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I am used to symphonic orchestras playing classical music which does not take a rhythm as a constant, but rather as a variable which could be adjusted based on stylistic demands of the context (I think one of the greatest examples could be Bedřich Smetana's poem Vltava, where the tempo is rather slow in the beginning, symbolizing the springs of the river and then when the melody develops the beat becomes stronger and faster symbolizing strong current and power). In this case we understand that the conductor is the person who controls this variable.

However, recently I have listened to Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra playing music from videogames. Some of them have a very powerful beat and strong feeling of "being in a pocket", like the second part of Skyrim's "The Dragonborn Comes". How does the "groove" stays strong for a long time in a 100+ people ensemble? Is this solely the conductor's achievement or is that rather a "collective feeling" (like the idea of "crowd wisdom", where people on average could be very precise)?

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    Consumate, experienced musicians ought to be able to keep to a strict tempo! Especially with a good conductor. Just like you follow the tempo your conductor gives, with variations, so they follow without. Doubt anyone needs a click track! – Tim Apr 13 at 11:29
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    Related question and here. – guidot Apr 13 at 11:43
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I have worked in all kinds of settings, classical orchestras, Big band Jazz groups, small groups, etc. I think that for a small group being in the pocket or holding a groove is an easier thing to do, at least in theory. The players can see each other, and there is a degree of "conducting" going. I used to sit in front of the rhythm section in a big band in college and the drummer could accent my solos in the just the right place without any rehearsals (and they were different every time). He said to it was easy because I was telegraphing what I was going to do with my body language.

This is hard to do in a 100+ person orchestra and a conductor is needed. There is no reason for an orchestra to be sloppy with time. But I think it is the conductor who is driving. With enough practice all the team members should have a "feel" for what's coming but they have to be open to following the conductor.

I have never heard an orchestra keep the beat poorly, this is a basic element of music. But there some grooves that are very laid back. An example is the en clave' Latin groove. As it was described to me it's a grouping of 5 beats but cannot be strictly counted like 5/4 time. The placement of clicks is so loose that you have to feel the entire measure and any attempt of quantify it in terms of fractions of a beat will lose the groove. I think really heavy delayed back beats in greasy funk follow a similar patter. Everyone needs to know it, feel it, and it likely works better in a small (or small-ish) group (Parliament was a large band but not a 100+ orchestra).

In my experience when very large orchestras play modern pieces they tend to lose the groove and acquire a more tight march-like feel, imo due to everyone following the leader's beat rather than "feeling it". But I do not think it's impossible for an orchestra to generate a greasy groove. That would be very impressive.

In terms of "crowd wisdom" I am not sure what you mean but every musician should have an internal metronome. That's part of the training. I had conductor who would famously start every practice with "Everybody here counts, some more that others...". But everyone must count together.

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  • Sure everyone has an internal metronome (otherwise we wouldn't use real ones, right?), and I think everyone knows how it works in small groups. But things could be totally different in a large group without percussion and I guess most of us, hobby guys, don't really know how it works, hence the question. So we can agree on something like (roughly) 70% is the conductor leading the orchestra and 30% is everyone's internal feeling? – eugen-fried Apr 13 at 16:03
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I'm not sure why you are asking this since you're aware that there is a conductor! The name for musicians who don't watch the conductor to make sure they are following the beat (as well as dynamics and tonality) is "fired."

Now, there are large ensembles which run sans conductor. A Far Cry is my favorite local (Boston MA) example. They work first by rehearsing (surprise!) and then largely by following the section leads, who in turn are watching each other.

In general, small groups such as trios, quartets,... up to maybe 10 players operate without a conductor by watching each other, being aware who has the lead at any point and letting them drive the expressiveness.

If your blues/rock/jazz group is not watching a leader then you have problems :-( .

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There were grooves long before there were computers!

The REALLY clever thing a good conductor does is 'rubato'. The tempo ebbs and flows, but there IS a constant, metronomic underlying beat. A second-class conductor keeps changing tempo, a first-class one is aware of the pulse and just BENDS it, weaves around it...

I'm not saying there aren't explicit tempo changes as well. Just talking about that wonderful synthesis of constancy and freedom. A flexible groove.

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The groove is in the music not in the computer.

Bernstein said in a documentary “my love to the 3 Orchestras” (N.Y., Vienna, Berlin: This is like having sex.

He certainly meant what you are asking about. It is not the conductor alone - it is the wave of all together.

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