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What does a conductor actually do?

I've heard different versions of Johann Strauss II: "Tales from the Vienna Woods", - they were guided by the different conductors?

So what is the difference of performing the same musical composition under the guidance of different conductors? I thought that notes makes it unambiguous.


3 Answers 3


The written notes actually miss a lot of information. If you would write down every little tempo change, every little accent, small and large scale rubato, microdynamics, articulations, etc. etc., the score would be impossible to read, and it would probably still miss something. What the composer writes down is just a skeleton of the piece and the most important details. The rest is filled in by the performer(s).

Now every performer has a different background on which they base their interpretation. Thus the piece will sound different when played by different people. This is a problem when many people play together since the piece would not sound logical. So, one job for the conductor is to unify the interpretations (or rather, probably force his own). Of course the conductors also have different backgrounds so the results will again be different, even if the orchestra doesn't change.

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    It's maybe beneficial to add that the conductors don't just show up the day of the performance even though the piece may be 300 years old. They make it extremely clear what they want from the orchestra at any point. Some of them are even notorious for their nitpicking.
    – user1306
    Commented Dec 24, 2012 at 4:06

One useful way of looking at it is that the orchestra is a single musical instrument, and the conductor is the player, playing the orchestra.

While the notes and durations are written on the sheets, the conductor indicates to the musicians the exact timing and articulations of important melodies. Sections that have long rests may receive a cue when they come back in.


Any piece can actually be performed in an incredibly wide variety of ways, and the controller of style, flow, feeling, pace etc is the conductor.

Generally the conductor is considered the most important person in an orchestra once the skill level of the individual musicians is high enough.