There's a lot of differences in the way conductors direct the tempi in orchestral representation, but one of them is the timing between when we're expected to play and the actual down movement of the maestro.

While I honestly prefer to feel the beat at the moment the baton reaches down, the more I play in advanced orchestras and the less it applies.

Comes to mind a maybe greater control over the musical discourse if us musicians have more time to consider the movements, but I do feel the same musical possibilities are available if all musicians were right and tight with the down movement of the conductor.

Why is it that we play after the beat?

  • 3
    I've never really understood this either - jazz/rock/modern musical formats often play either on top of the beat or even a little before it (pushing). Orchestras can often play so far behind the beat that it makes it very difficult to play with them if you aren't used to their "feel".
    – scrowler
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:17
  • 3
    Hah! You should watch Bruce Hangen (Indian Hill Symphony, Littleton MA, and others) conduct. His beat point is half-way back up after the nadir. First concert I attended, I nearly fell out of my seat 'cause it looked like the entire orchestra had decided not to come in on the first down-beat :-) Jun 13, 2014 at 11:59

6 Answers 6


There's a funny thing that happens when you look at more and more advanced orchestras. Across the board, the level of musicianship and technical skill increases among the players in the ensemble. This has a side effect in that more advanced orchestras need less and less information1 from the conductor in order to play together, in part because section leaders and concertmasters/mistresses are more capable of leading other members of the orchestra from their desk.2

However, technical proficiency in conducting does not necessarily increase in the same manner. At the lower levels it does, certainly, but there comes a point where a conductor can be renowned for any number of aspects related to conducting, not just technical proficiency: his or her rehearsal technique,3 overt expressiveness, a cult of personality, or simply a preference to leave time up to the ensemble and exert his or her efforts on expressive aspects of the music. What you will see with truly excellent conductors is that they possess both the skill to supply any information necessary (including time), but also the awareness to tell what information is necessary at the present moment.4

But unfortunately, in many cases it comes to be that ensembles simply don't trust their conductor to give them accurate time, and instead they form a habit of watching the first violinist for the downbeat.5 There is no reason this has to be the case -- if a conductor is proficient in communicating time effectively with gesture, it is much easier for everyone in the ensemble to simply watch him or her (they do stand upon a podium, after all).

I do hope no one is teaching young orchestra players that it is "correct" to play "after" the beat of the conductor -- that is entirely missing the point, which is to play in time with everyone else in the ensemble, through any of the methods described above. An ensemble does not play in time by everyone making an independent guess of how long after an ictus the beat is supposed to be.6

So, just to reiterate on the question in case this point got lost in the above discussion, but you are on the right track in thinking about musical discourse between the conductor and ensemble. To a degree, that's the Karajan approach: this well-known TED talk relates a story of a flute player asking Karajan when he was to come in, since it was so unclear from his gesture. The answer was "Play when you can't stand it anymore!" But by the same token, it's easy for this to become an illusion and bad habit if the issue is just that the conductor is not prepared to lead effectively--and that's really what all of conducting is about.

1. In which Leonard Bernstein leads the final movement of Haydn Symphony No. 88 primarily with his face, and little else.
2. As the story goes, some famous conductor, upon hearing the brass come in sloppily at one point in a symphony, stops and says "Together, with me please!" The first chair trumpet player leans forward and turns his head to give a look to the rest of the section. Next time through, the conductor conducts in exactly the same way, but somehow the section was able to play together... So who do you think they were following?
3. Rare footage of Karajan in rehearsal. Not known for his specificity of gesture, but absolutely a brilliant genius of a conductor.
4. Nearly every example of Carlos Kleiber you will find is a masterclass in conducting. A perfect example of giving the ensemble what they need, and none of what they don't. (And is the ensemble behind his beat?)
5. The dreaded opening of Beethoven Symphony No. 5. The concertmaster nearly falls out of his chair!
6. Another, likely apocryphal story: a conductor whose ictus was so nonexistent that the ensemble members simply agreed amongst themselves that the beat would be placed whenever the baton reached the fourth button down on his shirt!

  • 1
    Or the old joke about a rich fella who considered himself a conductor, hired an orchestra, and was so horrible at it that at one point the tympanist went into a crescendo roll 10 bars early. The conductor flew into a rage and shouted "I won't put up with bad playing. Who did that?" Jun 13, 2014 at 12:02
  • Interesting concept that the orchestra ignores the conductor's beat, but plays dead on the leader's gesture. As someone who has played in the brass section, I can assure you that WE weren't relying on the leader for timing, even if we had a clear view of him (which we often didn't).
    – Laurence
    Apr 16, 2015 at 9:22

I think you're on the right track with

greater control over the musical discourse if us musicians have more time to consider the movements.

After all, how does one know the tempo with one downbeat? It's impossible, you need at least two beats.

Of course the orchestra can start playing immediately but there is always a slight difference (at least) between the request and the response.

The rest is personal, some conductors are comfortable being way ahead (Andrew Davis, Saraste) and some simply can't do it. Some orchestras are comfortable playing behind the beat and some are not.

I've found every group eventually finds its own space (usually greatly influenced by the current music director) and then it varies only slightly with each guest conductor.


I know this is an old post, but for the sake of posterity, I think a few additional notes may help:

  • At the professional level, when the conductor and orchestra are off in the manner you describe, it is intentional, and never accidental. Any such delay is no indication of the conductor's lack of assertiveness, preparation, or skill.
  • The amount of this delay between the conductor's beat and the actual playing depends on the preferred style of the conductor. Some are only off by fraction of a beat, and some by as much as a whole beat, and it changes depending on the music and tempo. Typically, the slower the tempo, the longer the delay. (Karajan and Bernstein were the worst. Watch any Karajan video of him starting a slow movement, and you wonder how they keep it all together.)
  • Some conductors prefer no delay, and their beats are very straightforward. Some do a little of both, depending on the music.

To answer your question about why is this done: It gives the orchestra a chance to see in advance what the conductor wants. The particular gesture (conductors have many), speed of movement, facial expression, etc., are clues to how he wants it to sound. It's like a game of follow the leader, and the conductor's intent is easier to follow.

Much of it is tradition. There is no science to prove whether this delay helps or not, but orchestras have gotten very used to this practice, and just follow it out of tradition. In standard repertoire, the concertmaster and the timpanist generally set the actual beats, and in practice, following the conductor in this way is not as hard as it may seem. After you get used to it, it actually feels more natural than playing on the exact beat.


Why is it that we play after the beat?

(a) We're all afraid of coming in alone

(b) The conductor is not asserting him/herself

(c) The conductor didn't give a great upbeat

  • Sorry if my question was unclear, I actually mean that orchestras often play after the beat throughout the whole piece, not just at the start of the piece. It is not an error, or a fear of coming in alone but rather a preference in the way musicians play in orchestras. It is very much controlled, most of the time. Professional symphony orchestras across the earth do this. Apr 18, 2015 at 3:53
  • Oh. Well, if that's your perception.... I suppose it might be interesting to do a survey. When I was playing professionally, with the main conductor only spending a couple of months out of the year with us, and the other weeks filled by guest conductors, this was not my perception. (Which doesn't mean I think you're wrong -- I just didn't see it that way.) Apr 18, 2015 at 5:15
  • A few years later, and possibly because of some conductors during these years, these points do indeed ring a bell... Dec 4, 2018 at 14:54

When I want to hear a beat, my baton asks for it--nicely. If I hear that beat, my baton is very happy. Early or late is NOT a beat, it's an accident about to happen, and my baton is most displeased. The purpose of having a Conductor in front of an orchestra is just a wee tad bit more than offering the initial downbeat! Orchestras are NOT democracies; at best they should be benevolent dictatorships. They should have only one leader to whom they respond. If the orchestra has to "imagine" or anoint a secondary, or substitute leader, they should simply refuse to do so

  • Does this actually answer the question? I'm not able to connect the dots. May 26, 2016 at 20:12
  • @ToddWilcox Seems to me that it is saying the premise of the question is wrong, or that such behavior is bad.
    – user28
    May 26, 2016 at 20:56
  • It is a pecadillo. As a Conductor, my job is to convince 75+ professional musicians that, despite their best belief, the way I want a pieced performed
    – Bud Fields
    May 27, 2016 at 20:07
  • It is a peccadillo. As a Conductor, my job is to convince 75+ professional musicians that, despite their best belief, the way I want a piece performed is the only correct one...for that performance. I must craft an explanation they will not accept, but buy into. I must deliver, and so must they. That's what makes musical magic, a transcendent moment unrepeatable, and a forever treasure for the conductor, the performers, and most importantly the listeners. Politics has no place in this arrangement. (That's what I am saying, Todd.) :)
    – Bud Fields
    May 27, 2016 at 20:13

You get the tempo from the upbeat. And they actually ARE watching this, unless the conductor is so bad that they've tacitly decided just to treat him as a start signal. It can be disconcerting, as a conductor, to give a snappy upbeat only to get a response in that tempo, but delayed. I have a little experience of this, I'd love to have more!

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