Could AI Conduct Orchestras Better Than People?

Published on February 28, 2020

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, under the direction of legendary violinist Music Director Joshua Bell came to Boston last week, thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston, offering a program of Mozart, Paganini and Brahms. Its visit reignited one of the oldest questions in classical music: Who needs conductors? And even more: who needs human conductors? And now, could AI conduct orchestras better than people?

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

For decades, the orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, named for a cathedral in London’s Trafalgar Square, has been considered one of the top orchestras in the world and was helmed by Sir Neville Marriner.

After Marriner retired, Bell took over, and he does things in a very different manner. Bell conducts from his seat as first violin, unless he is performing solo, in which case he conducts with his violin tucked under his chin while standing in the small semi-circle surrounded by his players.

So the question arises: If the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields doesn’t need a man or woman standing in front of them waving a stick, why does any ensemble?

And an even bigger question is whether human conductors could be replaced by artificial intelligence. Call this new breed of maestro….the super-conductors.

An AI conductor?

Think about radiologists. An AI program can reference millions of MRIs or CT scans, while a human radiologist can only read a small fraction over the course of their career. Or consider baseball umpires – AI can keep strike zones legitimate without the human foibles of actual men in blue.  So why couldn’t an AI programmer create a program for conducting an orchestra – listening for errors, maximizing the accuracy and beauty of a piece, and alerting, somehow, the musicians to play faster, slower, softer, or louder?

Conductors are a relatively late development in the history of Western music. The first was a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully conducted in Paris in the late 17th century, using not a delicate baton but a massive stick, which he banged on the ground in order to keep time.  Unfortunately for Lully, one time, he brought the stick down heavily on his foot, which became infected and killed him.

Nonetheless, the idea of someone standing in front of the orchestra, dictating tempi or pace, and inveigling the performers to play louder or softer, has become a fixture of orchestras ever since.

But are conductors really necessary?

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is another ensemble that has no use for conductors. The players take their cue from the first violinist, who indicates entrances and exits with his head and his eyes. But aside from that, they play perfectly well without some high-priced, incredibly famous person standing with his back to the audience and waving the proverbial stick at them.

Such is the case also with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Which raises the question: What exactly does an orchestra conductor do, and couldn’t AI do it better?

What do conductors actually do?

Conductors do a variety of things on and off the podium. They help select the programs for the season. They contribute to decisions about soloists. They study scores to ensure that copyists’ mistakes haven’t crept into the version of the score that they are using. They make cuts if they think pieces are overlong. And they help with the fundraising, especially if they are foreign-born and attractive, which is an unassailable combination with the donor class.

And then, of course, in performances, they direct traffic in the aforementioned ways.

One thing they never do, contrary to popular imagery: they don’t tap their batons on their music stand, to get their musicians’ attention.  This is considered incredibly rude and bad form, like using ALL CAPS in an email.

So forget tapping. Are they absolutely necessary on stage?

Joshua Bell’s method

Bell is a commanding figure, sitting on a slightly raised stool compared with the rest of the players so that he can make contact with everyone, including the woodwinds, horns, and timpani stuck in the back. He can see everyone, and everyone can see him.

He moves and gesticulates as much as a traditional conductor, but not all the time. Sometimes he is as engrossed in his playing as are the rest of the musicians on stage.

A great conductor brings out the best in his or her musicians, offering interpretations of music that make performances extraordinary instead of simply just another night at the concert hall. They inspire musicians to play at the top of their game, and they make the experience fun for audiences, with their passionate gesticulations and movements on the podium.

The most daring will conduct without a score if they know the pieces well enough.

But are they truly necessary?

An afternoon watching Joshua Bell lead his troops from the first violinist chair, or from his position as soloist, makes one wonder.

Of course, this would put a lot of foreign-born, attractive men and women currently operating as conductors out of work, and I am all for full employment.

But watching Bell and his charges perform with perfect synchronicity does make one wonder. Do you have to have a conductor-as-traffic cop waving the famous stick? An AI program won’t necessarily have the human touch, but by the same token, not all human orchestra conductors are beloved.  There are probably plenty of orchestra musicians who would be thrilled to get rid of their conductors. And there are probably plenty of orchestra managements who would love to rid themselves of the high salaries of high-maintenance conductors.

So will C3PO or someone like it be ascending the podium at Carnegie Hall anytime soon? If you can stand a musical pun…stay tuned. 

Michael Levin is a News Columnist at Grit Daily.

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