want to deliver ..photos which DO concentrate on their (closed) eyes.

        As the man says in ‘Jaws’ “..you’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

  2. Thanks Keith, it’s a behavior everyone has seen at a live music event, but I would never have thought to focus on that moment to take the shot. You learn something new everyday.

    • Thanks Le Chef. Somehow, seeing someone engaged in a creative act with their eyes closed has such an impact on the observer. I think musicians do it a lot because they have the music already memorized and are so often moved by the music they are creating. All the best, Keith

  3. Dear Keith,
    I have never realized the fact about the closed eyes. I have noticed it though but never gave it a thought. So, thank you for pointing out that taking away the visual sense puts one in a state of higher focus for a performance.
    The images are wonderful.

    • Thanks Dirk! We humans are complicated creatures, and so much of our behavior is subconscious. It has become clear to me that musicians close their eyes subconsciously, prompted by multiple factors, but I think that emotional dimension is the predominant one. I will be trying my best to catch a musician smiling at me with their eyes wide open, but I won’t hold my breath… Cheers, Keith


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