Are conductors better with or without a baton?

Music education researchers in Utah and Missouri, in order to teach music ed students to be better conductors, designed a scientific experiment to test whether student musicians would perceive conductors as being clearer and more expressive with or without a baton. Their research is published in the January edition of the Journal of Research in Music Education.

Many educators “believe that expressivity and clarity should be the two overarching principles that guide conductors’ decisions,” write Jessica Nápoles of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and Brian A Silvey of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

So in order to determine whether using a baton helps or hurts a conductor’s perceived clarity and expressivity, these two music educators made some recordings, both video and audio.

They chose a piece that had been arranged both for wind ensemble and choir and then brought in a few conductors. First the conductors made an audio recording, using what was judged by other conductors to be a very expressive conducting style. Then a week later, they conducted the recording for a video camera, sometimes using a baton, sometimes not, sometimes directing the band, sometimes the choir.

With video engineering, researchers blacked out the conductors’ faces and verified, again with the help of other university-level conductors, that the directing was in sync with the audio. They did this, according to the article, to eliminate any influence the conductors’ facial expressions might have had on the students’ clarity or expressiveness ratings.

(Actually, it would have been better to control for facial expressions, rather than eliminate them, since a musician’s perception of a conductor depends on the “whole” conductor, not just on the presence of a baton. This design deficiency should be considered in future studies.)

After showing the recordings randomly to a group of 143 college musicians, many of whom were not music education majors but had just performed in large ensembles, they asked those students to rate each conductor’s clarity and expressiveness on a 10-point scale. Through a statistical analysis of the results, they determined that some of the ancient wisdom about using a baton to conduct holds true while other ancient wisdom may need some more testing.

“The choral conductor was perceived to be clearer without a baton, whereas the band conductor was perceived to be clearer with a baton. The choral conductor was perceived to be more expressive with a baton, and the band conductor was perceived to be more expressive without a baton,” they wrote.

But looking just at baton usage patterns causes a few problems in the experimental design. For one thing, previous research has found that how clear a conductor is perceived as being may depend on the tempo of the music, with baton use producing a greater clarity rating in faster passages. Drs Nápoles and Silvey here used only one piece for the experiment: O Nata Lux by Guy Forbes. Using different pieces, some fast and some slow, and then using some math to control for the tempo’s effect on musicians’ ratings would have produced a more solid analysis.

Then, how expressive a conductor is perceived as being may also have something to do with a few other variables, like how lyrical the music is. Again, a redesign of the experiment should include other pieces in different styles and then statistical work to look exclusively at baton use.

In real life, which does not occur in the confines of a video lab, conductors are encouraged to adapt their style to the music and the organization they’re conducting. No one strategy in terms of using or not using a baton can suffice as universal advice, and researchers make that point very clearly in their discussion.

But in my opinion, the standard deviations from the ratings by 21-year-old college musicians make the mean ratings too close for comfort. The clarity and expressiveness differences aren’t technically within the margin of error, but it would be difficult to make any recommendations based on these findings, since researchers looked at baton use in a sort of vacuum, excluding rather than controlling for the effects so many other variables might have had.

In particular, greater attention should be paid to the rating scale in a study that bases its conclusions on that rating scale and the stats derived from it. According to the article, musicians rated clarity and expressiveness they perceived in the conductors on a 10-point Likert-type scale anchored by not clear and not expressive (1) to very clear and very expressive (10).

These terms are subject to differences of opinion among musicians. And although what is being measured is indeed an opinion of how a certain behavior is “perceived” by human subjects, clearer documentation of the precise rubrics used would have helped us evaluate the scientific yield of this study.

This should, however, serve as a lesson for contest judges and others who evaluate the performances of musical ensembles, say at large concert band festivals. Researchers write:

Adjudicators in festival settings could potentially have preferences and expectations of conductors in certain contexts with respect to baton use, and their evaluations could reflect these biases. In other words, adjudicators may expect and/or prefer for band conductors to use batons and for choral conductors not to use them. Future researchers may explore whether these biases do exist through analyses of festival ratings where baton use varies.

That is indeed something to keep in mind, especially when student performances are judged, since expressiveness in a performance is often linked to perceptions of expressiveness in the conductor. But Drs Nápoles and Silvey haven’t answered their basic question here. I base this opinion on the fact that they altered the visuals and took the appearance of the conductor so far away from the real world that the closeness of the ratings has to be questioned more substantially than they provided here.

Plus, they tried to control but not account for other variables that have been shown to influence musicians’ perception of expressiveness (fluid right hand, independence of left hand, variation in size of the gesture, and use of the sagittal plane) and clarity (how pointed the beats are in space and even where the musician is sitting). While they tried to hold these variables constant, this artificial constraint, I think, created too much of a departure from what musicians would see in a live performance, which actually misses the point of the scientific question being asked.

“Whether or not a conductor uses a baton is of little importance. … Only the music—its deepest essence—is important,” Leopold Stokowski is quoted as saying.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.