Conductors Single out Sour Side Notes

By Bower, B. | Science News, February 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Conductors Single out Sour Side Notes


Bower, B., Science News


Experienced classical-music conductors wield their batons like master anglers, pulling musical keepers out of an orchestra's pool of instrumentalists. This impressive feat--which occurs only after many practice sessions leading up to a concert--requires maestros to monitor both the orchestra's overall performance and the contributions of specific violinists, oboists, trumpeters, and so on.

Skilled conductors sort through the symphonic cacophony by homing in on subtle changes in sounds originating from precise locations to the side as well as in front of them, a new study finds. Measurements of the brain's electrical activity indicate that conductors allocate just as much attention to peripheral sounds as to centrally located sounds, a team of neuropsychologists reports in the Feb. 1 NATURE.

Neither nonmusicians nor classical pianists possess this acoustic side-scanning ability, underscoring its key role in orchestra conducting, say Thomas F. Munte of the University of Magdeburg in Germany and his colleagues.

"Our findings provide [an] example of how extensive training can shape cognitive processes and their neural underpinnings," the scientists conclude.

Munte's team studied three groups: classical-music conductors who had an average of 19 years of conducting experience, classical pianists who had played professionally for an average of 16 years, and people who had no musical training of any kind. Each group consisted of six men and one woman.

Each participant sat in a chair facing a set of three loudspeakers. Another set of three speakers stood on the person's far right. Both arrays of speakers simultaneously delivered bursts of electronic noise that fell within a narrow range of acoustic frequencies. At random times, a single central or peripheral speaker emitted a burst outside of the usual frequency range. …

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