I notice Leonard Bernstein often conducts very expressively while leaving the time signature out of his gestures. I notice this especially when he conducts pieces that were written by Mozart. If he leaves the time signature and even the tempo(conducting at a slower tempo than the piece) out, how does the orchestra know where to accentuate the notes and how to synchronize each others instruments so that it sounds good?

Here is an example of what I am talking about. It is symphony no. 40 by Mozart

  • Perhaps you'd like to give a specific example (youtube video with a timestamp)? It's not constructive for us to go through videos of his (rather large) repertoire and try to figure out precisely what you're talking about. A specific example would make this a more productive discussion. Mar 25, 2015 at 23:32
  • Seems pretty spot-on to me. Mar 26, 2015 at 2:55
  • There's an excellent Ted Talks video that contrasts Bernstein's style with a few other conductors. If someone digs it up and posts a comment with the link, please delete this comment. Mar 26, 2015 at 4:28
  • Is there a specific time in the video that you're talking about? Honestly, I don't particularly have time to watch through a 30 minute video looking for what you might be talking about. Give us a specific time in the video, or a few, that show what you're asking about. Mar 26, 2015 at 16:48

3 Answers 3


In addition to having eyes to see the conductor, most professional orchestra players have ears with which to hear one another, and, being able to win an orchestra audition, tend to be excellent musicians with a great sense of rhythm and time.

To put it simply, if the orchestra is not in need of timing information from the conductor, the conductor is wasting his or her gesture by providing it. There's a fair bit of repertoire that could be performed by professionals without any conductor whatsoever, but you would hear a difference if the same ensemble was being led by a conductor. The conductor provides musical leadership in the moment, and must have an internal feedback loop going that listens for the sounds coming from the ensemble, and asks and answers the question "what visual information does the ensemble need from me right now to unify the individual interpretations of each person in the ensemble into a cohesive whole".


In fact, until about 200 years ago, the leader conducted. You won't find a decent conductor working with an orchestra needing someone to beat time anyway.

What hasn't been mentioned is the games that are being played at the moment to use psychic count-ins, Anuna being a case in point.

The most of it is watch his eyes and wait until you can see the whites of them...as he rolls them back in desperation!


Anyway, what's with it? Strict tempo's only for dancers. You're telling a tale, and the score's full of dynamic changes which dictate a certain rubato and tempo change. It's what the rehearsal's for, not to get the notes right, but to tell the band what you want them do do where. A fast tempo in the 17th century would be slow now anyway - it's why pavanes are so...damned...slow------

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