A team of scientists and musicians from the United Kingdom and Germany wired two world-class string quartets with microphones plugged into computers running the same kind of program that Wall Street traders use to buy stocks and climatologists use to track and measure atmospheric changes in real time.
They found the musicians used two forms of coordination, but in both cases, they were altering their playing in degrees measured in milliseconds without any verbal or physical help, even modifying what they were playing if one of them changes the tempo.
“In some other music, people just come and play together, but in a string quartet, like any ensemble, have to become one organism,” said Alan Wing, a professor of psychology at the University of Birmingham, England. “It’s remarkable.”
In two separate case studies, two internationally recognized string quartets repeatedly performed a short excerpt from the fourth movement of Haydn’s quartet Op. 74 no. 1, with intentional, but unrehearsed, expressive variations in timing. Time series analysis of successive tone onset asynchronies was used to estimate correction gains for all pairs of players. On average, both quartets exhibited near-optimal gain. However, individual gains revealed contrasting patterns of adjustment between some pairs of players. In one quartet, the first violinist exhibited less adjustment to the others compared with their adjustment to her. In the second quartet, the levels of correction by the first violinist matched those exhibited by the others. These correction patterns may be seen as reflecting contrasting strategies of first-violin-led autocracy versus democracy. The time series approach we propose affords a sensitive method for investigating subtle contrasts in music ensemble synchronization.
Of course, it’s a bit artificial. The researchers told one of the musicians to add rubato in order to test how the others would respond. That’s odd in the musical sense — it’s Haydn, after all — and in the notion of one player going off on their own. (“Oh no, the viola’s going rogue!”) But what a fascinating study.