Finally, Scientific Proof That Conductors Do Something

During rehearsals, conductors definitely do a lot: they create the rehearsal schedule, yell at musicians that don’t play something quite the way they want, and make small adjustments to the score. But after the last rehearsal, during the performances, does the wand- and hand-waving that conductors live for, actually mean anything? (Also, the head thrusts, for which a special kind of conductor haircut is required.) After all, the musicians have the score, they’ve rehearsed it to the conductor’s satisfaction, and could probably play it back with or without him standing in front them, gesturing as if he were doing some serious programming in Minority Report.

Tom Cruise conducting a computer in Minority Report


The theory of orchestral music is that the conductor could make minor timing changes during a live performance, and since the whole orchestra is paying attention to him, they would stay in harmony. This being an important scientific question, scientists devoted considerable science to answer it: they put infrared LED lights on the tip of a conductor’s baton and on the tip of violinists’ bows in his orchestra. They recorded the infrared movements and used special computers and mathematics (and science) to figure out if the violin bows followed the baton. And it turns out they did. So now we know for sure that musicians really do pay attention to the conductor. Thank you, science.

Oh, and they also figured out that orchestras with more authoritarian conductors produce better music.

From NPR

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