All About the Orchestra Challenge

In the first episode of The Great Orchestra Challenge, we meet each of the five competing orchestras as they take on conductor Paul Daniel’s first musical task: the symphony. Daniel has chosen five very different works for each of the orchestras to tackle, by five very different composers. And, to introduce each orchestra to their piece, Daniel goes on a tour around the country to see them all, accompanied by presenter Katie Derham and mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku.

The Stirling Orchestra are first up, with the finale from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’. Daniel conducts the first ten minutes of rehearsal, pelting off at top speed with the orchestra looking slightly bewildered at the pace. ‘You know you’re good, but you don’t do what’s in the parts’, admonishes Daniel genially. ‘You’re not letting the sound come from the bottom, which is where all good sound comes from.’

Meanwhile, around the country, the other orchestras are receiving their symphonies. The London Gay Symphony Orchestra (LGSO) is given Tchaikovsky No. 6, the North Devon Sinfonia gets Beethoven’s Fifth, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic receives Rachmaninov No. 2 and The People’s Orchestra is allocated Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

After Daniel spends time with each of the orchestras, mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku ‘enters the fray’ for more specialised masterclasses. The most entertaining of these is with The People’s Orchestra in a Birmingham pub, pint of ale in hand.

We get a sense of how important the ensembles are to individuals within the orchestras. Gardener Paula Goodwin was helped to come out as transgender while a member of the LGSO (‘Nobody cares, as long as I don’t play loud, wrong notes!’), and Annie Hill uses her percussion playing as a way of escaping the stress of caring for her husband, who has multiple sclerosis.

All of the orchestras are given quite different advice, from The People’s Orchestra (accuracy and balance) to the Slaithwaite Orchestra (energy and excitement). The North Devon Sinfonia’s conductor Emma Kent has a one-on-one masterclass with Nwanoku, to get her to engage more with the orchestra rather than hiding behind her music.

Before we know it, finals week arrives. All five orchestras descend on the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London, the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They’ll give one final performance before judge Paul Daniel decides who will be leaving the competition at this stage.

‘The most important thing is to enjoy it…’ is amateur conductor Stephen Broad’s pep talk to the Stirling Orchestra, ‘and the second most important thing is not to give up, whatever happens’. All of the players seem quite nervous ahead of their performances, but manage to give good performances nonetheless. North Devon’s conductor Emma Kent has decided to conduct without her score, so there is no chance of hiding behind it.

Finally, decision time. Paul Daniel gives positive and negative feedback to all five orchestras, each represented by their conductor and a member of the orchestra.

But who is leaving the competition?

It’s the Slaithwaite Philharmonic. Despite being technically the most proficient of all the orchestras, Daniel says that they weren’t able to communicate their passion in their performance.

Do you agree with his decision? Comment below, or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #GreatOrchestraChallenge.

 

The Greatest of Violinists

It’s the instrument that inspired solo masterpieces from Bach to Bartók, that leads the way in chamber groups and symphony orchestras, that is equally at home in gypsy, klezmer and jazz groups alike. Just where would music be without the wonderful violin?

And in the right hands, few instruments can match the violin for displays of thrilling virtuosity, for expressing the full gamut of human emotions and for sheer beauty of sound. As a result, few instrumentalists have had quite the same legendary status as enjoyed by the greatest violinists. In fact, stories concerning the violin and those who play it have sometimes gone beyond the realms of reality – for instance, at his prime in the 1820s, Niccolò Paganini was believed by some to made a pact with the devil himself.

We asked 100 of today’s best players to tell us the violinists who have inspired them most. Each had three choices, with the stipulation that they must have heard them either on disc or live. We totted up the results to produce the following Top 20 of the greatest violinists of the recorded era…

George Enescu

(1881-1955) Romanian

George Enescu was a prodigiously gifted musician whose celebrity was limited by his own modesty and dislike of showmanship for its own sake. Not only a violinist, he was Romania’s leading composer, a distinguished conductor and a teacher whose pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ivry Gitlis, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel. From the age of four he studied violin with the gypsy player Lae Chioru and made his first public appearance, aged eight, as a violinist in 1889. Enescu then studied composition and violin at the Paris Conservatoire, supplementing his official violin lessons with the Paris-based Cuban violinist José White. He toured widely as a violinist (both as a solo and chamber musician) and conductor, but regarded his chief vocation as a composer. His unshowily pristine and song-like violin playing is preserved in the few recordings he made in the US during the 1920s, and his 1940s recordings of Bach’s Solo Sonatas
and Partitas.

Classical works about Scotland

This famous concert overture is most commonly known as Fingal’s Cave – the source of its inspiration. After a visit to the island of Staffa in 1829 Mendelssohn was so taken by the echoing waves in the cave’s natural acoustic that he immediately wrote the opening few bars. Sending the music to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he wrote “’In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.’ The piece’s enduring appeal has encouraged people from all around the globe to visit this natural wonder.

A Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch

Despite having never visited Scotland before its composition, the German composer took elements of traditional folk tunes such as Hey Tuttie Tatie, The Dusty Miller and Auld Rob Morris to create this four-movement composition for violin and orchestra. Bruch had a special place in his heart for the music of Scotland, saying that the folk tunes ‘pulled me into their magical circle’. The prominent role of the harp as an accompaniment to the violin is also a nod to Scotland’s earliest music. Highly popular at the time of its premiere, this piece remains one of Bruch’s most famous works.

Scottish Rhapsody by Ronald Binge

‘The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.’ This is the image conjured up for composer Ernest Tomlinson by Binge’s mighty orchestral work. As well as using tunes such as Kelvin Groveand Fairy Dance Reel, the English composer simply wrote in his own melodies where he saw fit, successfully managing to emulate the traditional style.

Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold

Written in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, these four colourful dances heavily use key features of traditional Scottish music, such as scotch snaps and reels. The composer also used different timbres to imitate the drone of the Highland bagpipes. Though most of the vibrant melodies are original, Arnold did use one written by Robert Burns himself.

Music inspired in autumn

images-26What seasonal playlist could fail to include Vivaldi? From the Allegro’s post-harvest celebrations in ‘Autumn’, Vivaldi’s programmatic music transports us to the somewhat less vibrant morning after, where slow moving suspensions come as close to a musical hangover as anything you’ve ever heard. In the stately final Allegro, ‘The Hunt’, a virtuosic violin solo represents the hunter’s fleeing quarry, which they eventually catch and kill. Not so fun for the quarry, but a jolly old time for all the hunters.

Bax – November Woods (1917)

Though ostensibly inspired by nature, Bax’s November Woods also acts as a musical portrait of his turbulent love affair with pianist Harriet Cohen. An often unsettling work, the tone poem fluctuates between stormy drama and quiet ecstasy, yet fades to a quiet and unresolved finish.

Fanny Mendelssohn – Das Jahr (1841)

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote the piano cycle Das Jahr as a musical diary of the year she spent with her family in Rome. The 12 months are represented by 12 individual movements. In ‘September’ a flowing accompaniment overlays a dark melody in the left hand. ‘October’ is a brighter, march-like song, but ‘November’ returns to introspection and a minor key. She instructs the performer to play sadly.

R Strauss – Four Last Songs, ‘September’

Sometimes considered Strauss’s own musical epitaph, all of the Four Last Songs are themed around death. ‘September’ is a shimmering and uplifting work, which calmly compares the passing of the seasons with the passing of life. Strauss also includes a poignant and wistful solo for his father’s instrument: the French horn.

How the inner ear works

“This helps us understand the mechanisms that enable us to perceive speech and music. We hope that more knowledge about the capabilities of the ear will lead to better treatments for the hearing impaired,” says Anders Fridberger, professor of neuroscience at Linköping University.

To perceive speech and music, you must be able to hear low-frequency sound. And to do this, the brain needs information from the receptors, which are located close to the top of the cochlea, the spiral cavity in the inner ear. This part of the inner ear is difficult to study, as it is embedded in thick bone that is hard to make holes in, without causing damage. Now the international research team has been able to measure, in an intact inner ear, how the hearing organ reacts to sound. The results have been published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To measure in the hearing organ, the researchers used optical coherence tomography, a visualization technology for biological matter that is often used to examine the eye.

“We have been able to measure the inner ear response to sound without having to open the surrounding bone structures and we found that the hearing organ responds in a completely different way to sounds in the voice-frequency range. It goes against what was previously thought of how the inner ear works.

High resolution audio

The study compared data from over 12,000 different trials from 18 studies where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats.

Dr Joshua Reiss from QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said: “Audio purists and industry should welcome these findings — our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Many in the music industry have been split as to whether people can really hear a difference between CD quality music and high resolution audio — even celebrity musicians have entered the fray with new music streaming services: Tidal launched by Jay-Z and Pono players and music service spearheaded by Neil Young and crowd funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

Both streaming services launched in the last two years have been met with scepticism. However, this new study found that listeners can tell the difference between low and high resolution audio formats, and the effect is dramatically increased with training: trained test subjects could distinguish between the formats around sixty per cent of the time.

Writing in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, the research suggested that careful selection of stimuli, such as using long samples of more than 30 seconds, may play an important role in the ability to discriminate between the formats.

Dr Reiss explained: “One motivation for this research was that people in the audio community endlessly discuss whether the use of high resolution formats and equipment really make a difference. Conventional wisdom states that CD quality should be sufficient to capture everything we hear, yet anecdotes abound where individuals claim that hi-res content sounds crisper, or more intense. And people often cherry-pick their favourite study to support whichever side they’re on.

“Our study is the first attempt to have a thorough and impartial look at whether high res audio can be heard. We gathered 80 publications, and analysed all available data, even asking authors of earlier studies for their original reports from old filing cabinets. We subjected the data to many forms of analysis. The effect was clear, and there were some indicators as to what conditions demonstrate it most effectively. Hopefully, we can now move forward towards identifying how and why we perceive these differences.”

The samples analysed were mainly classical and jazz music, though it’s not clear for which type of music high resolution recording and playback made the biggest difference.

Increases cooperation, teamwork

Cornell University researchers explored this question in a pair of lab experiments and found that music can have important effects on the cooperative spirits of those exposed to music.

In the paper newly published by the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Cornell researchers Kevin Kniffin, Jubo Yan, Brian Wansink and William Schulze describe two studies they conducted to test the effect of different types of music on the cooperative behavior of individuals working as a team.

For each study, participants were grouped into teams of three. Each team member was given multiple opportunities to either contribute to the team’s value using tokens or keep the tokens for personal use.

When happy, upbeat music was played — researchers chose the “Happy Days” theme song, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves — team members were more likely to contribute to the group’s value. When music deemed unpleasant was played — in this case, heavy metal songs by less than well-known bands — participants were more likely to keep tokens for themselves. The researchers found contribution levels to the public good when happy, upbeat songs were played were approximately one-third higher compared to the less pleasant music.

When researchers conducted a second experiment testing how people react when no music is played, the results were the same. The researchers conclude that happy music provokes people to more often make decisions that contribute to the good of the team.

“Music is a pervasive part of much of our daily lives, whether we consciously notice it or not,” said Kniffin, a behavioral scientist at Cornell and lead author on the paper. “Music might melt into the background in places like supermarkets or gyms and other times it’s very prominent like places of worship or presidential nominating conventions. Our results show that people seem more likely to get into sync with each other if they’re listening to music that has a steady beat to it.”

Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, added: “What’s great about these findings, other than having a scientific reason to blast tunes at work, is that happy music has the power to make the workplace more cooperative and supportive overall.”

The researchers suggest managers consider not only the customer experience but also workers’ when picking the day’s music. Starting the day with this simple consideration in mind could result in happier employees and more teamwork.

“Lots of employers spend significant sums of time and money on off-site teambuilding exercises to build cooperation among employees. Our research points to the office sound system as a channel that has been underappreciated as a way to inspire cooperation among co-workers,” said Kniffin.

Healing powers of music

The researchers allocated 120 study participants as follows: half of the subjects were exposed to music for 25 minutes. Subdivided into three groups they were played recorded music by either W. A. Mozart, J. Strauss Jr., or the pop band ABBA. The remaining 60 subjects were allocated to a control group that spent their time in silence. Before and after exposure to music and quiet time, respectively, all participants had their blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol concentration measured.

Classical music by Mozart and Strauss notably lowered blood pressure and heart rate, whereas no substantial effect was seen for the songs of ABBA. In the control group, resting in a supine position also resulted in blood pressure lowering, but the effect was far less pronounced than for exposure to the music of Mozart or Strauss. All musical genres resulted in notably lower cortisol concentrations. As far as cortisol concentrations were concerned, the sex of the participants must have played a part, because the drop in cortisol levels was more pronounced in men than in women, especially after exposure to the music of Mozart and Strauss. Comparison with the control group showed that the effect of music was far greater than that of silence.

Beat of music automatically

imWhat most people call the sense of rhythm — the mechanism that enables us to clap along or dance to music — is an intangible ability that is exclusive to human beings. For example, imagine a barrel before it is placed inside a barrel organ. On the barrel, you can see exactly which tones will be played and for how long they will be audible. However, the regularity of the rhythm cannot be read on the barrel. This rhythm exists only in our heads, where our brain recognises patterns in the sounds. This helps us to predict the music, enabling us to synchronise our actions with it, i.e. dancing, clapping, singing or playing the violin.

Swaying back and forth

Human beings are the only species that recognise these patterns and scientists suspect that an evolutionary development is at the root of it. Music can work as a social lubricant within a community and a sense of rhythm enables us to make music with others or sway back and forth on the bleachers of a football stadium.

For five years, Fleur Bouwer plumbed the depths of the human sense of rhythm in order to map out the fundamental brain processes that lie at its roots. She discovered that both training — i.e. music lessons — and concentration — i.e. paying attention to the music — are unnecessary in recognising rhythm. Even the brains of untrained listeners can recognise the rhythm of a piece of music, even when performing a completely different task.

However, the PhD candidate would like to dispel one misunderstanding: the fact that nearly everyone is capable of recognising musical rhythm does not mean that everybody can dance to that rhythm. ‘This requires more complex motor skills on top of the ability to recognise the rhythm, and unfortunately these skills are not as universal to humans as the sense of rhythm.’

Parkinson’s disease

Although training and attention are not necessary for picking up rhythm, they do help. Professional musicians have been shown to be better than normal people at predicting notes in a rhythm based on the rhythm they recognised in an excerpt of music. This ability was its strongest when the musicians were concentrating hard. Bouwer: ‘My results show that, to a certain extent, the sense of rhythm is a fundamental brain process that develops unconsciously. However, training may well help you to make predictions based on the rhythm. This is useful when playing music or dancing.’

Bouwer hopes that knowledge of musical perception can ultimately be used to help people. ‘The brain scanner displays activity in the motor networks when people listen to music with a clearly discernible rhythm. I find that particularly interesting. Maybe we can eventually use this relationship between musical experience and the motor system to help people with motor-system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. However, before we explore this possibility, we must gain a better understanding of the fundamental processes. My research contributes to this.’

On 7 June, a symposium will be held to mark the conferral of Bouwer’s doctorate, at which international scientists will share new insights into sense of rhythm and the brain.

Ominous background music

Scripps scientist Andrew Nosal and a colleague at Harvard University recruited over 2,000 online participants to share their attitudes toward sharks after watching a 60-second video clip of sharks swimming. They compared the results of the participants who watched the clip set to ominous background music to those watching the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence.

Participants who viewed the video with ominous background music rated sharks more negatively than those who viewed the clip with uplifting music or no music.

“Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content,” said Nosal, the lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

A researcher from the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego was a coauthor of the study.