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I have noticed that, in a concert, the conductor moves in advance: sometimes, they move all of a sudden, and the musicians start playing louder only a little time after.

I wonder why this is so: as an amateur musician, I think I would get very distracted and confused if someone were doing movements out of sync while I'm playing.

Are there different conducting styles? Do some conductors move in an exactly synchronized fashion?

Addendum: I understand that musicians should be told in advance what to do, sure! But taking the example of a fortissimo, obviously the musicians have rehearsed the music before and know that the fortissimo is coming. Besides, I guess that when reading the score, every musician reads a bit in advance! I think of this question as of an alternative:

  • either the conductor moves out of sync, and this is disturbing because what the musicians play does not agree with the movements that the conductor does at the same time and might, for example, cause the musicians not to play simultaneously;
  • either the conductor moves in an exact synchronization with the music and the musicians adapt themselves almost instantaneously, which may be hard, but the information that the conductor communicates is already known by them.

Edit: I have little experience of playing in a small band, and I remember that the conductor used to help us playing in time by doing upwards moves, preparing the downwards move on which we should all be synchronized. To me, it is nothing at all like interpreting with your hands the whole piece one beat ahead; it is playing exactly on time but with a gesture style that is « predictable ». I hope this was clear from my question.

A lot of answers here are pretty good, I don’t know which one to choose. I would like to thank everyone here!

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    A conductor that moved exactly in time because everything had already been rehearsed would be entirely unnecessary. Since the musicians already know what's coming, what would be the point of having someone tell them what's coming at the exact time it arrives?
    – Aaron
    Feb 8, 2022 at 17:02
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    Your edit helped clarify the question. Could you make one more clarification: are you thinking mainly of situations where there's one particular gesture, like signaling a big dynamic change, and the conductor signals it early, OR about a phenomenon in which every single beat the conductor shows seems to be gestured a little early or late, compared to how the orchestra plays, as if the orchestra is always a little (and always the same amount) ahead or behind? Feb 8, 2022 at 17:18
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    How far away from the orchestra are you when you are listening? Light (your visual perception of the conductor's movement) travels to you more quickly than the sound from the instruments. If you're about 50m away, the difference is about 150 ms, (a 𝅘𝅥𝅯 at ♩=100).
    – Theodore
    Feb 8, 2022 at 20:59
  • The conductor is not directing each note individually. The conductor is directing mood, feeling, emotional content...
    – RedSonja
    Feb 9, 2022 at 8:23
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    Doing it synchronously would be like a GPS not telling you to turn until you're already at the intersection.
    – Barmar
    Feb 9, 2022 at 14:27

10 Answers 10

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The idea of conducting is to physically demonstrate how you want them to perform. As such, there necessarily will need to be some "processing time" built in for the musicians understand the gesture that they're seeing and then translate this into musical sound.

I've never seen a "synchronized" conducting style, or at least not one that suggested to me the performers were actually reacting to what the conductor was doing. By the very nature of these two concepts, a "synchronized" "reaction" is impossible.

This is even more true when you consider the physical logistics of playing instruments. If we want brass players to play louder, we have to give a gesture before the loud part appears so that the brass players can take the necessary breath to play louder. Similar aspects apply to other instrumental families.

In fact, I have a starred quote in my Conducting Technique by Brock McElheran:

Remember that you must show the performers what to do BEFORE THEY DO IT.

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    Apparently at least some conductors will be on or very slightly ahead of the click when they are leading a film scoring session. So there is one special situation where the conducting is not ahead of the beat. Otherwise, great answer. Feb 8, 2022 at 19:31
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    @ToddWilcox I've been involved in film scoring sessions, and my experience was as you say: the conductor was exactly with the click track, which meant that the ensemble, once the recording was shifted slightly ahead in time, was also right on.
    – Aaron
    Feb 9, 2022 at 6:57
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There are many different conducting styles.

A marching band conductor, for example, will tend to use very precise movements, in time with the ensemble, because that's the primary role — to keep time. In this setting, the musicians have to anticipate the conductor so that they play together at the right moment.

An orchestral conductor, on the other hand, will tend to make gestures in advance — an indication to a section to enter, an instruction to crescendo — because the musicians need time to respond. If the movements were exactly in time, the musicians would be late.

Jazz band conductors are often very loose, indicating downbeats, indicating soloists, but not applying the kind of precision or detail a marching band or orchestral conductor might.

Choral conductors are similar to orchestral ones, but their movements tend to be more flowing. Time in orchestral music is comparatively metronomic, whereas vocal music is more generally dictated by the text. A choral conductor will tend to conduct the words more so than the time.

As one gain experience with a particular conductor, one also gains a feel for, say, where the beats are and other quirks of that conductor's style. But even for professional musicians, it can be challenging to change from one conductor to another.

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  • I wonder if, in a marching band, it's less about the musicians having to anticipate and more about the conductor simply knowing that what they hear doesn't align with their hands? Surely it's easier for one person (the conductor) to know this than to train two-hundred marchers on the field to all anticipate in exactly the right way?
    – Richard
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:52
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    Again, I think we're confusing two things - the information conveyed in the preparatory beat and the precise timing of the main beat. If you want a loud entry you don't conduct 'and - LOUD'. You conduct 'AND-LOUD'.
    – Laurence
    Feb 9, 2022 at 11:09
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    @Richard What I'm looking to get across is that in a marching band, the conductor's primary role is to keep the ensemble together in time, rather than to cue expression. Since the visual aspect of beat-keeping is communicated to the entire group near instantaneously, and since the group already has a clear sense of the pulse (one hopes), the conductor just needs to be steady and precise.
    – Aaron
    Feb 9, 2022 at 11:24
  • This answer is (in my experience in various choirs) absolutely wrong about choral conductors, and such a style would be extremely unhelpful. Feb 9, 2022 at 14:10
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    @AndrewLeach interested to know what you make of a director like this: youtu.be/3Mla1SV-HIk?t=1412 (David Hill with the choir of Westminster Cathedral). I'm not sure about "the words more than the time", but this style definitely involves more flowing movements than you'd often see with an orchestra. You can watch the same conductor (admittedly several decades later) in front of an orchestra here, and the style is slightly different (although maybe you'd still guess from watching him conduct an orchestra that he's a choral conductor at heart): youtu.be/3Mla1SV-HIk?t=1412 Feb 9, 2022 at 15:01
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It is perfectly possible to conduct (and for the orchestra to follow) 'dead on the beat'. In the commercial music world this is the norm. Taken to extremes it's a click track.

One thing to understand about conducting. The down-beat doesn't come out of thin air. It's preceded by an up-beat, in tempo, which absolutely defines when the down-beat will come. Think 'count-down'. You don't start a race by suddenly shouting 'Go!', 'Ready, steady, go!' is much more use. In the same way, a conductor doesn't just lunge at the orchestra with a 'Play!' gesture, it's 'and - play'.

Having got that out of the way, yes, there is a tradition in some orchestras, particularly when playing more expressive music, of 'conducting ahead'. It can produce beautiful sounds in a Brahms symphony. I don't think many conductors would do it to 'Rite of Spring' or 'Carmina Burana'.

There are other issues and techniques involved when trying to keep an orchestra and choir together in a large concert hall. Sound travels slower than light.

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  • Yeah, made a note on that on another answer. Since choir is generally the furthest from the audience, they have to be earlier, or "less late" compared others. You can't always trust your ear for the timing either with big choirs/orchestras. You have to watch the conductor and kinda learn how much before/on/behind their beat you have to sing for it to be "on time" for the audience (info that you'd get plenty of info on from the conductor in rehearsals, I'm sure).
    – Johan
    Feb 10, 2022 at 13:50
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The musicians need time to react. If the conductor makes a gesture meaning "play this note softly" at the same time the musicians begin playing the note, it's too late.

I think I would get very distracted and confused if someone was doing movements out of sync while I'm playing.

In fact, it's not out of sync. You should be thinking about how you're going to play the next note before you start playing it, and it is during this time that the conductor is communicating with you. Conductors call this "preparation." Those who don't understand it are much harder to follow (even "distracting and confusing") than those who do.

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  • You're right. But this isn't a reason to conduct ahead. All the necessary information is in the upbeat.
    – Laurence
    Feb 8, 2022 at 20:46
  • @LaurencePayne ... which happens before the beat for which it is the preparation. When a conductor gives an upbeat indicating loud, "the musicians start playing louder only a little time after."
    – phoog
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:18
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    Indeed. The point being that both the preparatory beat and main beat can be ON the beat!
    – Laurence
    Feb 9, 2022 at 11:06
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According to my music teacher, the first violin is the leader of the orchestra. They take the cue from the conductor and translate that into the bow movements that the others follow. (Of course, further back, you tend to follow the percussion!) So in that context as others have mentioned, the conductor expresses the style, and the leader interprets it.

I do remember a concert where the conductor jumped and flapped coat tails wildly, but never quite in time. At one point, he shuddered violently and drew his arms (and half his body) down. About a second later, the orchestra played a strident descending phrase, perfectly in time. I do remember thinking afterwards "He dances well!"

That all works well with an orchestra that knows what to play. I recall my dad talking about a guest conductor that was hard to follow. Someone complained that they couldn't see the down beat. She then gave a condescending lecture about how the down beat was when the stick moved downwards. I attended the concert itself and watched closely. The downbeats generally flew sideways in a wobbling sine wave. Generally...

In an amateur band or orchestra, and that includes top bands at national contest level, the conductor is in sync with the players. The downbeat goes down and the up beat goes up. And there's a lot of expression, but in sync with the music. A big fortissimo on the downbeat is indicated by a huge upbeat. A solo gets a warning eye and a turn in that direction. If the music pauses, all eyes go on the conductor to watch for the up beat that signals when to play again.

So I don't believe there is a style where the conductor is precisely a certain number of milliseconds in advance. There is an expressive style which requires the musicians to be on top of their game and following with discipline. And a more rigid style for those that aren't (or might forget half way through!)

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  • Your "dancing" anecdote reminds me of some of the colorful criticism of Gustav Mahler—see these cartoons, especially the famous Schliessman one, and the quote in the footnote here—"digging for treasure, ... thrashing the waves, throttling babes-in-arms, kneading, performing sleights of hand..." Though, disclaimer, much of this criticism was motivated or permeated by personal issues and anti-Semitism. Feb 10, 2022 at 15:18
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Every conductor has his own style of downbeat and what you might call "posture codes." Until you get familiar with a given conductor, you may perceive a lag between his beat and the orchestra's beat.
As to dynamics, I suspect you are seeing the conductor indicate, basically, "OK next beat (or next downbeat) it's time for a dramatic fortissimo." Many signals are provided slightly in advance; how else would the musicians be able to respond exactly in time?

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    You understood my question correctly. As for how the musicians should be able to respond in time to the indications of the conductor, I guess I thought that these matters should be settled during rehearsals, right? I'll edit my question to explain myself better.
    – Plop
    Feb 8, 2022 at 16:50
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    @Plop yes, but nothing happens instantaneously. Poor analogy: runners can't leave the starting block exactly when the gun fires; they react to the gun. Feb 8, 2022 at 16:53
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    @Plop you can't settle everything in rehearsal unless you rehearse a lot (as some amateur ensembles do, in fact, which is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that conductors of amateur ensembles often fail to understand preparation). Performances like this tend to lack spontaneity and energy.
    – phoog
    Feb 8, 2022 at 17:02
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There are principially two philosophies in orchestral conducting. One is conducting in time and one is conding a beat ahead. The first one allows for more direct interaction between conductor and orchestra. The other one is safer, as it allows more time for reaction. This means that the first style is nice if the conductor and the orchestra work really well together, like here

while the second style is useful if something like this is hard, due to orchestra size, skill and experience with the conductor. Many conductors will thus decide on this style depending on the orchestra they are playing with.

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  • The conductor in this video is doing both. Within the first minute or so, there are several obvious moments where the orchestra is cued ahead of time.
    – Aaron
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:22
  • @Aaron No, there aren’t. Maybe you are confusing this with the Aviso, which is alwas on the beat before. Changing from beating on count and before count within the piece on the other hand would be extremely confusing. That is, unless you can give an actual timestep where Roth conducts a beat early.
    – Lazy
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:56
  • The question isn't about keeping the beat. It's about the various movements a conductor makes — OP specifically mentions indication of dynamics. If you're going to restrict your answer only to beat-keeping, you might consider stating that explicitly.
    – Aaron
    Feb 9, 2022 at 11:20
  • @Aaron The way the OP phrased it I thought he meant conducting a beat early. Like when the conductor indicates a crescendo but the orchestra only reacts a short bit later. It could very well be that I’m misunderstanding him there (english is not my native language). Anyway, my answer is not about keeping the beat, but on potential difference which beat the conductor and the orchestra are on.
    – Lazy
    Feb 9, 2022 at 18:59
  • @Aaron And yet it is the only one mentioning this crucial detail. All the rest seem to either not mention the beat, or make it seem like directing off the beat is more common than it is. Most conducting is on the beat, except for certain orchestras. If this one needs to say it's just about the beat, then the rest need to say they're not about the beat. Because, frankly, to me, I thought they were all wrong since they didn't clarify that they conductor was still on beat.
    – trlkly
    Feb 9, 2022 at 23:36
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Dr. Jack Stamp demonstrates this here (6:52)

He asks the audience to sing on the off-beat when he indicates by conducting. He demonstrates two ways that, as a conductor, he can tell the audience when he wants them to sing: by signaling on that offbeat, or conducting before.

He demonstrates that if you signal that something should happen at the exact time you want it to happen, then the band will be late!

(The entire video is worth a watch!)

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If you are talking about how an orchestra conductor always seems to be beating just a little ahead of what you hear the orchestra playing, remember that string instruments take quite a bit of time to get a sound except when plucked (and even then it takes longer than, say, a percussion instrument). As a tuba player with an orchestra, I had to learn to play on the back-end of the beat rather than right on it as I would with a band. This is to keep the sound together with the strings. They attack at the right moment, but the sound takes just a little longer to develop and so would always sound (to my band-trained ear) like they were behind.

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That conductor does several things. First of all he conducts the beat and that is exact, the whole orchestra is synchronised with that. But he also does many other things.

The exact beat is done with a conductor's stick, which is called a baton. Let us say the time sig is 4/4. There is an invisible point in the air. The conductor hits that point exactly on each beat. He hits it from four different directions (with time sig 4/4), so that you can always see which beat is happening.

With the other hand he can do a lot of different things. Like indicate a crescendo, a diminuendo or a sudden change in dynamics. He can focus on one group of the orchestra, let us say the 1. violins, and indicate something to them, like play softer or whatever, or he can direct it to the whole orchestra.

He can also give a sign to when someone in the orchestra should play again after several bars with pause. At that point the player(s) who had a pause can both see that it is their turn and they can enter exactly at the right moment by looking at the baton. They are also listening to the music at the same time of course.

Thus the conductor both indicate the beat as well as all sorts of expressions and indications.

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