Conducting an orchestra is not all hand-waving! The cognitive expertise of conductors

The tuxedo, the baton, the gestures – conducting an orchestra is, in part, about appearances. But beneath the facade, conductors have extraordinary cognitive abilities, which allow them to do their jobs. Conductors must maintain a constant tempo for a piece – which requires long term memory – and they must be able to listen to both individual instruments and the orchestra as a whole – requiring divided as well as selective attention. As we know, multi-tasking of this sort tends to be incredibly difficult, but conductors seem to be masters of at least some types of multi-tasking.

The jazz drumming movie Whiplash features a conductor with both of these skills, wrapped up in a brutal personality.

Although many of us hear orchestral pieces as unified symphonies, conductors must be able to segregate the various instruments into separate streams and analyze each one. More impressively, they must be able to attend to several instruments at the same time. According to cognitive psychologist Dr. Andrea Halpern, who studies the cognitive faculties of conductors and whom I interviewed by email, “the conductor needs to be adept in both picking out passages or players that are either incorrect, or simply do not fulfill the conductor’s vision of the piece. [And] cuing requires enormous concentration, or instances when different musical lines are playing at once (polyphony) or even in two keys at once.”.

To help imagine the difficult tasks facing conductors, consider a simplified version of a conductor listening to an orchestra: a polyrhythm. A polyrhythm is when a musician (typically a drummer) plays two or more rhythms simultaneously. On one hand, a drummer might play a 3/4 (three beats per measure), while on the other, he plays a 4/4. In the first part of this demo, watch the drummer play those two beats simultaneously, and emphasize how they sound like one rhythm. In fact, they are two distinct rhythms. In the second part of the demo, hear how the high hat and bass drum can be heard as two beats, separately. Now imagine that you have to determine whether the tempo is changing or a beat is missed for both drums at once!

In a recent paper, published in the Psychonomics Society’s journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics, researchers Clemens Wöllner and Andrea Halpern investigated whether conductors are superior in these cognitive domains to another group of expert musicians, piano players. The researchers predicted that conductors would show elevated performance for divided attention tasks, but that the groups should not differ on tasks related to working memory, since pianists need to hold large amounts of music in mind as well. To help ensure that their results were not solely due to the possibility that people with better cognitive abilities would self-select into these careers, the authors tested both students and professionals. That is, if differences between pianists and conductors exist in students, that would be evidence for a self-selection effect of individuals who already have elevated abilities. If differences exist, and are larger, in experts, these differences are likely due to experience with conducting or piano-playing specifically.

The authors recruited 15 conductors and 15 pianists (7 professionals, 8 students each) to complete a battery of cognitive tasks. Some tasks involved attention. Participants had to listen to a section of music played by an English horn and a flute and identify mistakes. In one task (selective attention), participants were asked to only identify mistakes by one instrument. In another task (divided attention), they were asked to identify mistakes by both instruments.

Other tasks involved working memory. Participants had to remember as many rhythms, or pitches as they could. For example for pitch, participants listened to a sequence of musical triads, and had to indicate whether each was major or minor. Then, participants had to report the highest pitch from each triad. One other task tested the participant’s long-term memory. Participants had to tap an unfamiliar beat, then repeat the same beat an hour later.

The main results are shown in the figure below, which reports performance in the main attention tasks (in units of d’). On the selective attention tasks, expert pianists and conductors did not differ, but student conductors outperformed student pianists. On the divided attention task, experts outperformed students in both groups, and conductors outperformed pianists. Conductors also outperformed pianists on the long-term memory task, with experts also outperforming students in both groups. These results illustrate both the effect of self-selection or at least moderate experience (student conductors outperformed student pianists), but also the effects of more extensive experience (professionals outperformed students overall, but the difference between conductors and pianists remained). The results for the long-term memory task were similar to the divided attention task. Critically, on the working memory tasks, both student and professional conductors and pianists performed equally well. This illustrates that the conductors do not just have generally better cognitive skills, but are specifically better at skills required by their profession.

Besides being able to detect missteps in your favorite concerto, this research has broad implications. A large body of evidence has shown that musical training can boost cognitive abilities. The specific type of musical training employed may transfer to specific cognitive skills, instead of providing general cognitive enhancement. Moreover, working memory and attention tend to decline with aging. In the present study, experts performed similarly to students, and sometimes even outperformed them. According to Dr. Halpern, “the fact that the experts, who were decades older, were at least as successful as the students in our tasks, and sometimes more successful, shows that aging does not necessarily diminish these fine-tuned skills.”

More broadly, research on expertise can reveal the extraordinary capacity of human cognition, and how it can develop in specific ways. Parsing expertise into component cognitive skills can show how different aspects of cognition can change, while leaving others untouched, just as biceps curls lead to strong arms, but not strong calves.

Dr. Halpern, in her email to me, calls the development of expertise “extreme nurture,” which I interpret as the cumulative benefit of experience over long durations or with great intensity. Other examples show the far reaches of these effects. London taxi drivers are incredible navigatorsPoker players (and pianists) have incredible working memory capacity. And, of course, action video game players are seemingly good at everything.

So, as you struggle to practice your polyrhythms at the perfect tempo and can’t quite keep J.K. Simmons’ Whiplash character happy, just remember all the cognitive benefits you are accruing. And the next time you see a conductor at work, keep in mind the cognitive weight-lifting she’s doing. It’s not just hand-waving.

Reference for the article discussed in this post:

Wöllner, C., & Halpern, A.R. (2015). Attentional flexibility and memory capacity in conductors and pianists.Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. doi:10.3758%2Fs13414-015-0989-z

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