In any music competition our attention is focused on the announcement of the winners and just before that on the final round which leads into the jury’s deliberations. Of course the results are of extreme interest to the competitors who made it into the final round – their placing can give them wished-for and needed exposure.
But to a member of the audience who wants to hear talented and well-prepared young musicians there is a better way: go to the first round, hear all of the competitors, and then go home. Some competitions encourage deviations from this pattern: the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition (http://gina.bachauer.com/) and the Cleveland International Piano Competition (http://www.clevelandpiano.org/), for example, give all competitors a chance to play in both the first and second rounds, a structure much favored by the competitors themselves. But it is more common to start with about 25 to 30 competitors in the first round with a single cut to each subsequent round until there are six remaining in the final round (for example, the Cliburn Competition, the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and the Queen Elisabeth Competition are all this way).
From a musical point of view the advantage of hearing all of the competitors should be clear: you can’t expect to agree with the judges’ selections anyway (they certainly don’t agree with each other) so you’re better off hearing everyone. In this way you just might hear someone whom you consider to be interestingly eccentric or poetic but who would never fit the consensus mold of a competition performer.
There are downsides: it takes more time to hear 30 competitors, in piano competitions you’ll hear a lot of Liszt and very little Mozart (Liszt being the safer choice since it’s almost impossible to play his music in bad taste), sometimes you’ll know after 30 seconds that someone is unmusical, misguided, or immature. But advantages are overwhelming: in addition to those mentioned above the first rounds are typically much less expensive than the subsequent rounds, they are lightly attended and so offer fewer distractions, and there is always an opportunity to meet the competitors and complement someone you think has played exceptionally well.