Exploring Music's Complexities

Do Orchestras Need Conductors?

Are Conductors a Necessary Evil?


If the conductor disappeared from Center Stage would the musicians be able to manage on their own? Does he (or she) contribute something extra to a performance or just act as a combination of timekeeper and showman?

There is general agreement that the conductor’s job is to provide the most compelling way to perform a piece of music (1). He (she) is responsible for ensuring the composer’s intentions are carried out and that all the musicians are playing the right notes at the right beat and tempo. What are his (her) other responsibilities?

According to Curtis and Kuehn ,“ Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures (2)”.   The most fundamental responsibility is to ensure all members of the orchestra are playing the correct notes and following the same rhythmic beat. This is done through the use of a set of arm and hand movements. The conductor typically sets the beat of the music with the right hand. He (she) may either use or not use a baton. Downbeats are used to indicate the first beat of the bar and upbeats indicate the last beat of the bar. In addition, the physical gestures provide a texture to the music.


These beat patterns are the most common when conducting the three-beat pattern and the six-beat pattern. The small numbered circles show where the beats occur in the pattern.

The League of American Orchestras outlines the traits and skills of a Music Director (4).   They identified three roles a music director must fill: Principal Conductor needs to be a performing musician; be the artistic head of the institution; and “sell the orchestra” to the community. He (she) must possess passion, intellect, musical talent, and charisma.

Given that love of music is a very personal thing, it makes it difficult to measure the quality of a given conductor’s performance.   What we do know is there is something unique in the personalities of great conductors. There must be some sort of drive that makes an individual want to turn the confusion and noise produced by 70 odd people into something emotionally satisfying. While it is obvious that a conductor needs to be confident in his (her) interpretive skills and instincts, the conductor and the musicians need to display respect for each other.

Conducting dates back to the Middle Ages when it consisted of hand gestures to keep all performers following the same metrical rhythm. Later small sticks were used. For instrumental music played in the 17th Century, the conductor might be the concertmaster or another member of the ensemble. As time went on, a dedicated conductor became common. As the size of the orchestras grew it became more common for the conductor to use a baton. This was the case until Wagner and Maler conducted their orchestras in a grand manner, suggesting that their performance was inspired and it was their responsibility to transmit the music’s message to the audience. Others have suggested that the best music has a personality and requires an experienced conductor to bring it out (5).   This trait is especially important when dealing with youth orchestras.  Below is a photo of Dr. Daniel Kobalka with Leonard Bernstein when Dr. Kobialka served as Concert Master for Bernstein’s Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.


Among the great conductors in the past 50 years are Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Sir Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, each gifted musicians and leaders. Sarah Caldwell is also notable.

In an attempt to scientifically determine whether an orchestra really needs a conductor, Yiannis Aloimonos, installed a small infrared light to the tip of the conductor’s and the violinists’ batons. Cameras captured the light movements and were analyzed using Clive Grangers mathematical techniques. He found that conductors were leading the violinists – “the movement of the conductors predicted the movement, not the other way around.” The study also found that a performance led by a veteran conductor was more aesthetic (6). As put by Ivan Hewett, great conducting “is a gift: you’ve either got it or you haven’t. (1).”


  1. Hewett, Ivan. What do Conductors Do?   The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/10782663/What-do-conductors-do.html.
  1. Watkin, Daniel J. (6 April 2012) “The Maestro’s Mojo – Breaking Conductors’ down by gesture and body Part” http://www.nytimes .com/20/2012/04/08.
  1. Hoffman, Miles. The NPR Classical Music Companion: An Essential Guide for Enlightened Listening. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  1. http://www.americanorchestras.org/conducting-artistic-programs/conducting/traits-and-skills-of-a-music-director.html
  1. Dorsey, Scott. CJ Rreplay: The Conductor’s Personality Type, ChoralNet. http://www.choralnet.org/314219.
  1. Vedantam, Shankar. Do Orchestras Really Need Conductors? Issues and Ideas, NPR, November 27, 2012.

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Categorised in: Archive, Performers


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