Scientists reveal the pecking order of musicians playing in a group

January 30th, 2014
Does Charlie Watts lead the Rolling Stones from the drums? Did Jacqueline du Pré lead Daniel Barenboim from the cello? These questions may in the future have answers thanks to an intriguing model developed by a team of scientists from the Universities of Birmingham, Münster and London's Royal Academy of Music, in research published today in the Royal Society Journal Interface.

Musicians in a group performance are constantly making millisecond timing corrections to stay together. The scientists analysed these adjustments to reveal the group's hierarchy, judging that musicians who corrected to others are followers, those who let others correct to them are leaders.

Two internationally renowned string quartets were invited in turn to play 48 beats of music in perfect synchrony using music by Joseph Haydn. Spot microphones on each player revealed any tiny asynchronies between them on a given beat. The team then analysed what happened on the next beat. If a player had tried to correct the asynchrony by catching up or by waiting, their formula gave her a high correction strength. If she let others adjust to her, her correction strength was deemed low.

Such time series analysis - a method used by Wall Street traders and climate change experts - is indispensable when investigating the effect of one stream of data on another over a time lag. In this case the time lag was one musical beat (here about 1/5 sec); in climate change analysis, looking at the effect of CO2 levels on global temperature, the lag may be 40 years, but the principles of investigation are the same.

The researchers found that the two quartets employed different strategies to achieve their world-class level of synchrony. In one quartet the players all had similar correction strengths – synchrony was maintained through democracy. But in the other the first violin had low correction strength, with the other players having to follow her. Such autocracy perhaps explains why tradition dictates that the first violin in a string quartet is called the leader.

Professor Alan Wing, from the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, said: 'I am very excited about these results which, for me, are the culmination of a career working on movement timing. They represent a key advance in methods for psychology but also have important practical applications to music performance and education.'

Adrian Bradbury, co-author, from the Royal Academy of Music, said: 'Live interaction between musicians on stage is often the most electrifying element of a performance, but remains one of the least well understood. I hope fellow musicians will agree that this method of 'X-raying' a performance to expose a group's hierarchy will prove useful to us and fascinating to our audiences.'

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