Looking for the roles of the conductor during a musical performance, I mainly came across answers as the following, taken from Wikipedia:

"The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble."

Some issues are still unclear to me:

  • Unifying the performers: why do the performers need to be unified? assuming one performer somehow loses the others, can't he just listen to them and adjust? how does the presence of the conductor make this any better?
  • Setting the tempo: isn't the tempo set in advance? don't the performers rehearse and know the tempo?

    If most things are known in advance, how much creativity is involved in the conductor's role? or in other words: what makes a conductor a good conductor?

  • 3

    6 Answers 6


    A good conductor:

    • Provides musical leadership
    • Unifies the ensemble in the musical moment
    • Decides on the how of music that cannot be communicated in the score
    • Communicates to the ensemble non-verbally

    At the top level of your question, indeed, there exist ensembles that perform without a conductor. These ensembles are often heavily rehearsed, and quite often the musical leadership (that is, who decides what to rehearse when) comes from a senior member of the ensemble. (Traditionally, the first violin/concertmaster.1) However, once this is rehearsed, it is pretty much set in stone, and there is very little a large conductorless ensemble can change in the middle of a performance.

    But keep in mind, high-level performing ensembles often do not have copious rehearsal time! Usually, just one session, and not uncommonly zero, before a performance. In these situations it is imperative to have someone at the front who will unify all of the different musicians' interpretations of the piece in question.

    Furthermore, the music in the moment of performance will often require something different than what is rehearsed. The tempos might be a little bit faster, or the brass might give a bit more (or god forbid someone makes a mistake), and the conductor is there to take all of this information and synthesize it into the ensemble's performance.

    The simple fact that the same orchestra will sound different with a different conductor should be proof enough of this.

    The conductor is constantly asking himself "What information does the ensemble need from me?", answers that question using his ears and his internal aural image of what the music should sound like, and then executes a gesture to communicate this information nonverbally. At high levels of ensemble musicianship, the conductor may not even need to move his hands, if the music doesn't require it! See this video of Leonard Bernstein, but do realize that he is communicating and influencing the ensemble even without his hands!

    Of course, at lower levels of musicianship, like in a middle school, the players are likely going to need very specific beat patterns to play together, even after copious amounts of rehearsal.

    1 Even in professional orchestras, it is still this first violin who makes many of the ensemble decisions like, "where, really, is our first downbeat." Many famous orchestra conductors are notorious for being very nonspecific with their opening gestures, and were the cameras trained a little down and to the left, you'd see the real preparatory gesture.

    • 3
      The conductor is most often the only person who can see all of the parts that are being played. Normally, the musicians in an orchestra only have their own parts and a few queues some editor thought might possibly be useful (but usually aren't). Thus it is usually only the conductor who can get the orchestra back together should something goes wrong (like the featured guest soloist forgetting to repeat a section during the performance and instead inserting a new cadenza).
      – jwernerny
      Commented May 10, 2011 at 16:39
    • 1
      You might want to add in a quick mention of how the size of the group affects whether there will be a conductor or not in your first paragraph. And possibly the why of larger ensembles needing conductors more than smaller ensembles more than chamber groups. I feel your answer is very complete but this could round out the "unify" or "leadership" bullet a little more.
      – SRiss
      Commented May 10, 2011 at 17:04
    • 1
      +1 Your answer tallies well with my experience as a conductor and as someone watching a conductor! Although you briefly touch on this with the reference to the brass 'giving a little more', I'd also stress that in performance the conductor is the person with the opportunity to respond to the creativity of the players (i.e. not only firefighting or communicating their own vision). E.g. the horns may not be able to hear the 8-bar solo for oboe, but the conductor can hear it, respond to it, and enable the other players to support and build on the spontaneous interpretation of that player. Commented May 11, 2011 at 21:37

    You ask "if most things are known in advance"---but who made those advance decisions? A conductor's role begins long before the actual performance, even before rehearsals begin. S/he makes decisions such as what tempo "Allegra ma non troppo" really means, how loud forte really is, how to coordinate one hundred people to play rubato together, how to balance the sound of the whole orchestra versus the solo pianist of the week, etc.

    And who coordinates the rehearsals? Who decides to begin today's rehearsal in the third movement, Bar 23, at that particularly tricky spot? Who's going to tell the cellos that they're too loud? Who stops one hundred people all playing simultaneously and says "that wasn't it; let's try it again"?

    A conductor is sort of like a theater director. Aren't the words already in the script? Can't the actors listen to each other and know when to say them? Doesn't the set designer take care of the set and the lighting designer take care of the lighting? Yes to all of these, but you still need someone making the global artistic decisions that put these disparate components into a unified whole. At the performance, you probably won't even see the director until maybe the curtain call, but his/her handiwork is everywhere.

    • 1
      Thank you for the detailed response, but as I have written, I was mostly interested about the role of the conductor during the performance. Your analogy to a theater director is not so appropriate, to my view, since the director does not have an active role during the performance itself.
      – iddober
      Commented May 10, 2011 at 11:06
    • 2
      @idober: That's fine, but you also asked "how much creativity is involved in the conductor's role?" The answer to that involves examining the conductor's pre-performance role as much as his/her role during the performance itself. Commented May 10, 2011 at 11:11
    • 7
      @idober: Alex's answer is really what you asked for. During the performance, he or she embodies for the musician what s/he has chosen, directed, rehearsed with the orchestra. S/he is not theater director but also stage manager, remembering every group of the moment to play or insist. Instead of speaking of "creativity" you maybe asking : what is the degree of liberty or improvisation s/he has during the performance? Not much compared to what s/he prepares during analysis of the work and rehearsals.
      – ogerard
      Commented May 10, 2011 at 13:03

    From my experience as a band musician, I can say that most of the importance of the conductor is during rehearsing. A well rehearsed orchestra composed of good musicians can play without a conductor in case of necessity, but without him they would probably never be able to successfully rehearse a piece of music. An orchestra is a very complex organism and music has lots of points in which subjectivity overrules objectivity, so, without someone to coordinate all the parts, chaos is inevitable.

    • 1
      Think of how most rock bands never play outside the drummer's garage and you'll have a good idea why a conductor is needed for an orchestra; musicians are mostly a very unorganized bunch. Commented May 11, 2011 at 1:44

    A conductor is a vital part in any orchestra.

    He or she provides leadership and helps unify the sound to make great performances. There's no standard method for conducting, but as you can imagine, for a musician is quite hard to make all the decisions by himself or herself while another musician could differ, so the conductor has the final word.

    In practice, the conductor rehearse with the orchestra so the sound is molded to his studies and understanding of the musical piece. Musician are more like... talented tools to express the conductor's wishes. You could understand it better if you compare a same piece from two or three conductors.

    The job of the conductor is to communicate somehow to any section of even soloist of the orchestra how strong or soft it should play some part. How much sentiment. How fast and how strong.

    He or she also helps to prepare sections for play, like a reminder. He just keeps everything together. It's quite a challenging job as you can imagine, because they must memorize the piece to an extent he can spot mistakes and refine the musicians playing. Like stressing more a staccato or play better musical parts that connects different instruments, and so on. He's the sculptor that helps unify the individual ingredient that each of the talented performer provides.


    "why do the performers need to be unified? assuming one performer somehow loses the others, can't he just listen to them and adjust? how does the presence of the conductor make this any better?"

    The issue is someone has to set the beat, and a large ensemble is large enough that you may not be able to tell that a whole section is dragging from the stage (where the sound hasn't had time to mix). In smaller ensembles this isn't as important, as you can hear the other players and aren't subject to any sound propagation delays. If a section falls just a sliver behind, but not enough to throw everything off, the orchestra will sound "muddy".

    "Setting the tempo: isn't the tempo set in advance? don't the performers rehearse and know the tempo?"

    Maybe if there is a click track. Moreover, at tempo changes if someone in the bass or rhythm section takes a slower tempo, it is really hard to get the whole ensemble back up to tempo. Bass lines and rhythm have a whole lot of power over the tempo of the orchestra. Moreover, in general, the violins have a tendency to want to rush, and they are seated on the opposite side of the stage from the bass section, for traditional and sound mixing reasons, and absent a "final say" the orchestra may experience a tug of war over the tempo.

    Also, as mentioned by NReilingh, live music is live. You're operating without a net. The mood of the audience, the space when filled with people, or some other intangible may require an on the spot change in tempo or dynamics that wasn't rehearsed. Someone who isn't caught up in playing their part, who can see/hear all the voices is the only one who can make the call on the spot to speed up this section, slow down that passage, or start the swell of a crescendo two measures early.

    "If most things are known in advance, how much creativity is involved in the conductor's role?"

    A lot of what a conductor does happens before the night of the performance. They make all the things "known in advance" during the rehearsals. They chose how to interpret the tempo markings, they inform the balance of the orchestra (Are the violins to quite on the forte, and the drums too loud on the piano)?

    Now, the night of the concert, if the work has been done in rehearsal, and everything is ready... A conductor is a human click track/metronome with gentle reminders about what the group should be doing.

    That said, even a large ensemble that has played together enough can perform without a conductor... Or in some cases, in spite of the conductor. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was under the direction of McCall during his years just prior to retirement. His motor skills were declining, and his conducting was getting "mushy." The group responded by getting more cohesive. Their next conductor Andreas Delfs was rumored as having a hard time breaking them of the habit of not taking direction now that there was clear direction. The group and he finally stuck a balance and the MSO grew in acclaim under his tenure.

    "or in other words: what makes a conductor a good conductor?"

    A good conductor is one that is able to communicate/cast their artistic vision, who is able to get an ensemble to play well together, and challenge/push the players to improve (both together and separately). They must also be forgiving, and human. They must allow some artistic freedom for the musicians, but not so much that the group cannot work together.

    I like what Benjamin Zander has to say on the subject, "The success of a conductor is not measured in tickets or CDs sold, but in the shining eyes of the people around them." Those eyes are not just the audience but also the musicians. And he extrapolates that we should all ask ourselves this question of the people around us (friends, family, etc.), "Who am I being that their eyes are not shining?"

    Personal example, one conductor I had (in high school) wouldn't let us play the final note of Beethoven's 5th in rehearsal. Each time we got there he would cut us off in the final rest, and have us start the movement over again (or from a passage he thought needed more work). It was crazy making, maddening at the time. Come the concert, when the final note was struck we hit it with all we had because we hadn't gotten that closure of everyone playing that cadence together in rehearsal. The moment sent chills down everyone's back.


    Wagner, On Conducting

    From the Amazon.com blurb:

    Wagner initiated Romantic image of the conductor as fiery, omniscient dictator of the podium. Here are his eloquent essays on role of the conductor, musical interpretation, many other topics.

    Wagner's role in the discipline makes this a valuable read for anyone studying conducting, or with an interest in the art.

    • 5
      Rather than an answer with nothing but a link that sends someone off to another site, it would be preferred explained your link, perhaps summarized. The goal of Stack Exchange sites are to be the place you find answers, not the place you get sent on a wild goose chase. Commented May 12, 2011 at 14:57
    • 'Wagner, On Conducting' is quite self-explanatory, isn't it? I've given lengthy answers to other questions, but for this one I thought it's useful to point out a very valuable resource: a book on the topic (now free), written by a monumental orchestral composer. Commented May 13, 2011 at 10:32
    • 3
      Perhaps to you it is, but maybe it isn't to a random person who finds this question on Google. Link only answers are discouraged across the network. Commented May 13, 2011 at 16:27
    • Perhaps you could summarize it.
      – Luke_0
      Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 2:01
    • How do you wager on conducting? Commented Jun 24, 2012 at 22:36

    Your Answer

    By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

    Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.