A project at the Aldeburgh festival aims to shed light on the mysterious art of keeping timeby Philip Ball / June 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
All together now: String quartets have been found to operate under a form of “unspoken leadership” also exhibited in many animal communities
“There are two golden rules for an orchestra,” the conductor Thomas Beecham is said to have remarked. “Start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.” Beecham was prone to witty overstatement, but his statement fits the intuition that we are acutely sensitive to failures of synchronisation in musical performance. “They were all over the place” is the typical put-down of ensembles with sloppy timing.
Yet playing together in time is far from trivial. Even orchestral musicians watching a conductor have to be anticipating the beat if they’re not going to miss it, and the smaller ensembles have no human metronome to follow. Besides, ensembles, just like solo performers, slow down and speed up for expressive purposes. Who decides this when there is no one obviously leading?
That’s a question being studied by psychologist Alan Wing and Satoshi Endo at Birmingham University, together with cellist Adrian Bradbury. At the Aldeburgh festival in June, Wing will describe his experiments with the Signum Quartet, a German ensemble which is also performing at the festival. Signum has gamely agreed to be the guinea pig for Wing’s studies of musical synchronisation.
Synchronisation to a regular pulse is an old topic: the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens observed in the 17th century that two pendulum clocks fall into sync if “coupled” by being attached to the same wooden beam. Coupling via visual feedback is all it takes for a treeful of flashing fireflies to fall into step. We do this ourselves unconsciously as we walk side by side—a fact that, overlooked by architects, initially left the Millennium bridge over the Thames dangerously prone to big undulations as the vibrations created synchrony between the footsteps of pedestrians.
Yet conscious synchrony of human actions can be hard to sustain: we’re apt to drift in and out of time. Some years ago Wing investigated how rowers in the Cambridge Blues all pulled together, and he hints with tongue in cheek that those studies might have helped stem the previous run of Oxford victories. But rowing, with everyone striving to synchronise an identical and highly regular action, is easy compared with music. In a string quartet, each musician plays a different part, and yet they must all intermesh to create…