"The bigger the instrument, the heavier the strings, the bigger the bow, the bigger the mouthpiece, the more you should anticipate." This concept is expressed occasionally by double bass players, conductors etc. Is there any good reasoning behind this? Is this practical, as in can players actually consistently begin their notes a constant amount of milliseconds earlier than higher instruments? If that was possible, would the audience, far and near the stage, perceive a perfectly synchronized start of a chord?

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    Players also need to consider their relative position onstage. If it's a large group the rearmost row can be audibly later than the front even if they start simultaneously (please, no General Relativity comments :-) ). oops -- like Richard's answer. Oct 6, 2016 at 18:24

6 Answers 6


I don't have an answer for you with measurements in milliseconds, etc., but as a tuba player I can give you my experiences.

I'm not consciously thinking of anticipating anything in order to get my sound out because my instrument is bigger. Instead, the training I've received over time just naturally tells me what I need to do in order for my sound to come out when I want it. In other words, it just becomes second nature, and so for us it's not an issue of "anticipating," but rather just playing like we know how to.

It's a little like throwing or kicking a ball, I guess. You don't stop and measure wind velocity and angles and things like that; instead, over time you just naturally know that when it feels like this when you throw/kick, the ball will be sent over here.

More problematic is the location within the orchestra; sometimes the tuba player can be a solid 50 feet from the conductor (and I've seen much greater distances than that!). In this situation, if I and the concertmaster both begin a pitch at the same time, my sound will reach the conductor (and thus the audience) at a slightly different time. As such, I do find myself occasionally anticipating the conductor in situations like this, especially when my lines match something being played with instruments right at the front of the stage.

But this is much more problematic for percussionists, who are even farther back on the stage. Thus (in my opinion) it's less about size and low frequencies that take longer to travel, and more about simple placement within the orchestra.

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    Somewhat similar to lightning and thunder, on a lesser basis?
    – Tim
    Oct 6, 2016 at 15:23
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    Sound travels 50 feet in 45 milliseconds. "Encyclopedia of Perception" interestingly says "the ear will perceive the reflections within 50 to 80 milliseconds and the direct sound as one sound". Oct 6, 2016 at 16:04
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    @KariKääriäinen: I think that should say "the brain will perceive...". But the ear/brain combination is perfectly capable of distinguishing delays of 500 microseconds -- that's how we perceive the direction of a sound after all. Compared to the distance between our ears, 50 feet is enormous.
    – TonyK
    Oct 6, 2016 at 19:39
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    @KariKääriäinen: If the brain hears two sounds of the same pitch separated by 50ms it may perceive them as one, but if two sounds of different pitches are separated by that much the timing difference may be very noticeable, especially if the sounds cannot be reconciled as harmonics of a common fundamental.
    – supercat
    Oct 6, 2016 at 21:38
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    In commercial music the rhythm section are generally together, front and centre. In the symphony orchestra they are generally fragmented and far back. This can cause problems.
    – Laurence
    Oct 6, 2016 at 23:26

It's not as much as a "perfectly synchronized start". Low instruments have a slow attack both physically as well as taking longer to register in hearing. At the same time, they are providing the fundamental anchors for the harmony. If they swing into full attack way later than the higher-pitched instruments, the context for the higher-pitched instruments is missing. While acoustic memory will help in reconstructing the "attack context" even with some systematic delay, it helps if you have a nice "overattack" with its peak more than its start being aligned to the beat. Even for continuous-note instruments (like wind instruments) it usually is good for hearing and transparency to go for a plucked or detached bowed double bass sound with an organic accent on the beat (or off-beat, depending on the music in question). It helps maintaining transparency together with more melodically played instruments.

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    I'm skeptical of both claims made here: that low frequency instruments inherently have slower attacks and that low frequencies "take longer to register". Do you have any evidence to support either or both of those claims? Oct 7, 2016 at 0:39
  • @ToddWilcox mentally, I compared bass to guitar while reading "slower attacks", and that at least makes sense to me. The travel time of my finger when plucking the string of a bass is much longer than plucking the string of my guitar (my usual instrument) and I find myself having to anticipate accordingly or the peak of the sound is late.
    – Blackhawk
    Oct 7, 2016 at 20:22
  • @ToddWilcox Just try it for yourself, e.g. on a church organ. It's not a controversial assertion.
    – user207421
    Oct 7, 2016 at 23:04
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    @EJP Oh sure, I'll just pop down to my local church organ dealer and pick one up. Seriously though, I own a Minimoog Voyager that I play most days. I also play piano, bass, and guitar and I've played professionally in ensembles. I've been a professional live sound and recording engineer, and I have studied acoustics extensively. Nothing in my 35 years of experience in the practice and study of both the arts and sciences related to music have given me any personal or scientific reason to believe that the attack time of an instrument is related to the frequency being generated. Oct 8, 2016 at 4:21
  • Many, many demonstrably false assertions through the course of history have been accepted without controversy for centuries. Lack of controversy about an assertion is essentially meaningless. Oct 8, 2016 at 4:23

Slightly off at a tangent, but this still can be thought of even in a rock band scenario.

As an occasional drummer & long-time bassist...

Have you ever worked with a bassist who thinks his note starts when his pick hits the string rather than leaves it.
It's like drumming in molasses.

It might only be milliseconds between the two but the difference in feel is colossal.

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    I would like to note that this is true for guitars also even when playing their highest notes, so this has nothing to do with what frequency range an instrument produces. Similarly, a popular technique for controlling dymanics on percussion instruments is to increase the length of the swing of the stick. That means the necessary anticipation for a given hit is proportional to the desired volume, regardless of frequency. Oct 7, 2016 at 0:43

I play cello in two different ways: either acoustically like everybody else (orchestra etc.), or, with the band on louder stages, through a piëzo pickup and in-ear monitoring. I play a fivestring cello with low F, and in the band I fulfill more of a bass role.

I was never really aware of playing before/after the beat, until we recorded a song that I normally play with pickup, and actually used it with my in-ear like I do live. Sounded quite well while playing, but when we switched to the microphone tracks it was totally not in time! The pickup responds almost instantaneous and thus I don't anticipate when using it, but the body definitely takes some response time and the room yet more.
The problem vanished when we turned down the pickup in my headphones, as the acoustic feedback caused me to automatically play sufficiently early.

Vice versa, when we recorded an acoustic song but also added a bit of pickup signal for extra oomph, it sounded overhasted at first.

tl;dr: orchestra bass instruments should definitely anticipate a bit, but not necessarily by conscious action – it should happen naturally. Drummers also need to accelerate the sticks well before the actual hit, but they don't actually think of it as an action before the beat.


When I'm in an orchestra, and the double bass is playing a pulsing beat, it almost always is like a half a second behind to my ears. It's annoying. The bow moves with the rest of the lower-strings, but the sound is behind. I don't really know. I think that depending on the acoustics, and where in the room the musician is standing, it can be good to play a little ahead. Keep in mind that in some rooms, sound can bounce off the back of the room and cause an echo which throws all kinds of people off.

All just random thoughts on the subject...


As a conductor, myself, it is not always possible to hear all instruments together at the same time. Using arguments used above, I could, for example hear everything exactly together. But by the time it reached the audience in a linear world the music would be less together, in regards to where the audience member is placed. In my experience of concert halls and churches, however, sound 'mixes' in the acoustic and it is one of the joys of a conductor to go to the rear of the building in rehearsal and hear exactly what is being produced. My thoughts are that sound in general travels up not out and the ear hears back the rebound. The ear is a clever organ and between it and the brain it can compute all it hears into one coherent sound and that is what we hear. I'm not a scientist but if you are playing in a decent acoustic there is no need to play late at all. Trust the beat, play on it and I believe the acoustic does the rest for the audience.

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