to Think About When You Conduct:
Perception, Language and Musical Communication
by Lee Humphries
by noting that all the information in a score isn't equally important.
As you prepare for rehearsal, you need to distinguish among the score's
various features and determine their relative significance. This is the
first step in building a useful mental image of the work. That image—filled
out and refined over the course of score study—will guide you in organizing
the rehearsal and gauging the ensemble's progress.
attention. Listening to music is an act of perception.
The mechanisms of perception are highly relevant to conducting, so I'll
take a few paragraphs to discuss them. Then I'll show you their application
to score study.
The fundamental unit
of perception is difference: the difference between simultaneously
occurring phenomena, and the difference between phenomena separated in
time. Each perceived difference is a psychological event.
Our fundamental response
to difference is attention. Music holds our attention with its
ongoing flow of parametric differences—temporal, metric, rhythmic, melodic,
harmonic, tonal, textural, formal, dynamic. These differences take place
at all levels of musical structure and vary in their attention-capturing
potential. But what determines that potential? To answer this, let's
look at how we make sense of incoming data.
To find meaning, we
spontaneously conduct an internal search, looking for a mental framework
in which the incoming data plays a concordant role. This operation is
usually carried out in a split second. The result is a foreground-background
structure of "role-within-framework," which makes up our mental
organization of the moment.
As more data arrives,
we're likely to encounter some new element that doesn't fit our current
framework: It has no role there. This lack of fit triggers another search
for a different mental framework where it can play a role.
of attention we pay to an element is a function of its incompatibility
with our current mental framework. The greater an element's potential
for reorganizing our framework, the more attention it commands.
principle is of the utmost musical importance. It is the key to identifying
the compositional elements that will dominate the listener's attention.
And it is the perceptual foundation for effective stick technique.
Levels of attention.
The events that attract the most attention are those which have no role
within our current framework—which make sense only when our existing framework
is replaced with a different one. They have a quality of surprise
about them. They are novel, unexpected, discontinuous. Some musical
examples are: a change of tempo with no mediating accelerando or ritardando;
a change of dynamics with no mediating crescendo or decrescendo; a shift
of tonal center with no mediating modulation; a change of texture, register,
instrumentation, meter, phrase structure, articulation, scale, harmonic
The events that attract
moderate attention are those which become meaningful when our current
framework is retained, but modified. They have some novelty, but
are felt to be a logical extension of what has preceded them. They contribute
to a sense of progression and growth. Some musical examples are: tones
that extend the boundaries of the melodic range; crescendos or diminuendos;
accelerandos or ritardandos; modulations; systematic changes in rhythmic
density; systematic addition or subtraction of instruments.
The events that attract
the least attention are those which reinforce our current framework.
They lack novelty and fit smoothly into the existing mental organization.
The most significant
musical event at any point in time is the one that most challenges the
listener's current mental framework.
of attention. There is a limit to the speed at which we can
repeatedly shift our attention. The maximum rate at which a conductor
can give cues and/or transmit expressive details is an absolute value,
independent of the tempo of the music. Experience has shown me that this
is approximately one instruction per half-second. At mm. = 120, that
amounts to a cue every beat; at mm. = 60, two cues per beat. But this
value is an upper limit: It is difficult to sustain for more than a few
measures without making yourself dizzy and drowning the ensemble in excess
information. A more comfortable rate for both conductor and ensemble
is one transmission every one to two seconds—allowing for momentary increases
or decreases in the rate when called for by the music's structure.
You can apply this
concept to score study in the following way. First, find a base rate
of attention shifts with which you are comfortable—say, a shift of
attention about every two seconds. Then, taking the tempo into account,
find a logical metrical unit that approximates this time span—perhaps
in the score. Go through the score, and for each half-measure (or
other appropriate unit) determine the most attention-commanding difference
contained therein—the most important change in the music. It might be
an instrument's entrance, a sfz, an increase in rhythmic activity,
a chromatic alteration, a change in melodic direction, an irregular resolution.
The possibilities are endless.
Mark each significant
difference in the score. I recommend the following method. In the appropriate
instrumental part, mark the specific beat where the difference occurs.
Do this by writing that beat's number there in red pencil. For example,
if the most significant difference is an accent in the oboe on the fourth
beat, then write a red "4" there in the oboe part.
Marking the score
in this way routes your attention. It guides your eye and ear through
the maze of musical information to the dominant event of each moment.
In the process, you acquire an image of the score as a timeline of
rhythmic attention shifts.
This approach also
makes your learning more efficient. It saves you from having to figure
out the significant differences each time you go through the score. Additionally,
it enables you to think ahead during the heat of conducting. You can
quickly see where important events will appear in upcoming measures, so
you can prepare for them well in advance.
Once you've created
this timeline as a conceptual scaffolding, you can incorporate other dimensions
of musical awareness into it. We'll consider these next.
Pitch is perceived
in different ways under different musical conditions. In some instances,
its harmonic aspect dominates our experience; in others, its melodic aspect;
in still others, its textural aspect. At times the musical fabric is
stratified—with harmonic, melodic, and/or textural styles occurring simultaneously.
What we hear depends
on several factors: the overall pace of the activity, the number of parts,
their contoural and rhythmic independence, their spatial and timbrel proximity,
and the number of pitch classes presented per unit of time.
As complexity increases,
there is a decline in our ability to hear music as a series of discrete
chords. Vertical pitch relationships recede into the background; horizontal
pitch relationships move into the foreground.
Beyond a certain point,
even the horizontal relationships loose their individuality. Texture
reigns supreme, and one hears the musical equivalent of physics' Brownian
A passage's organization
determines what you listen for. To effectively rehearse horizontally
conceived passages, you need a vivid mental image of the individual lines.
This is best developed by playing and singing each part.
To deal with vertically
conceived passages, you need a clear image of each separate chord and
an understanding of the role each instrument plays in it.
Building a harmonic
image. Building a harmonic image of a score isn't as difficult as
it seems. Here's a strategy that will do the trick
- Begin by taking a phrase
of music and figuring out what notes make up each sonority
- At the keyboard, condense
each sonority into a block chord. Put the bottom note of the sonority
on the bottom of the block chord. Stack the other notes above it in
close order so that the block chord spans less than an octave and contains
all the pitch classes of the original sonority. (In most cases you'll
be able to play it with one hand.)
- Play the series of block
chords to familiarize yourself with the progression.
- Arpeggiate each chord
from bottom to top to bottom (e.g., C-Eb-A-B-A-Eb-C), then sing the
arpeggiation. Use note names, scale degrees, or solfege syllables.
- Play each chord's bass
note, and sing its arpeggiation.
- Play nothing; sing each
- Looking at the score,
sing the arpeggiation of a chord; then sing the chord member played
by each instrument. Proceed this way through the progression
- At the keyboard, play
each sonority as it is voiced in the score. While the sonority is sounding,
sing its arpeggiation.
This process develops the
harmonic image in a series of small, easy steps. Each step prepares you
for the next one. The more you do this sort of thing, the more vivid
your harmonic imagery will become.
The coloristic sound
of an ensemble arises from things that are rarely spelled out in the score:
attack and release characteristics, speed and width of the vibrato, vertical
dynamic relationships, vertical tuning, and unity of execution when two
or more players are on a part.
Color is sometimes
paradoxical. An instrument's warm, resonant sound can be unsatisfactory
within the context of the ensemble if it lacks sufficient edge to cut
through the other instruments. Give it some nasality, and it becomes
more beautiful in a relative sense by being less beautiful in an absolute
the most useful statements ever made about the perception of rhythm turns
up on page ten of Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer's The Rhythmic
Structure of Music (University of Chicago Press): "Durational
differences . . . tend to produce end-accented groupings . . . ; intensity
differentiation tends to produce beginning-accented groupings . . . ;
and the proper combination of durational difference with intensity difference
tends to produce middle-accented groupings. . . ." This has tremendous
implications for musical performance.
If players put undue
dynamic stress on a note that is located on a weak beat (or on the weak
part of a beat), they will disrupt the underlying meter. Specifically,
the stress will create a beginning-accented grouping whose strong and
weak elements are out of phase with those of the meter.
Similarly, if players
under-stress an "on-the-beat" short note and over-stress an
"off-the-beat" long note that immediately follows it, they will
create an end-accented grouping whose weak and strong elements are, once
again, out of phase with those of the meter.
also arise because of inappropriate dynamic relationships between
instruments. If one instrument's on-the-beat note is under-stressed,
it can make another instrument's off-the-beat note sound stressed—creating
the illusion that it is on-the-beat.
These are common problems,
even in the best ensembles. They are brought on by our natural tendency
to emphasize notes having formal importance within the phrase (e.g., first
notes, highest notes, longest notes) and to de-emphasize their neighbors.
The ability to distinguish
subtle dynamic differences is critical in maintaining metrically appropriate
rhythmic groupings. An accurate image of rhythm incorporates an understanding
of dynamic, as well as durational, relationships.
Setting the tempo. The
maximum and minimum tempos at which a piece can be played are determined
by its most difficult passages. Although these passages may last only
a measure or two, if you set a pace without taking them into account,
disaster will meet you around the corner. Either the strings will capsize
trying to negotiate a raging torrent of presto thirty-second notes, or
the trombones will sink into blue-faced oblivion trying to sustain a tied
string of largo whole notes.
Once you've decided
on the appropriate tempo, your next problem is to feel it each time you
begin. It's easier to remember a tempo within a musical context than
to remember it in the abstract. So practice setting the tempo by first
recalling the musical passage in which it appears. When you think you've
found the right tempo, get feedback from the metronome. If you use the
metronome for correction, not direction, you'll shorten your learning
Changing the tempo.
You can master the shift from one tempo to another by understanding
their mathematical ratio. Suppose the work begins at QUARTER = 80,
then switches to QUARTER = 60.
- Make a fraction of the
two tempos; put TEMPO I in the numerator, TEMPO II in
the denominator: 80/60.
- Reduce the fraction:
80/60 = 4/3.
- Divide TEMPO I's
beat by the fraction's denominator: QUARTER ÷ 3. TEMPO I's
beat is now divided into three units (i.e., triplet eighth notes).
Four of these units equal
the beat in TEMPO II. FOUR is the fraction's numerator.
When the mathematical ratio
of the tempos isn't reducible to an easy fraction, an approximation of
the ratio may be just as good. Say, TEMPO I is QUARTER = 63
and TEMPO II is QUARTER = 80. The fraction 63/80
won't reduce, and you can't think eighty units per beat.
But 63/80 approximates
63/81, which reduces to 7/9. Better yet, 63/80 also
approximates 64/80, which reduces to 4/5. The latter is
preferred—it's simpler to divide the beat into 5 units than 9 units.
So again, divide TEMPO I's beat by the denominator, 5.
And multiply the resulting unit (i.e., one-fifth of a beat) by the numerator,
4. The four units satisfactorily approximate the beat in TEMPO
Few of us realize
the extent to which language filters our experiences and prescribes our
responses. Language is hypnotic. Every sentence is an indirect suggestion.
Its vocabulary, syntax, and vocal characteristics evoke a mental framework
that brings certain perceptions to the foreground of our awareness.
in turn, shape our behavior. Behavior is metaphoric, a physiological representation
of the meaning we ascribe to our perceptions.
Every time you say
something in a rehearsal, you orient the players toward one set of perceptions
and responsesand away from another set. Let's examine this further.
There is no doubt that an ensemble plays better when everyone shares a
feeling of community and common purpose. The language environment subtly
reinforces or undermines this feeling. When you say "we," "us,"
"you and I," or "you and me," the plural form paints
a picture of people functioning as a unit. When you say "I,"
"me," or "you" in the singular, you present the image
of people acting separately. Personal pronouns and conjunctions are psychological
fences that symbolically hold people together or keep them apart.
To accomplish much of anything, you must have the goodwill of the players.
Goodwill is limited: Use it up, and resistance will set in.
It is a fact of human
nature that people don't like to be told what to do. Instructing professional
musicians is a particularly delicate matter. They have invested a lifetime
in perfecting their skills; for many, their self image as a person is
deeply intertwined with their public image as a performer. They don't
like to appear deficient. But who does?
When you tell musicians
to do something ("Play it this way."), you're using the imperative
mood, a linguistic construction that commands. And a command puts the
recipient in a socially subordinate position.
A negative command
("Don't play it that way!") compounds the problem: It only tells
the players what they shouldn't do; they are left to infer what they should
do. The imprecision of a negative command puts players in the frustrating
position of having to meet your expectations without knowing exactly what
You can't avoid giving
instructions to the ensemble, of course. But you can do it in a way that
takes the edge off.
Use a positive approach.
Give the players a clear musical goal to work toward. Say what you want,
not what you don't want.
If you are working
with competent players, focus your instructions on expression, not technique.
Aside from issues of string bowings, wind articulations, brass mutes,
percussion mallets, etc., avoid telling them how to play their instruments.
Even when you recognize the mechanical cause of a musical mishap, you're
likely to get better cooperation if you deal with it in a roundabout way.
You might ask the section leader to make a recommendation. (Later, we'll
consider nonverbal approaches.)
Insofar as you can,
address your corrections to groups of players, rather than to individuals.
This makes your remarks seem less personal.
as questions: "Violins, can we have more bow on these notes?"
Now you're asking, not telling.
Put the verb in the
passive voice: "Measure four can be played more quietly." This
emphasizes the needed change and de-emphasizes (by omission) the person
who has to make it.
Eliminate the verb
altogether: "A little faster here." This states the desired
outcome, but doesn't really tell anybody to do anything. It contains only
adjectives and adverbs.
Finally, be aware
that your body language and vocal inflections qualify your speech. Players
can be put off by how things are said as well as what things are said.
awareness. All of us represent the world to ourselves in terms of our
senses. Generally we think with visual, kinesthetic, and auditory images.
Musical performance skills are founded on the ability to make subtle kinesthetic
and auditory discriminations.
Your can encourage
such perceptions and influence which sense the players use to process
information. Consider two sentences: "Let's play that passage again
and see what's going on" and "Let's go over that once more and
hear what's happening." On the surface, they seem pretty much alike.
But the first is an indirect suggestion to bring visual information into
the foreground of awareness, whereas the second is an indirect suggestion
to concentrate on auditory information.
insight. As I pointed out earlier, we make sense of a thing by carrying
out an internal search for its meaning. This process lies beyond our volitional
control: The search is spontaneous, and its outcome is unconsciously determined.
Searches for meaning are triggered by such things as ambiguity and incompleteness.
Certain words lack
content. They are merely linguistic markers that fill a grammatical slot
without providing any concrete information. Among these are the interrogatives
"what" and "where." Such words are pathways to the
unconscious. Since they lack content, they are ambiguous. And being ambiguous,
they trigger an unconscious search to find their contextual meaning.
How do we apply all
this to music? Here's an example.
In rehearsal, players
sometimes encounter a technical problem for which they have no conscious
solution; so any breakthrough will have to originate in the unconscious.
The breakthrough will likely involve new kinesthetic and/or auditory perceptionsbecause
technique is largely encoded in these sensory modes. Therefore, we enlist
the aid of the unconscious by saying something like this: "Where
did you feel least comfortable in that passage?"
At first, most players
can't answer this question with any precisionproof that part of
their experience lies outside their conscious awareness. But on the next
playing, the question will trigger some musically significant mental operations:
- There will be a search
for the musical location of "where"a term whose concrete
meaning is initially incomplete.
- The search will be kinesthetic
because of the words "feel" and "comfortable."
- And comfort, a correlate
of facile technique, will become foremost in their conscious awareness.
(If you subtly elongate or otherwise intensify the words "feel"
and "comfortable" when you say the sentence, you will also
send a subliminal message that says, "Feel comfortable.")
I have seen questions like
this oneso simple on the surfacelead players to quite unexpected
technical advances. The question's potency lies in its capacity to simultaneously
initiate an internal search, specify the sensory domain of the search,
and elevate that domain into conscious awarenessall in one seemingly
We make indirect suggestions
to help players utilize things they know at an unconscious level, but
not at a conscious level. The effectiveness of indirect suggestion depends
on the consistency of the messages, the frequency of their repetition,
the naturalness of their presentation, and the psychological needs of
We must know what
kind of perceptions will illuminate the musical situation, what kind of
linguistic forms will evoke them, and how to casually introduce those
forms into our remarks at the right moment. Then it's up to the unconscious
part of each player's mind to accept or reject a suggestion as it sees
Gesture, Troubleshooting, Logic
The baton can be more
articulate than the mouth. You'll save a lot of rehearsal time if you
can clearly show the musicians what you want as they are playing.
What the baton communicates.
Your beat pattern ought to be a visual analog of the music's structure.
Not only should it convey the pulse, tempo, and meter. But it also should
show each unit of expression and detail its organization.
A unit of expression
is a time-packet of emotion. The conducting gesture tells the ensemble
about the unit's: (1) duration, (2) loudness, (3) rhythmic organization
(i.e., whether the grouping is beginning-, middle-, or end-accented),
(4) articulation, (5) continuation into (or separation from) the next
unit, and (6) vitalitywhether its energy is steady, increasing,
peaking, or subsiding.
Each unit of expression
is different from the next. As you conduct, you should depict these musical
differences by making analogous visual differences in your beat pattern.
If you do this, the differences in your gesture from moment-to-moment
will visually mark the corresponding musical differences, thus calling
the ensemble's attention to them.
How the baton communicates.
You create gestural differences by manipulating visual variables. The
most important are: the distance the baton travels within each beat, the
speed at which it travels, and the path of its motion.
The distance traveled
implies the general level of loudness. The farther the baton travels during
a beat, the greater the volume it indicates. When the baton travels an
increasingly longer distance in each beat of a series, it suggests a crescendo.
When it does the opposite, it suggests a decrescendo.
The baton can be at
rest or in motion. If moving, its speed can be constant, accelerating,
or decelerating. It can change directions along an angle or a curve. Changes
in the baton's speedcombined with changes in its pathconvey
a wealth of musical detail.
When you clearly stop
the baton at each beat, you encourage a detached articulation. If your
baton rebounds along a sharp angle and stops suddenly, it implies that
the notes end starkly; if it rebounds along a U-shaped curve and stops
gradually, it implies that the notes end with a tapered dynamic.
When you interrupt
the baton's flow by briefly halting it within an otherwise continuous
series of beats, the hesitation will visually separate the material that
precedes the halt from the material that follows it.
You can point out
the rhythmic groupings within a larger musical structure by subtly decelerating
and then accelerating the baton. The cusp between the deceleration and
the acceleration visually marks the boundary between two groupings. (Understand
that this is not a change in the tempo! Each beat still has the same duration.
What is fluctuating is the speed of the baton as it travels across the
time frame of the beat.)
The beginning-, middle-,
or end-accented organization of each rhythmic grouping is shown by varying
the beat's size and acceleration to reflect the stressed or unstressed
function of the note(s) played therein. The farther the baton travels
and the more it accelerates, the greater the stress it implies.
Dramatic line comes
about by creating dynamic continuity between the stressed notes of successive
rhythmic groupings. If the dynamic difference between successive stressed
notes is too great or too little, the line will be broken. To show the
dramatic line, the energy change from stress point to stress point should
be mirrored by corresponding visual changes in your beat pattern.
It is sometimes said
that the beat seen in the conductor's pattern must anticipate the beat
heard from the ensemble, otherwise the ensemble won't have time to react.
This is not true when you know where you are headed musically and have
good control of the baton. Then, the playersby seeing the baton's
present speed, rate of change, and path curvaturecan predict where,
when, and how the baton will end up; and they can play accordingly. We
accurately make such judgments all the time when we drive in freeway traffic.
Cues. Cues serve not
only a musical function, but a social one as well. Musically, of course,
they insure accurate entrances and convey important expressive information.
Socially, they link you with the players. When you cue a player you are
acknowledging that player's musical role and confirming its importance.
You build musical rapport with players by paying individual attention
to them as you conduct.
Other gestures. Many
problems of instrumental technique can be traced to one or more of these
- changing directions along
an angular path, instead of a curved path;
- failing to overcome the
inertia of the body before overcoming the inertia of the instrument;
- initiating motion with
the fingers instead of the upper arm; and
- spending more of a note's
duration pushing into the fingerboard (or keybed, etc.) than withdrawing
Sometimes you can overcome
these causes nonverbally by making subtle body motions as you conduct.
For instance, it's harder for a cellist to continue producing a brittle-sounding,
finger-driven pizzicato, when s/he sees at each pizzicato your upper arm
drawing your fixed-but-passive fingers across some imaginary string. We
have a natural inclination to synchronize our body movements to repetitive
structures going on about us in the environment. That is what is happening
when people unconsciously tap their feet to music.
The difficulty of
a passage is partly determined by its novelty to the players. An ensemble
can get tripped up in a work when it encounters a spot that violates the
work's previous compositional norms. These anomalous musical features
are significant differences. They can't be anticipated from what has gone
on previously, and their sudden appearance in the score disorients the
players, who have to search out a new mental framework to get back on
track. Look in the score for places where things change abruptly and drastically:
a simultaneous change in the tempo and the note value used to represent
the beat, an extended syncopation that befuddles the ensemble's perception
of the beat, an unusual playing technique.
Equally disorienting are
passages that contain a lot of changes over a short period of time: a
different meter every measure, shifting groupings within the same meter
(e.g., 7/8, where the organization goes from 2+2+3 to 3+2+2 to 2+3+2),
a flurry of rapidly changing accidentals, quick pointallistic entrances
and exits involving a number of instruments.
Since the ensemble
is likely to break down when it first encounters such passages, you'll
save time by dealing with them before you try a run-through of the piece.
Real logic. You can
make the rehearsal more effective by addressing musical problems in logical
order. Players have to overcome the gross difficulties before they can
concentrate on the subtle ones. You can't effectively deal with dynamic
nuance or intonation when the musicians are still scrambling to find the
Likewise, give information
to the players in the order they will use it. For instance, when you direct
players to a place in the score, say something like this: "Go to
rehearsal letter C; count back four measures; find beat three." They
can't find beat three, until they've found the measure it is in. And they
can't find the measure until they've found the rehearsal letter. (Also,
put the verb at the beginning of the clause; it makes your instruction
easier to understand.)
Implied logic. Every
time you redirect the players' attention to a new musical task you tire
them a little bit. That's because it takes more emotional energy to set
up a new mental framework than to maintain an existing one.
You can minimize fatigue
by carefully framing what you say so that the ensemble will perceive your
later instructions as a logical continuation of what has been going onnot
as an interruption. For example, avoid stopping the ensemble unexpectedly.
Warn them ahead of time: "We'll play from letter E to letter F and
then stop." That way the stop won't be jarring; they'll know when
and where it is coming.
More generally, it's
a good idea to embed clues about the future into statements about the
present: "Before we go on to Movement 3, let's play this passage
a couple of times more." Now when they've finished the two playings,
going on to Movement 3 will seem logical. Everyone will be expecting it,
so they won't have to reorient themselves.
Subtleties like these
can make the difference between a pleasant rehearsal and a frustrating
Lee Humphries works in a variety
of fields inventing algorithms, analytical techniques, and problem solving
strategies. He was originally educated as musician and holds undergraduate
and graduate degrees in music theory from Indiana University.
In the 1970s, he taught
form and analysis at the University of Minnesota and co-authored a textbook
on the development of musical perception. He left academia in 1977.
For the next decade he conducted
new music for the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers
Forum) and other professional ensembles. Concurrently he studied mathematics,
economics, information processing, linguistics, and general systems theory.
His musical swan song was
a video marionette operaa satirical comedy about robots and artificial
intelligence that he produced under the auspices of the National Endowment
for the Arts.
In 1984, he steered himself
into the sciences and founded Synergenesis Corporation, a small interdisciplinary
think tank. He began to devise conceptual frameworks, models, and mathematical
procedures applicable to investment finance, inventory management, bank
analysis, musical learning, planning theory, and creativity. Each project
resulted in a practical solution to some problem that he had encountered
in the real world.
He has served on the boards
of numerous nonprofit corporations and one financial institution, often
doing strategic planning. For pleasure he sketches landscapes, tutors
youngsters in math, and teaches a course in quantitative reasoning at
Augsburg College. He speaks to various groups and organizations about
the results of his research. For more information, please visit: www.thinkingapplied.com