Tag Archives: a capella


 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.