Getting the look right

The principles of grouping (or Gestalt laws of grouping) are a set of principles in psychology, first proposed by Gestalt psychologists to account for the observation that humans naturally perceive objects as organised patterns and objects, a principle known as ‘Prägnanz’.  Gestalt psychologists argued that these principles exist because the mind has an innate disposition to perceive patterns in the stimulus based on certain rules. These principles are organized into five categories: Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Closure and Connectedness.

The Gestalt law of proximity states that “objects or shapes that are close to one another appear to form groups”. Even if the shapes, sizes, and objects are radically different, they will appear as a group if they are close.   The principle of similarity states that, all else being equal, perception lends itself to seeing stimuli that physically resemble each other as part of the same object, and stimuli that are different as part of a different object. This allows for people to distinguish between adjacent and overlapping objects based on their visual texture and resemblance.

The principle of similarity states that, all else being equal, perception lends itself to seeing stimuli that physically resemble each other as part of the same object, and stimuli that are different as part of a different object. This allows for people to distinguish between adjacent and overlapping objects based on their visual texture and resemblance.  The principle of closure refers to the mind’s tendency to see complete figures or forms even if a picture is incomplete, partially hidden by other objects, or if part of the information needed to make a complete picture in our minds is missing.  When there is an intersection between two or more objects, people tend to perceive each object as a single uninterrupted object. This allows differentiation of stimuli even when they come in visual overlap.

All of which makes me visualise a choir on stage.

If you go to a concert, whether it’s being put on by your local community choir in the village hall or The Sixteen in St Paul’s Cathedral, the visual element is just as important as the musical performance. Otherwise you may as well just play their latest album from the comfort of your favourite wing back chair.

I am particularly pedantic (even more so than usual) about making sure my choirs stand properly and look as good as they sound.  Herein lies a curious paradox.  My Male Voice Choir all have the ‘standard’ MVC uniform of official blazer, tie and grey trousers.   So on the one level they are all unified.  However, it is sometimes a job to get them to all stand properly. So much so that we now have a ‘Stage Manager’ who’s job is to get the men to stand in the right place so that all the rows are even, and everything is balanced.  The trouble is because they are all wearing identical jacket and tie, if one person is just slightly out of place then it actually stands out more than it would if say half of them had their shirts untucked and the other half hadn’t bothered to do their Jackets up.  Oh no wait, that happens too!

With my female choirs, it’s a little trickier.  One of them does have a ‘uniform’ which comprises a bright blue cardigan, that is in fact nicknamed a choirdigan, accompanied by a knee length black dress.  Generally this turns out fairly unified, although there is often much debate about the most suitable colour of tights… My other female group has less of a ‘standardised’ look but nevertheless everyone is unified by wearing navy and is given a co-ordinating flower to bring the whole together.

And the point is this. It actually doesn’t matter whether your choir has a ‘uniform’ or a ‘look’.  The important thing is not whether you all look the same or whether you are smart or scruffy.  A choir performing in concert just needs to provide a visual stimulus which supports the music you are presenting.  In the same way that I wear a jacket and tie to play the organ on Sunday morning, but a polo shirt and jeans when recording on location in dusty churches, a choir ‘uniform’ should match the repertoire and style of the group.


I’d be interested to hear your views on whether choirs should be ‘unified’. If you go to concerts, what do you like to see on stage? Is uniform important or are you just there for the music?

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