Do Orchestras Really Need Conductors?

Have you ever wondered whether music conductors actually influence their orchestras? They seem important. After all, they’re standing in the middle of the stage waving their hands. Yet, the musicians all have scores in front of them that tell them what to play. If you took the conductor away, could the orchestra manage on its own? Researchers at the University of Maryland aimed to answer that question when they conducted — no pun intended — a study of orchestral players from Ferrara, Italy. They installed a tiny infrared light at the tip of the conductor’s baton, as well as similar lights on the bows of the violinists in the orchestra. Then they surrounded the orchestra with infrared cameras. Computers analyzed the infrared created patterns and found that conductors were leading the violinists — the movement of the conductors predicted the movement of the violinists, not the other way around. The more influence the conductor had over the players, the more aesthetically pleasing the music was.