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Do Orchestras Really Need Conductors?

Have you ever watched a symphony orchestra being led by a conductor and thought, "Hey, anyone could do that -he's just waving his arms to the beat of the music!"? I recall thinking that when I was very young. But now a study conducted by Yiannis Aloimonos of the University of Maryland and other researchers has put the question to a scientific test, involving musicians in Italy.

They installed a tiny infrared light at the tip of an (unnamed) conductor's baton. They also placed similar lights on the bows of the violinists in the orchestra. The scientists then surrounded the orchestra with infrared cameras.

When the conductor waved the baton, and the violinists moved their bows, the moving lights created patterns in space, which the cameras captured. Computers analyzed the infrared patterns as signals: Using mathematical techniques originally designed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Clive Granger, Aloimonos and his colleagues analyzed whether the movements of the conductor were linked to those of the violinists.

Not only did they analyze whether the conductor influenced the violinist's movements, but they also compared a veteran conductor with an amateur. You'll have to go to NPR to read what they found, but first, let's hear your opinion. What do you think the results of the study were? And when you make your prediction, please let us know if you are a musician. Link -via the Presurfer

(Image credit: Flickr user University of Denver)


Well, I'm a "musician" in the loosest sense. I played in school orchestras my whole school life, but once I graduated, I haven't. I have played in garage bands and whatnot. So to answer the question: Yes, orchestras really do need conductors, in the same way that any organization needs a leader, whether it's a musical leader, or military leader, or a business leader. The conductors do a lot, more than is possible to discuss here. But I suspect if you were to throw 50 talented and professional musicians together, using just well-known sheet music, and some form of automatic tempo (metronome, altho much music changes tempo in a way that a metronome can't really control), you would have a cacophony.
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I play the violin and have played in a number of orchestras over the years, as well as in string quartets. In my opinion, an orchestra definitely needs a conductor. Precise starts and cutoffs, and, as azog mentioned, tempo changes, cannot be synchronized between 50 people who can't see each other for cues.

With a smaller ensemble, like a string quartet, you can see and communicate with each other. And even then, there is usually a designated leader to cue starts and cutoffs, essentially acting as a conductor.

Having written this, and now gone to read the results of the study, I am not at all surprised.
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I am a middle school orchestra director. My purpose is not exactly the same as that of Solti, but there is much in common. We analyze the composition and strive to achieve the most accurate performance possible, based on knowledge of the composer's intent. We coordinate dozens of musicians to play in a similar style. The actual conducting during a concert boils down to physics: the speed of light versus the speed of sound. The entire orchestra sees my ictus (the point where my baton bounces in a different direction, indicating the beat) at the same time, give or take a microsecond. However, the back of the violin section cannot hear the back of the cello section on the far side of the room at the same time. There would be a noticeable discrepancy.
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I should have known that non-musicians would be a bit afraid of saying anything, and now they'd be intimidated by all the talent among our commenters. I am impressed! I love hearing what Neatoramanauts do when they aren't online.
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I too am a musician and sing with a well known symphony chorus too. Orchestras really do need conductors - but not just for keeping tempo (which this study seemed to have been primarily looking at). The manner of how the conductor moves communicates what tone colours and dynamics the music should have too - as well as highlighting key moments of interchange between different sections.

I'd also worry about the one-to-one kind of relationship that the study looks at in connecting violin bow movements to the baton movements. Orchestras/Choirs are made up of groups of human beings and the different players interact together in different ways. A good conductor will adjust his movements to take advantage of those interactions - or may actually physically move different sections around in order to control them.

There's a lot more to it than simply players following the conductor's beat for tempo.
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Way back when I played in the high school band, we did concerts at some of the local elementary schools. One of the activities was to bring one of the younger kids up on stage to "conduct" us through a short number. In our prep, we learned to start and stop on the kid's cue, but otherwise listen to the percussionist for timing. The percussionist just kept a steady beat no matter what was happening up front and we played that piece exactly the same way at exactly the same speed every time. You always need someone to keep time and set pace in any group performance. I think anyone can set the pace, but a conductor is more free to express the "feeling" of the music.
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I'm a musician (as you may have guessed from my username.) I've played in many bands and orchestras and I can tell you, there's some very complex music out there which does require a conductor. Witness, for example, the first few minutes of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", a piece I have played in an orchestra. Each instrument plays a completely different rhythm, and it would be impossible to put together without a conductor.
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I'm not a musician in any way other than listening. I've often wondered why professional musicians, who practice the songs over and over in rehearsals, THEN have the sheet music right in front of them in case they can't remember what they did in rehearsal, THEN have to have a conductor in front of them. And none of them are even looking at the conductor, they're all looking at their sheet music.
And how come only classical music 'needs' a conductor? Jazz, rock, country, pop, folk, ska... big bands, small bands... none of them has a conductor. Normally a drummer just gets the beat started with a "one-and-a-two-and-a" so that the band starts together and then they continue from there.
Conductors aren't needed.
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At our local symphony (Lancaster PA), the conductor is really like the executive of the orchestra...he works to bring in star soloists and new composers and he puts together the music that will be performed during the year...so in addition to leading the performance, he is the guy that organizes everything and makes it into a cohesive unit. You marvel at the musicians' virtuosity but it's the conductor that is the prime mover.
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