Arts and Humanities
5:12 pm
Tue November 27, 2012

The Rules of Conduct

Today, All Things Considered asks an intriguing question. It's a scene we take for granted: the orchestra cues up and plays at the direction of the baton-wielding, tuxedoed conductor. But if orchestra musicians play with sheet music in front of them, do they really need conductors? Shankar Vedantam consults not art, but science--a study from the University of Maryland that tracked how orchestra players followed conductors: 

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 study found that the players were following the conductor, not the other way around. The study also revealed the differences between an amateur conductor and an experienced, strict conductor leading the same players. The more influential -- that is, the tighter of a ship the conductor ran -- the better the players sound. 

Okay, so some of this sounds obvious -- more experienced conductors create a tighter sound, and while a soloist or very small ensemble might not need a conductor, a larger group benefits from one person guiding the group's interpretation and execution of the music. But the conductor experiments are part of a larger study on the relationships between human movement and language. Are they governed by similar processes in the brain? Is there a grammar that governs a type of movement in the same way that grammar governs a language? 

Not that this falls under the umbrella of movement/language studies, but it would be interesting to see blind comparisons between other arts experiences, adding or subtracting one key element without telling the audience. If all things otherwise were equal, would we notice the presence or absence of a dramaturg in a play production? How about a curator for an art exhibit? Would we notice the absence of these (often unseen) hands?

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