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Why do they have

  1. Sep 1, 2009 #1
    ...a conductor in an orchestra, showing his back to the audience? I mean, every instrument player in the orchestra is a professional, and I don't think they would make a mistake if the conductor is not there.

    Just googled for it, and found this joke:

    What's the difference between a bull and an orchestra?
    The bull has the horns in the front and the a$$hole in the back.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 1, 2009 #2
    The conductor does what his title implies. He conducts... They have A LOT of responsibilities like making sure all of the instruments are properly tuned and in working order, choosing the music, they have to know the entire piece for all instruments... The are basically responsible for the entire show. If it goes bad its THEIR fault, I'm sure the orchestra could do it own their own but it would be much more difficult. Imagine your sitting there with your instrument but you have a 40 measure break. Would you like to count through 40 measures to know when to play or would you rather just look and have someone let you know its on you? Even if you feel you could remember by listening to the music everyone has to be on the same page as you perfectly...

    Not to mention that the conductor controls how the instruments are all played. Which DEFINITELY changes from conductor to conductor even if it is the same piece.
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2009
  4. Sep 1, 2009 #3


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    I always thought it was a synchronization problem. How else would you (along with other players who are trying to play simultaneously) know when to play?
  5. Sep 1, 2009 #4
    The conductor also hears the entire affect of the orchestra as if he was part of the audience, so can conduct certain parts to be played louder or softer or faster or slower to get the right sound out of everybody. Kind of like a human mixer. Imagine sitting next to a trumbone or something and trying to figure out how loud your instrument sounds to the audience...
  6. Sep 1, 2009 #5
    All the responsibilities you mentioned, except the counting measure is off stage. He doesn't need to be on stage. Also, counting measures, a laptop software can do.
  7. Sep 1, 2009 #6
    That makes sense. But won't a rock band also face the same problem? For a rock band, I've seen people sitting at the back of the hall, controlling these things.
  8. Sep 1, 2009 #7
    The people sitting at the back of the hall at a rock concert are doing the same thing electronically using a mixer to control the output of the speakers so that they get the "right" sound from all of the instruments. Because the speakers can be electronically controlled, this is possible, but most orchestras are not amplified, so you need to "mix" the sound using the conductor to "adjust" the musicians' instrument sound.

    also, you'll notice that most rock band members these days wear headphones or in-ear pieces so that they can keep time even with the loud speakers next to them. Orchestras could probably do this too, I suppose.
  9. Sep 1, 2009 #8


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    Rock bands are using microphones and lots of sound equipment that somebody is mixing. An orchestra shouldn't be...not if it's a good one and you're there to listen to the instruments.

    Think of the size of a full orchestra! Keeping all the instruments in all the sections playing together isn't something that happens without someone cueing them. And, more importantly, if something starts to get off a little bit, cueing them on how to get back synchronized with one another without it sounding awful is something best done by listening too.
  10. Sep 1, 2009 #9
  11. Sep 1, 2009 #10


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    Dearly Missed

    What does a football team coach do?

    Nothing, just because the football players are the ones "doing the work"??
  12. Sep 1, 2009 #11
    On top of all the excellent points others have made a conductor is just as much part of the show as the orchestra itself is. It simply wouldn't be the same without a white-haired old man wearing a tailcoat and white gloves waving a stick.
  13. Sep 1, 2009 #12

    Jonathan Scott

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    In performance, the primary role of the conductor is indeed to provide synchronization and coordination, especially when there are pauses or tempo changes. The conductor often also helps players with entries which are preceded by long periods of rests, either as an alternative to them having to count hundreds of rests or as additional security, although in most cases in the classical repertoire the player should be sufficiently familiar with the work to know where to enter.

    A good conductor also provides continuous reminders of the shape of the music, in terms of the required style, phrasing and balance, but these aspects, along with many other details, are usually primarily determined during previous rehearsals, and it is there that the conductor really makes his or her mark.

    For small chamber music ensembles the synchronization is usually handled among the players, and in some cases this is successfully extended to small orchestral works, such as Mozart piano concertos which may be directed by the piano soloist. When the players are very familiar with a work they can often play it successfully without a conductor (and even without the music), but the result is likely to be more reliable and accurate with a conductor.

    Experienced conductors often recognize that they are unnecessary in places, for example where the rhythm remains predictable for a long time and the set of players involved remains fixed, so they cease beating time for a while, merely using occasional hand movements to indicate various nuances. Some even deliberately cease beating time in certain passages in order to create some level of uncertainty, leaving it up to the leader of a section to define the precise timing.

    (I play the violin in several symphony orchestras and have also played solo piano, violin and viola with orchestra on past occasions. I have also occasionally conducted orchestras in rehearsal and concert. However, most of my conducting experience has been with amateur orchestras, where the conductor has a somewhat more active job in keeping things together and has somewhat less scope for spontaneous musical expression during performance.)
  14. Sep 1, 2009 #13


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    Bingo! In my experience, this is really the main job of the conductor. From the music selection to interpretation of the music and getting the orchestra ready for a performance are all the job of the conductor. By the time the performance rolls around, yes, the performers know the music very well, but it is really nice to have someone there to take visual cues from. Plus, no matter how professional the group, bad things can happen in a performance. The conductor is there to hold it all together.
  15. Sep 1, 2009 #14
    Thanks for all the excellent replies. I learned something new today.
    After reading this thread, I just realized that they don't use microphones in an orchestra. That could be why they use so many of the same instrument, to get the right volume.
  16. Sep 1, 2009 #15
    Maybe you have to play in an orchestra to 'really' get this, but virtually all who have find this joke both amusing and dead on accurate :-)
  17. Sep 1, 2009 #16


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    Also note that (e.g.) twelve violins playing in unison sound qualitatively different from a single violin amplified by a factor of twelve. Two instruments of the same kind, even the same model from the same manufacturer, never sound quite the same, and are never tuned exactly identically; different players have subtle differences in their playing. This produces the richness of sound of a good symphony orchestra.
  18. Sep 1, 2009 #17
    This is the main reason of why a conductor is necessary with a large group of musicians, indeed. Everyone should know their parts well and know when to come in etc..

    A conductor is necessary to keep everyone in time.
  19. Sep 6, 2009 #18
    1, The conductor collects the tickets.
    2. The orchestra plays the instruments, the conductor plays the orchestra.
    3. When you say 'required style, phrasing and balance', you mean of course, required by the conductor. Just as each virtuoso musician will color the piece in their own way, the conductor will color these aspects. I expect that during rehersal, the conductor makes a violent wave of the baton and the brass instruments all blurt out a fat note. Then the conductors stops the trainwreck and yells out "That was for the woodwinds, you cretins." Only he doesn't put it that way because of union work rules. From then on, at that point in the program, the conductor chops the air and the brass section controls itself while the woodwinds take care of blurting out the fat note. Then during the performance, everyone is in on the plot. I suppose it is possible that the conductor will wave it out differently than during rehersal and the troops would be expected to keep up with him. However, that is not the normal course of events.
    4. A night at the opera.
    Mommy, why is that man beating the other man with a stick?
    He's not beating him dear, he's the conductor.
    Then why is that man yelling?
  20. Sep 6, 2009 #19
    Which gives me chills every time.. :)

    If you want a good example of how much of a difference a conductor makes..

    Listen to Beethoven's 5th symphony as conducted by.. Lets say 3 different conductors. I guarentee all 3 will sound different.
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