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Do Orchestras Really Need Conductors?

Nov 27, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 10:12 am

Have you ever wondered whether music conductors actually influence their orchestras?

They seem important. After all, they're standing in the middle of the stage and waving their hands. But the musicians all have scores before them that tell them what to play. If you took the conductor away, could the orchestra manage on its own?

A new study aims to answer this question. Yiannis Aloimonos, of the University of Maryland, and several colleagues recruited the help of orchestral players from Ferrara, 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.

The scientists hypothesized that if the movement of the conductor could predict the movements of the violinists, then the conductor was clearly leading the players. But if the conductor's movements could not predict the movement of the violinists, then it was really the players who were in charge.

"You have a signal that is originating from the conductor, because he is moving his hands and his body," Aloimonos explained. "And then the players, they perceive that signal, and they create another signal by moving the bows of the violin appropriately. So you have some sort of sensorimotor conversation."

(The research study is part of a larger project where Aloimonos is trying to figure out if human movements share something in common with human language; he suspects both are not only governed by a grammar, but that both may be based on similar processes in the brain.)

Aloimonos said the study found that conductors were leading the violinists — the movement of the conductors predicted the movement of the violinists, not the other way around.

But the study found more: The scientists had two conductors lead the same orchestra. One was a veteran who exercised an iron grip over the violinists. The other was an amateur.

"What we found is the more the influence of the conductor to the players, the more aesthetic — aesthetically pleasing the music was overall," Aloimonos said.

Music experts who listened to the performance of the orchestra under the control of the two conductors found the version produced by the authoritarian conductor superior. Remember, these experts didn't know which version was being led by the veteran conductor and which by the amateur. All they heard was the music.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to focus now on a debate that has been raging in music circles for years about how much influence a conductor really has.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA WARM-UP)

SIEGEL: He stands at the front of the orchestra, where the musicians follow his every cue. Or do they? Well, NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on a new study that attempts to settle the question once and for all.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: If you know as little about classical music as I do, you may have the same question I've had for a while. How much difference does a conductor really make to an orchestra? The musicians all have scores that tell them what to play. Do they really need someone standing before them and waving a stick?

I've been too afraid to put that question to a real conductor. But I recently got a chance to put it to a scientist.

YIANNIS ALOIMONOS: My name is Yiannis Aloimonos. I am a professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the Computer Vision Laboratory.

VEDANTAM: Aloimonos studies the language of musical gesture. So I asked him: I've always wondered how important really is a conductor. I mean, they seem very important. They're standing in the middle of the stage and they're waving their hands. But there's a part of me that says we could probably take the conductor away and the orchestra would probably be able to play just as well.

ALOIMONOS: I used to think the same thing when I was a kid, as I actually wanted to be a conductor for some time, because I thought I don't have to do anything.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: At some point, Aloimonos decided that not doing anything wasn't what he wanted to do. That's when he became a computer scientist. He's recently finished a study that answers my question, not with opinion but with data.

Along with his colleagues, Aloimonos installed a tiny infrared light at the tip of a conductor's baton. The scientists placed similar lights on the bows of the violinists in an orchestra in Europe. When the conductor waved the baton and the violinists moved their bows, the moving lights created patterns in space which the scientists captured on camera.

ALOIMONOS: You have a signal that is originating from the conductor, because he is moving his hands and his body. And then the players, they perceive that signal and they create another signal by moving the bows of the violin appropriately. So you have some sort of sensory-motor conversation.

VEDANTAM: A sensory-motor conversation. Aloimonos spent a lot of time thinking about how the brain makes it possible for us to interpret the actions of other people. He thinks actions follow the same principles as spoken language. Aloimonos said he wanted to find out...

ALOIMONOS: Whether the signal of the conductor influences the signal of the player.

VEDANTAM: If the violinists moved in response to the conductor's movements, then my theory would be wrong - the conductor was really leading the orchestra. On the other hand, if the violinists were moving independent of the conductor's baton, it would show the conductor was superfluous.

Now, my theory would be that there was no influence at all.

(LAUGHTER)

ALOIMONOS: Well, you know, it didn't come out like that from the data.

VEDANTAM: Aloimonos found that conductors do lead their players. And not only that - the scientists had two conductors lead the same orchestra. One was a veteran who exercised an iron grip over the violinists. The other conductor was an amateur.

ALOIMONOS: What we found is the more the influence of the conductor to the players, the more - aesthetically pleasing the music was overall.

VEDANTAM: Music experts who listened to the performance of the orchestra, under the control of the two conductors, found the version produced by the authoritarian conductor superior. Remember, these experts didn't know which version was being led by the veteran conductor and which by the amateur. All they heard was the music.

Aloimonos played me excerpts from each version. Try to guess which one had the authoritarian conductor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: And here is the second version.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The experts had no doubt when they listened to the two versions. The first version was better. That was the version led by the veteran and authoritarian conductor. If you guessed right, congratulations. If you guessed wrong, that makes two of us.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.