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date: 22 August 2019

Conducting (Fr. direction d'orchestre; Ger. Dirigiren; It. direzione d'orchestra)locked

  • John Spitzer,
  • Neal Zaslaw,
  • Leon Botstein,
  • Charles Barber,
  • José A. Bowen
  •  and Jack Westrup


(Fr. direction d'orchestre; Ger. Dirigiren; It. direzione d'orchestra)

Modern conducting combines at least three functions: 1) the conductor beats time with his or her hands or with a baton in performance; 2) the conductor makes interpretative decisions about musical works and implements these decisions in rehearsal and performance; 3) the conductor participates in the administration of the musical ensemble. The word conducting acquired its present meaning in the 19th century, as the practice developed in its modern form. Conducting is largely limited to the tradition of Western art music, although other traditions have adopted the practice (e.g. Turkish art music, big band jazz).

The history of musical direction may conveniently be divided into three overlapping phases: the singer-timebeater (15th–16th century); the instrumentalist-leader (17th–18th century); the baton conductor (19th–20th century).

John Spitzer, revised by Neal Zaslaw

The rise of polyphonic music and mensural notation made it advantageous to coordinate singers on different parts by means of a visible beat called the tactus. The tactus marked a unit of musical time, usually (but not always) equivalent to a semibreve. A few 15th-century paintings are said to depict singers beating time, but their interpretation is problematic. A hand that seems to be beating time may be giving cheironomic signs; what seems to be a baton may be a pointer for indicating the notes in a choirbook. Writers on music do not mention timebeating until the very end of the 15th century. Adam von Fulda (...

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H. Mendel and A. Reissmann, eds.: Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon (Berlin, 1870-80, 3/1890-91/R)
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Musical Quarterly
Journal of Musicological Research