Orchestral Music
January 1, 2005 4:17 AM   Subscribe

Question from a musical layman--I just went to a great New Year's classical concert and two things I always wondered about struck me again: 1) Why does an orchestra need a conductor? I know it's for tempo, but most of the time the musicians don't even seem to be looking at the conductor. Would the players be completely lost without him/her? And 2) why do musicians need the sheet music? All other types of musicians don't need sheet music...surely they've memorized the piece they're playing....even I know exactly how, say, Beethoven's 5th sounds like (though I couldn't play it to save my life).

Go easy on me, I know the answers must be painfully obvious to many of you.
posted by zardoz to Media & Arts (34 answers total)
Best answer: 1) Most of the real contributions of a conductor come well before anyone steps up to a podium. In a "traditional" orchestra, the conductor is really the manager--with a big say in who the musicians are, and their hierarchy--the major fund-raiser, and the "coach", leading rehearsals, etc.

Most importantly, though, the conductor is (usually) responsible for managing the specific interpretation of a piece. Way before they start swinging a baton at a concert, they often decide what the orchestra is going to play on the program, and then put a lot of work and talent into deciding exactly how it's going to be played. There are often different arrangements to choose from, different moods you could try to emphasize, etc. Then the orchestra needs to be rehearsed, up to 2 or 3 times a day at points, for weeks.

Maybe the best analogy is a theater director, directing a well-known Shakespeare play--you might think "They're all the same play, so every show should be the same", but if you see the same play put on by three or four very good directors, they can all be _completely_ different.

Try finding a recording of a classical piece you like, by one or more prominent conductors--as a good example, Beethoven's Ninth, conducted by Karajan and by Bernstein. The two performances are night and day...Karajan's is slow, stately and almost dark, while Bernstein's take on the same passages can be lively and crisp. It's not just the tempo that's different. It's the balance of who's playing, how they're playing and a whole lot more. Most often, it's the conductor who's made those choices, and tried to get the orchestra to express them.

Note that this a very much an "old school" take on the conductor's role--a lot of people would rightly object that it glorifies the conductor, at the expense of everyone else's contributions. A long time ago, being a conductor really was being the ruler of a little kingdom, but today, things are usually much different. Most orchestras today are run a bit more democratically, so things are more distributed, without the conductor being so much of a "star". There are even several orchestras that basically run themselves without a conductor--their names escape me, right now, but I think one of the prominent ones is in Germany. All the ones I've heard of are run on more of a collective/cooperative model, where everybody has a say in the program, etc.

2) Regarding the sheet music, most players certainly don't use it for a note-by-note reminder of what to play, you're right. But you've got to remember that classical pieces are built on repetition and variation, as a fundamental tool of composition, so when you're playing subtle variations of the same basic themes over and over again for two hours, after having rehearsed it in bits and pieces for weeks, it can be very hard sometimes to keep track of exactly where you are. ("What a second, are we in the _seventh_ repeat of this phrase, or the eighth?") A detailed score gives you enough information to keep track of where you are, and find your place quickly if you lose your concentration for a second.

I used to room with a guy who played in an orchestra, and he said the hardest thing was when you had passages where you didn't play for a long time--it's one thing to keep on top of your position while you're playing, since you're so focused on the details, but musicians can basically have to sit on their hands for 20 minutes or more at a stretch in some pieces. That's when it's easy to get distracted, and not follow exactly where you are and have to come back in, and that's where the score can really help.
posted by LairBob at 4:56 AM on January 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Very insightful, LairBob. Thanks!
posted by zardoz at 5:00 AM on January 1, 2005

A great answer indeed, Lairbob!
posted by adrianhon at 5:39 AM on January 1, 2005

There were some interesting comments when a similar question was asked a year ago.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:05 AM on January 1, 2005

On the music question, think of it like "Selected Shorts" the program that was broadcast on NPR where an actor would read a short story to an audience. The actor could certainly memorize the entire story and read it back, but since you're looking at an hour or more of reading, it doesn't make much sense.

A professional orchestral musician should be able to read and play nearly any piece dropped in front of him/her on sight, but unlike written text, music contains many nuances that are written in by the composer/arranger as well as that which is demanded by the conductor (and a good musician will also write in notes on the page). The musician is required to recreate that performance at the drop of the baton.

The musician will usually memorize things to a certain degree as a matter of course. I can still play the majority of some pieces that I last played a decade or more ago, but I would still want the music in front of me for a performance.
posted by plinth at 6:33 AM on January 1, 2005

Excellent explanation LiarBob.
Having been an orchestral musician in a previous life, I can tell you from experience that the conductor waving his/her baton around is more than show. Yes any musician worth their merit should be able to play their part without direction, but it is nice to have the conductor up there, pulling it all together.
As was explained to me a bazillion years ago, the conductor is the metronome that the orchestra follows. If you've ever heard an unconducted, large group of musicians playing a piece you understand what I'm talking about. Everyone [musically] has their own idea of how a piece should be played, and not everyone in the same orchestra will agree on the meter. The conductor dictates that, and yes, even though they may be looking at the music, they can still see the conductor's ofttimes exaggerated hand/arm movements, giving them guidance through the selection.
As for having the music in front of you, it's better to be safe than sorry. Even though one may have a full repertory memorized, depending on your memory of a passage isn't always trustworthy.
posted by kamylyon at 7:53 AM on January 1, 2005

I'm not a musician, but I've thought about this question in the past, too, and always assumed that part of the answer to your second question has to do with how orchestras perform. Other musicians tend to play a limited set of relatively simple songs repeatedly. The exception is probably professional studio musicians, but they have systems for providing the same type of information that sheet music provides to an orchestra, like Nashville Numbers, and such.

Orchestras on the other hand, rarely perform the same concert more than one or two times. Throughout the season, they perform dozens of completely different works in completely different styles. So, might they eventually memorize much of a Beethoven Symphony that they play almost every season? Sure, probably. But it's probably not the same for the one off pieces that they perform once a decade or sometimes just once.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:06 AM on January 1, 2005

There have been experiments with conductorless orchestras. From Wikipedia;

The post-revolutionary ?????? ????????????? ???????? (Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl' - First Symphonic Ensemble) was formed in the USSR in 1922. The unusual aspect of the orchestra was that, believing that in the ideal Marxist state all men are equal, its members felt that there was no need to be led by the dictatorial baton of a conductor; instead they were led by a committee. Although it was a partial success, the principal difficulty with the concept was in changing tempo. The orchestra survived for ten years and had to be disbanded only when the individual talents began to rebel against the rigid control under which they were expected to play.

On sheet music, I usually had most of my music memorized by the time we played a concert, and I'm not good at memorizing. Why the band kids memorized, soloists memorized and we orchestra dweebs didn't, I really don't know. Maybe because we were neither moving around nor standing in front drawing attention.
posted by QIbHom at 8:51 AM on January 1, 2005

Even 'band kids' don't memorize unless they have the solo [and sometimes not even then]. I well remember the little music holders that attached to the instruments we used when marching.
Thank goodness I went to a school that didn't have a football team! [We only marched once a year, during the All-State festival in Burlington]
posted by kamylyon at 9:20 AM on January 1, 2005

I play in an orchestra and I am amazed at people's memorization abilities as stated here. I don' t come close to memorizing entire pieces even after the second or third performances. The reason orchestra players don't appear to be looking at the conductor much is that they are reading the music! It is usually much too complicated to memorize. There will be melodic passages that you will never forget, but for the most part, no.
posted by free pie at 9:53 AM on January 1, 2005

Most of the real contributions of a conductor come well before anyone steps up to a podium.
Your post is mostly accurate. But you've clearly never conducted an orchestra. I have. Conducting is, by far, the most difficult and important part of the job, far beyond any elements of artistic direction you discuss.

I've been asked this question a hundred times. Frankly, even most orchestral musicians don't understand conducting. I had a great teacher, and I thought I understood it -- until I did it. You can't imagine the experience.

I'll say this: It's a hell of a lot easier to conduct your own music than someone else's. And conducting a symphony is far more difficult than conducting a big band. The most difficult? Opera*, followed by concerti. Keeping a symphony united while following a soloist is incredibly hard. And for many performances, conductors are lucky to have a single rehearsal with a guest soloist. (And each soloist is different.) Trust me. Those guys deserve respect.

* And I hate opera. So when I say they deserve respect...
posted by cribcage at 10:32 AM on January 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Brass players often have to count more rests than play music! Low brass players might count 132 measures of rest, then perhaps have to play ONE particularly loud note, and start counting again. They also see the dreaded % sign -- "play the same thing you just played in the last measure" -- which can go on for 20 measures.

A symphony is about a half-hour long. Memorizing the music would be like memorizing several chapters of your favorite book. (It can be done, however, especially with a shorter piece.) Soloists in the US don't tend to memorize pieces as often, but it's a more common practice in Europe and the rest of the world.

If orchestra members can't see the conductor for some reason, the next resort is to watch the principal violinist. It's fun to be in the audience and watch an entire violin section, though. The top two players are required to be more animated and the others pick up the visual cues. Small groups (like string 4tets) don't have conductors because they can all see each others' body language.

There are professional orchestras who perform sans conductor -- Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for example, is a terrific group.
posted by oldtimey at 10:57 AM on January 1, 2005

1) Conductors bring the orchestra to life as a single musical instrument, as opposed to a conglomeration of individuals. The conductor allows the orchestra to breathe together, slow down and speed up gracefully together (ritardando & accelerando), get softer and louder together (piano & forte), and all the other subtle nuances that must be performed as one by all.

As mentioned above, the conductor also decides how his instrument (the orchestra) will approach a piece, as the intent of the original composer often leaves much room for interpretation. This requires immense knowledge of composers, styles, historical conventions and modern approaches, etc.

Without a conductor, there is no synergy of the individual players, except in very specialized settings (small groups, or the infrequent experiments with conductor-less orchestras.) Tempo is the LEAST of the things the conductor is bringing to the performance.

2) Regarding sheet music, it's actually more common across the board (big band, classical, opera, most jazz, standards, musicals, etc.) to have music than not. Depending on what kinds of music you personally experience, this may not be evident, but being "off the page" is a BIG step for most all musicians, rock bands et. al. excluded.
posted by Aquaman at 11:00 AM on January 1, 2005

I forgot to mention one other thing: conductors are also there to keep the orchestra from having a collective panic attack. It is terrifying when something goes really wrong (an instrument breaks, a soloist omits a passage, the percussionists are seemingly playing the wrong piece of music, whatever) and then nobody knows what to do. The conductor's job is to keep cool and get the music and musicians coordinated again.
posted by oldtimey at 11:14 AM on January 1, 2005

As Aquaman says, what's this about some types of musicians not needing sheet music? What are you on? Everyone uses sheet music (except rock and most jazz bands, of course). Occasionally a somewhat enterprising pianist won't have the sheet music, but most use it in longer or more complicated pieces at the least, as an outline in case they lose track as LairBob said.
posted by abcde at 11:15 AM on January 1, 2005

Your post is mostly accurate. But you've clearly never conducted an orchestra.

Dude, I don't even play an instrument. I totally defer to your expertise on these matters...please take my first statement to mean "Much of the real contributions of a conductor..."
posted by LairBob at 11:19 AM on January 1, 2005

Occasionally a somewhat enterprising pianist won't have the sheet music

I was a conservatory-trained classical pianist, and in solo performance -- unless it was something extremely modern, like written yesterday -- using "sheet music" was taboo. However, playing with the score in front of you was totally expected/necessary when performing chamber music or accompanying opera singers or solo orchestral musicians.

I learned to appreciate exactly what a conductor does when I had to play a piano part in an orchestral performance -- my first time NOT being a soloist -- and was confronted with what someone else described here, like 300 bars of rests broken up by the occasional plonk of notes. It was really frightening trying to follow this contemporary score and keep up with where everyone was. Thank god for the conductor and his generous cueing!

Also, it was only when I had to take a class in it that it really sunk in how complicated and subtle -- and important -- conducting really is.
posted by mothershock at 11:44 AM on January 1, 2005

I've never been an orchestral performer, but I've been in several choirs, some small, and some,very large ensembles upwards of 400 people + orchestra, under two very good conductors (Ron Staheli and Mack Wilberg). And aside from echoing much of what LairBob said, I'd also add that a conductor in action is doing much more than keeping tempo -- though that can become *extremely* important as your ensemble gets large. Once you have enough people spread out over enough space, trying to synch with other performers by sound can become very difficult due to time delays. But conductors also shape in realtime many other expressive aspects of the piece -- levels, the attack style of a given set of notes, how certain notes are tied together into a phrase, making sure phrases voiced by more than one part (or simply many voices) get cut off together. A better analogy than that of a metronome would almost be that they're an audio engineer, a performance engineer, running a very large human mixing board. Except, of course, that engineer is too mechanistic a term (but then again, that's actually a problem with describing audio engineers as well -- whatever else good audio engineers are, they're also true artists).

Maybe it's better to say that a conductor is basically playing a very large, complex instrument made up of other human beings and their instruments.
posted by weston at 12:02 PM on January 1, 2005

Many orchestra's don't actually rehearse as a group very much - in part because it's expensive. A smaller orchestra can't afford to pay 80-120 professionals for a lot of hours. They are all expected to already know or to learn the music on their own time, and to learn the interpretation by following the conductor in short time period (relative to the length of the repertiore they are performing). The musicians are very busy with other musical endevours - teaching, solo performances, some compose, etc. A conductor helps to unite them.
posted by raedyn at 12:07 PM on January 1, 2005

"conductors are also there to keep the orchestra from having a collective panic attack"

In general, the conductor is also an important center of morale in general for an ensemble. There is a very high correlation between the energy and professionalism on the podium and within the ensemble.

I do a lot of tours, musicals, and opera, and even the most beautiful show can get tedious when you play it 2-3 times a day. Keeping the music sounding fresh is the hardest thing to do when you've played it umpteen times. The conductor, through personality and professionalism, goes a long way in keeping the ensemble on track and playing their best in this regard.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:11 PM on January 1, 2005

I second the idea of listening to two interpretations of the same work. It would be revealing, methinks.

I also gained a new respect for conductors when I was asked to fill in for the director of my (20 voice) choir in a pinch a few years ago. It's powerful when you have responsive musicians, but it can be a lot of responsibility. Like if any other musician gets lost, they're likely to rely on the conductor to help them get back on track (along with auditory clues of course) so when you are up front, you better not get lost.

A top-notch conductor can take even mediocre musicians to whole new levels.
posted by raedyn at 12:17 PM on January 1, 2005

As a side-query - why does the orchestra always seem to be a beat or two behind the conductor? I'm pretty rhythmic (I drum), but it seems the conductor signals the downbeat, and half a second later the orchestra starts. Watching a conductor (from the audience) while listening to the music can (for me) be a mind-fecking experience - the two seem to be at complete odds.
posted by TiredStarling at 12:27 PM on January 1, 2005

Everyone uses sheet music (except rock and most jazz bands, of course)

I think most jazz bands do use sheet music (unless, of course, they're playing free jazz).
posted by languagehat at 12:42 PM on January 1, 2005

why does the orchestra always seem to be a beat or two behind the conductor? I'm pretty rhythmic (I drum), but it seems the conductor signals the downbeat, and half a second later the orchestra starts.
How far away are you sitting, TiredStarling?
posted by Aquaman at 1:52 PM on January 1, 2005

Aquaman: While I haven't seen a conductor be a whole beat ahead, I have sat up in the front row and noticed that the conductor seems about half a beat ahead.

In some early music class, our teacher explained that this was intentional, so everyone could see what they'd have to do before they actually had to do it. However, that was many years ago, in public school, and I've learned to take what I was taught then with a grain of salt.
posted by Bugbread at 2:00 PM on January 1, 2005

If the distance between you and the orchestra isn't an issue, then it may just be that you are interpreting some movements of the conductor's baton as downbeats when they are upbeats. Depending on the time signature, and the conductor's style, these can be pretty non-obvious.

For example, conducting a waltz (3/4 time) could put the baton's downbeat to the left (or even up!) instead of straight down. Or, depending on the feel of the piece, the pickups, or upbeats could be more emphasized by the conductor.

On the other hand, there definitely is an element of "leading the beat" on the part of the conductor, which could be what you're seeing.
posted by Aquaman at 3:05 PM on January 1, 2005

One other reason for conductors - in a big group, it can be very hard to synchronize tempo by ear. In fact, the sheer delay from the rear rank of the brass to the front desk of the strings, combined with normal reaction times, can make things get ugly fast. It's much easier for everyone to focus on the stick and time things by eye than to go with the sound.

Ever noticed that in a really good tight live band, the musicians look at one another a lot? That's why. But when you have 100 musicians that breaks down.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:32 PM on January 1, 2005

why does the orchestra always seem to be a beat or two behind the conductor?
Usually a half-beat, give or take, for the same reason you give driving directions by saying, "There's a turn coming up on your right." Imagine waiting until you've reached the side street and suddenly screaming, "TURN NOW!!"

As for conductors and sheet music: You can't create uniformity with directions. Try writing down directions on how to paint a picture. Pass them out to 100 students. Depending on how precise you are, you may end up with 100 paintings that are very similar -- but small differences will remain. It's not easy to direct a band that sounds tight. The more instruments you add, the harder it becomes.

It's a good question. Don't knock yourself for not understanding; the answers aren't "painfully obvious" under any circumstances. Music is filled with subtlety and nuance, and sheet music is an incredibly blunt tool.
posted by cribcage at 3:39 PM on January 1, 2005

Up until my Grade 12 year, I thought conductors were largely metronomes as well, and never really understood the painful amount of work that went into it.

Then I was taking a music class, as I had every year for seven years. Our class wasn't overly large, so the teacher had us teach and conduct one piece each for classes a couple grades below us.

I grew a new respect for conductors after that, let me tell you.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:50 PM on January 1, 2005

I seem to remember hearing a talk by Neville Mariner where he told about the early days of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. They started as a small string group consciously without a conductor and everything was fine musically, but it took extra rehearsal time, limited some of the pieces they could play, and was harder work on everybody, so they made him get out in front and conduct.

Many jazz bands have used sheet music since the early days for many of the same reasons as classical musicians, though the solos are always improvised (at least in any decent band). It was a career limiting move not to be able to read music as all the most of the best paid and most professional bands required it. Small group jazz on the other hand requires knowing a vast repertoire of tunes and being able to improvise on them. If you listen to Marian McPartland on NPR she quite frequently asks musicians how they learn the tunes.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:13 PM on January 1, 2005

My daughter plays in her school district orchestra, and once a year they have a festival/competition with other school orchestras. Their usual conductor is "just" a music teacher, incredibly dedicated for sure, but not a professional musician. After each orchestra performs, the judges, who are professional conductors/musicians, then come down and offer a brief critique of the piece, and then take over the baton. It is absolutely astounding how much difference this little 10 minute lesson can make in the quality of the performance.

I once had the worst seat in the house for a baroque opera, front row, extreme left, and could see around the side of the orchestra screen. The closest musician was the harpist, who only played about 10 notes in 3 hours. The rest of the time she amused herself with a fat Danielle Steele novel.

(PS Wonderful thread)
posted by Rumple at 10:29 PM on January 1, 2005

There are even several orchestras that basically run themselves without a conductor--their names escape me, right now, but I think one of the prominent ones is in Germany. All the ones I've heard of are run on more of a collective/cooperative model, where everybody has a say in the program, etc.

One excellent ensemble that functions this way is the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
posted by the_bone at 10:03 AM on January 2, 2005

This is a late, late post-- I don't know if anyone follows threads this far out-- but I have to respond.

On the job of the conductor: In any top-notch orchestra or ensemble, the job of the conductor is principally to interpret the music and guide the artistic vision of the orchestra. So the conductor supplies the tempo, but does not supply time.

Here's the difference. Tempo is how fast or slow you play, and the rate at which the conductor moves the stick supplies the tempo. Time is the "beat"-- the uniformity and consistency of rhythm between players in the ensemble. The conductor suggests time by stopping the stick when you hit the beat. (You pros out there, the baton stops at the ictus.) But professional-level players should never, never, never try to take time exclusively from the stick. Good time is a mental process, aided by "subdividing" or thinking through parts of the beat, and by listening to your fellow musicians. (That's why it's possible for orchestras to play without a conductor.)

I noticed some comments about the lag between the conductor's motion and the beats. That's because the stick is not a perfect representation of time; it can't be. Players take this into account; it varies according to your instrument and the nature of the music you play. (Strings tend to pull off the beat in slower music-- they can do so because of bowing. Double reeds are almost always on top of the beat, due to the percussive way that they start their notes.)

On the sheet music question: It entirely depends on the kind of music you play. In pop and improvisational genres, you don't necessarily need it. (Ever see a rock band reading sheet music? Or a jazz combo?) But in any larger ensemble, memorization is impractical, if not uncommon difficult.
posted by Scooter at 11:12 AM on January 2, 2005

That last one is completely, totally wrong.

Tempo is speed. Time is meter. And if you try taking tempo from any source other than the composer, or taking time from any source other than the conductor, you're never going to become a professional classical musician. Community ensembles are filled with people who think their intuition trumps conductor's judgment.

The "lag" between the conductor and the music has nothing whatsoever to do with "a perfect representation of time." I don't even know what that means, or why on Earth anyone thinks a conductor's baton can't reflect time accurately. As I explained above, a conductor signals an entrance before it occurs because that's how signals work. He's operating the orchestra, not playing along with it.

As for sheet music: If you've never seen a jazz combo reading sheet music, you've probably attended fewer than three jazz concerts in your life. Speaking as a jazz composer, performer, conductor, and fan, I'd say the vast majority of concerts I've witnessed or performed in have involved sheet music onstage. The exceptions are bands whose repertoire consists solely of standards ("Autumn Leaves," "All the Things You Are," "My Foolish Heart," etc.). The necessity of sheet music has absolutely nothing to do with ensemble size, and everything to do with what they're performing.
posted by cribcage at 6:30 PM on January 4, 2005

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