Why is it sometimes so difficult for musicians to keep in time* when effortless synchrony pervades the natural and mineral world?

Steven Strogatz describes some examples in nature and the rules – including an explanation of the ill-fated Millenium Bridge and some fantastic footage of starlings swarming.

One of the most interesting things in this talk was his request that the audience try to clap in sync. I would have struggled to decide quickly whether or not this was likely to succeed. I was surprised to hear that, rather than grow into synchrony, the audience seemed to begin in sync – undirected! Moreover, had I been asked to predict the speed at which unplanned, instant synchrony was likely to be achievable, I’d have guessed 120 beats per minute (bpm) the tempo at which the world’s armies tend to march and also of much dance music. However, this TED audience began at 132 bpm – surely a curious phenomenon from a group of seated academics.

* the most common cause of ensembles slipping out of sync is losing the battle against the tendency to accelerate – a kind of negative entropy. This contrasts with the more entropic tendency of a capella singers to lose pitch. I’ve always been surprised at this dissonance in the physics and biology of our subject.


2 thoughts on “Synchrony”

  1. “the most common cause of ensembles slipping out of sync is losing the battle against the tendency to accelerate”

    I’ve often mused on this tendency too. There’s a kind of rule in ensembles that says the more black notes, and/or the harder the music, the more likely it is to accelerate, when you’d think the opposite would be true! This effect can be observed even with professional ensembles. In orchestras, the propulsion will also inevitably come from the back, as if those further from the centre try to anticipate, rather than follow.

    There’s also an effect (caused by adrenalin no doubt), which means that in performances, the tempo will often appear faster to the audience than those playing, or indeed delivering lines.

    There’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed when playing for ceilidh dances. There is a perfect tempo for a particular dance, for players and dancers, which if found keeps the music rock solid even through the breaths, rises and falls, gives the dancers exactly the right poise and momentum, and produces a very satisfying result for all participants. It’s not always the same tempo: it can vary according to the space, the number of dancers, their enthusiasm and expertise. Sometimes with experience and when warmed up, the band can go straight to the correct tempo but sometimes it is found by getting dancers to “walk through” the dance while we play the music at a slower tempo. When we move up a gear for the dance proper, everyone seems to be tuned in to accelerate as a group and to settle on the right speed for the dance movements when we reach it. I don’t know how we know when we’ve reached it, but we do. It feels like those starlings look on the BBC video on the TED talk.

    However at practices, without the dancers, it can be very difficult with new tunes for everyone to agree a tempo and to stick to it. I often end up playing AND dancing round the room to make sure I am setting the correct tempo. So I wonder if whole body movement has something to do with synchronicity, (and the (annoying) foot-tapping one sometimes observes in ensembles in fact works against it?)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Dorothy – interesting points. To appreciate to full effect the work you put in to ceilidh preparation, how about a video clip of you playing while dancing, say, a Strip The Willow?:-) Happy New Year!

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