Working in harmony makes for beautiful music
Researchers believe coordinated action is fundamental for fuelling social interaction. In a new study, an international team of scientists found that musical performances are executed better when the non-verbal sensorimotor communication between the conductor and the musician is maximised. The study, presented in the journal PLoS ONE, was supported in part by two EU-funded projects: SIEMPRE ('Social interaction and entertainment using music performance experimentation') and POETICON ('The poetics of everyday life: grounding resources and mechanisms for artificial agents'). Funded under the 'Information and communication technologies' (ICT) Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), SIEMPRE is backed with almost EUR 2 million and POETICON received more than EUR 3 million.
Led by the University of Ferrara and the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Italy, researchers from France, Italy, Turkey and the United States measured the kinematics of conductors and violinists by observing the movements of their batons and bows, respectively, while they played a piece of music by Mozart. They found that a higher quality performance emerged following the more correlated movements of the conductor and the musicians.
The correlation reflects the leadership of the conductor. So a conductor who is a stronger leader will work with a orchestra that follows him/her more closely, which in turn leads to an optimised musical performance.
'Aesthetic appreciation is an intriguing human capacity and yet one of the most intangible aspects of higher cognition,' the authors wrote in their study. 'However, exploring the rules governing such experience has potentially a great relevance for neuroscience. In fact, the arts may be fruitfully exploited to study brain mechanisms, since according to Zeki and Lamb, "[visual] artists are unknowingly exploring the organisation of the visual brain though with techniques unique to them". Music, in this framework, might be used as a window into other complex integrative brain processes.'
According to the researchers, a composer could probe complex visuo-spatial processes, while a live performance could interrupt a listener's sensorimotor integration capabilities and inter-musician interaction.
They said their results contribute to the growing body of research that considers musicians as a model to investigate sensorimotor brain plasticity and organisation. 'Here, we used musicians as a model of how effective sensorimotor communication might be, based on efficient gesture coordination,' they noted. 'In fact, each musician has a score, is well trained on the pieces s/he is playing, and can listen and see what other musicians do. However, the violinist has to concurrently follow the conductor, [who] provides critical information on how to interpret a given phrase. Therefore, musicians have to build efficient expectations regarding several sources of information and mix them up in order to reach the required performance.'
This study successfully quantified the non-verbal communication patterns playing out among the conductor and the musicians, which impact the intangible concept of aesthetic quality of music.