I noticed some unusual gestures that Karajan has when he conducts. The standard beat patterns use exclusively downward movement for downbeats. However, I recently watched quite a few live concerts on YouTube where Karajan uses upward hand movements to show important beats (including downbeats). I wonder if this is something that other conductors do and if so, why.


Before I link the examples I found, I want to clarify that I'm not focusing on whether Karajan beats time ahead of the orchestra. I know that it's a common thing, especially at those prolonged chords or the end of a phrase/section/movement (with or without fermata), where it's rare that an orchestra plays exactly "on the beat". I also know that conductors show dynamics/entrances/tempo changes BEFORE they happen. The unusual gestures I found happen when Karajan is perfectly on the beat. And they only happen occasionally (but stay steady and consistent when they happen).

Some Examples

Check the phrase that starts at 1:54. I see steady and clear upward movements on every beat. And it does not seem that he is half a beat ahead of the orchestra, because when he shows bowing gestures after the phrase repeats at 2:08, the beats are all at the bottom of his movements (this shows that he's always on beat unless he intentionally stops beating ahead of time, which is unlikely). The same happens again after the camera returns to him at 2:34. This is also a moment where trying to conduct using two directions on the beat really shows the difference. If I move from high to low on every beat, I have exactly the opposite movement to Karajan's at 2:34. But if I move from low to high, we're in sync.

This one is an even clearer example. Check the section that starts at 5:26. Every note is perfectly on time and at the moment when his gestures stop. Then he shows clear upward movements on every downbeat.

One more example is an early recording of Mariss Jansons who studied with Karajan. I believe he shows that conducting style most clearly. He stops doing that and uses conventional gestures during his later years but those early live concerts definitely show a similar style.

And as @Laurence mentioned, Frank Shipway. It shows a resounding similarity.


Maybe it's just a way to show the phrasing. For example, if a conductor wants a big chord, they can hold their hands way above the head. Though it seems that it doesn't always apply to Karajan's case.

It could also be that he just decides to sometimes conduct half a beat ahead of orchestra, which I find hard to believe because it seems too sudden. It seems challenging to tell when that change happens even to a professional orchestra.

Another one that I think might be more likely is that it's just a way to show the downbeat. What textbooks say is nothing more than an accepted convention. The more important thing is to convey the messages to the orchestra. But I'm curious if there are other conductors that do this.

  • 1
    I can’t see what you’re asking about. When I watch it, I see his baton move downwards towards his ictus, and then I hear the orchestra play the beat exactly when he reaches his ictus, and then I see his baton bounce back up from his ictus and preparing for the next beat. It all looks exactly how I would expect it to, allowing for his very expressive style and the professionalism of the orchestra. Jul 28 at 8:50
  • 1
    @PiedPiper Not exactly. I don't think this is about conducting on the beat vs. ahead of time. It seems to me that the movement of the downbeat is upward. The downbeat itself is not shifted.
    – lbbl59
    Jul 28 at 9:05
  • 1
    1:27 is one of the rare places in that video where the orchestra starts exactly at the bottom of the downbeat. Once they´ve started playing Karajan, of course, is moving his hand upward.
    – PiedPiper
    Jul 28 at 9:18
  • 1
    Looks to me like he’s conduction in one, so he’s going downwards towards his ictus on all beats. Weak or strong. There’s nothing wrong with that except maybe in student orchestras, which of course this is not. He’s conducting both downbeats and upbeats the same way, which is not unusual for professionals. Jul 28 at 9:24
  • 1
    In short, most conductors have little movement when the hand bounces back at the downbeat, but Karajan bounces back with more movement.
    – lbbl59
    Jul 28 at 10:15

1 Answer 1


Karajan had a very individual conducting style. His baton could seem to flick upwards on the downbeat. He could beat up to the point where a downbeat seemed inevitable, then refuse to give it. The only reason not to heavily criticise these, and other, eccentricities is that they worked! He could extract exquisite performances from a top-class orchestra.

In the 1960s I occasionally played under Frank Shipway, a student of Karajan who imitated his style, both musically and in his autocratic manner with the orchestra. It's no insult to opine that his genius didn't quite match Karajan's, making the mannerisms sometimes merely irritating, maybe without them his career might have reached even greater heights.

  • I'm definitely not criticizing his style, and it certainly worked. I just wanted to understand his style better because it's very different from what I've seen from other conductors. I'll edit my question with more clarifications. I also found some early live concerts conducted by Mariss Jansons who had a very similar style (unlike his later ones where he use more conventional gestures. And he studied with Karajan too)
    – lbbl59
    Jul 29 at 21:31
  • Whose death do you call early? Shipway's at the age of 79, or Karajan's at 81? I understand Shipway died in an accident (thus early), but do you expect much development past 79? Jul 29 at 22:10
  • 1
    @user1079505 Yes, you're right! My memory of his career post my time with Forest Philharmonic was faulty. I've edited my answer.
    – Laurence
    Jul 30 at 13:27

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