What is conducting?

by Sally Macarthur

Sally Macarthur is a Senior Lecturer in Musicology and Director of Academic Program, Music, at the University of Western Sydney. She has researched and written on topics to do with new classical music, women's music and music in spiritual and cross-cultural contexts. Her recent articles appear in Radical Musicology, Australian Feminist Studies, Musicology Australia, Cultural Studies Review and the Journal of Music Research Online. Her books include Towards a Twenty-First-Century Feminist Politics of Music (Ashgate 2010), Feminist Aesthetics in Music (Greenwood 2002), with Bruce Crossman and Ronaldo Morelos a co-edited volume, Intercultural Music: Creation and Interpretation (Australian Music Centre, 2006) and with Cate Poynton, Musics and Feminisms (Australian Music Centre, 1999). Macarthur is currently co-editing with Professors Judy Lochhead (Stoney Brook, NY) and Jennie Shaw (Adelaide) another volume, Music's Immanent Future: Beyond Past and Present. She was recognised by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Griffith Institute for Higher Education and Queensland University of Technology in 2007 for fostering an interest in research among her undergraduate students. In 2008, she was highly commended as a member of the Music Research Supervisor's Group for Excellence in Postgraduate Research Training and Supervision in the Vice-Chancellor's Awards.Macarthur's doctoral work (1997), since published as the book, Feminist Aesthetics in Music, argued for the idea of feminine difference along similar lines to the French feminists (Irigaray in particular), She has since moved away from that idea, not only because it is not really possible to make such arguments for abstract music but also because the argument ends up essentialising 'femininity', and male/female experiences.Her work currently draws on the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in particular his concept of positive difference. It offers a way forward that is not about polarising male/female, gay/straight or any other binary relationship. It is an immanent philosophy, thus different from thought based in represenation. Her recent book, Towards a Twenty-First-Century Feminist Politics of Music, is a feminist-Deleuzian approach to the woman composer question. It maps the terrain, exploring the ways in which representational modes constrain and limit our understandings of music, critiques the contribution of the feminist work to musicology, looks at the ways in which entrepreneurship/neoliberalism impact negatively on the woman composer, and then offers the idea that thinking differently has its own power to effect change. Macarthur does not aim to find a solution. Rather, she posits a different way to think about the issues. The composers she has more recently focused on are Kats-Chernin, Boyd, and Gubaidulina. She does, however, have a fairly extensive knowledge of women's music.

Conducting is essentially a phenomenon associated with Western classical music. As a rule, rock and jazz bands do not employ a conductor unless they are teaming up with a symphony orchestra. Conductors are also used in big jazz bands and in some non-Western traditions such as Turkish classical music.

In the modern day, the conductor has three important roles, which are to:

  • beat time
  • make interpretive decisions
  • oversee administrative aspects of the musical ensemble.

So how did it all begin?

In the 15th and 16th centuries, composers were writing very complex polyphonic music for vocal groups, with two or more independent melodies sounding against each other.

Because it’s difficult to sing without getting lost, a visible beat – called the “tactus” – would be given by the singers. They would tap their foot, hand or finger, or some singers would lead the choir by tapping a staff on the floor.

The practice of using a staff led to the untimely death of French conductor/composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) who stabbed himself in the foot with the long staff he used for beating time and died by the ensuing gangrenous abscess that formed in his foot as a result of the injury.

Portrait of Several Musicians and Artists by François Puget. Traditionally the two main figures have been identified as the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and the librettist Philippe Quinault,1688, Musée du Louvre. Wikimedia Commons

During the 16th century, music began to be coordinated using vertical motions of the arm. The arm was moved up and down to indicate the beat, the speed, and sometime the pitch.

With the rise of instrumental ensembles in the 17th and 18th centuries, the first violin would lead the group, using the bow and moving the violin vigorously to indicate the tempo (speed), the number of beats per bar, and the metre.


The violin is really the precursor to the baton. As orchestras grew in size, directing from the first violin desk, especially in the opera pit, became very difficult.

The bow eventually translated into the baton. It is reported that the German conductor Louis Spohr (1784-1859), was the first to use the baton in 1820 at a concert in London.

Gradually the techniques of conducting with a baton began to be standardised.

Technique and role of the conductor

Conductors nowadays use a podium, raising them to a height in which all the performers can see their hand and baton movements. The baton itself is very light and usually made of fibre glass with a cork handle.

One of the most important roles of the conductor is to establish the beat at the beginning of the music. The conductor does this with a “preparatory beat”, like the breath of preparation the singer draws in before singing the first note.

The preparatory beat establishes the tempo, character, shape and style of the music and ensures that everyone starts together. Sometimes a conductor will give the preparatory beat as two bars for nothing. Or else she or he will give it as an upbeat before the first downbeat.

Valery Gergiev conducting with a toothpick.

The basic movements of the baton or stick are vertical and lateral. The underlying principle is that there is an imaginary point in the air where the beat lands. This is referred to as the “ictus”.

Australian conductor Richard Gill says the ictus is the way the music is prepared and the way the conductor shows the beat. The ictus is critical as it indicates the time of the preparation and the cut-off points in the music.

While the right hand maintains the beat, the left hand works independently to indicate other things about the music, such as the phrasing, dynamics and articulation.

The conductor will raise his or her left hand to indicate a “crescendo” (gradually get louder) and lower it to indicate a “diminuendo” (gradually get softer). He or she will bounce the left hand in the air to indicate “staccato” (short, clipped notes) or move it smoothly to indicate “legato” (smooth) passages.

The left hand is also used for cuing, showing the players the ictus just before their cues. He or she will often use other kinds of gestures and facial expressions to prepare the cue, sometimes eyeballing the player just before the cue.

Maestro Zubin Mehta conducting the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino orchestra in Salamanca, Spain. AAP

Conductor as a god

In some ways the orchestra epitomises the hierarchy par excellence. The conductor leads the rehearsals and is ultimately responsible for the interpretation of the music.

Sometimes it might seem that the players are not looking at the conductor. But if you look at them closely you will see they have him or her in their line of sight while they are simultaneously looking at their music.

Before commencing the rehearsals with the players, the conductor will spend time learning the music and knowing exactly what every player is expected to do.

The conductor is critical to the functioning of the music ensemble and a good or bad performance hinges on how well the conductor performs.

The Conversation

Sally Macarthur does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For Dr Sally Macarthur's web site, please click here.

Dr Sally Macarthur is the author of two books on feminist musicology:

Towards a Twenty-First-Century Feminist Politics of Music

Feminist Aesthetic in Music

For links to Amazon, please see below.

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Added 26.03.2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Added 15.03.2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Added 09.03.2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Added 21.02.2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Added 04.02.2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Added 31.01.2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Added 26.01.2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Added 13.01.2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Added 30.12.2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Added 29.11.2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Added 29.11.2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart. 

Added 03.11.2017

A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better. 

Added 30.10.2017

Ukrainian-born Evgeny Ukhanov, based in Australia for the past 20 years, is an established performer of new music originating in his adopted homeland. Now he has teamed up with friend and Melbourne composer Alan Griffiths on a new CD of selections regrouped under the title “Introspection”. 

Added 09.09.2017

If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel.

Added 31.08.2017

Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression.

Added 16.08.2017
File 20170815 15219 g8geue

Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 yea

Added 02.08.2017

Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers.

Added 24.06.2017

I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think.