Scientists reveal the pecking order of musicians playing in a group

Posted on Wednesday 29th January 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 (Wednesday 29th January 2014) 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.’ 

Ends

Notes to Editors

For a visual representation of the research please visit: 

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/news/pecking-order-of-musicians-playing-in-a-group.doc  

Authors:

Alan Wing obtained his PhD in 1973 at McMaster University in Canada. After a postdoctoral position at Bell Labs in New Jersey, he joined the MRC Applied Psychology Unit Cambridge in 1975 as senior scientist, later becoming Assistant Director. In 1997 he took up a chair in Human Movement in the School of Psychology at University of Birmingham where he leads the Sensory Motor Neuroscience research group.

Adrian Bradbury read Veterinary Science and Music at Churchill College, Cambridge before further study at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and in Berlin. He has since developed an international career in chamber music as the cellist in Composers Ensemble, Jane's Minstrels, Touchwood Piano Quartet and Chamber Domaine, involving regular appearances at major festivals all over Europe together with a busy recording and broadcasting schedule. He is also Cello Tutor for the National Youth Orchestra of GB, and is on the String Staff – and acts as Music and Science coordinator - at the RAM.

Dirk Vorberg obtained his PhD in 1968 at Technical University Darmstadt, Germany. Following postdoctoral positions at New York University and at Rockefeller University, New York, he held professorships in Mathematical and in Cognitive Psychology at the universities of Konstanz, Marburg and Braunschweig, Germany. Since 2008, he has been Senior Professor at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, where he is engaged in experimental and theoretical studies of human perception and timing.

Satoshi Endo completed his PhD in 2011 at School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, UK. His research interest is motor control focusing on physical interaction between people. Since 2014, he has become a member of Institute for Information-Oriented Control at Technische Universitaet München, Germany, where he works on translation of biological models of human movement to a robotic platform.

For further information

Kate Chapple, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164, email: k.h.chapple@bham.ac.uk