Chamber musicians, synchronization virtuosos

How do chamber musicians manage to make beautiful music without ever exchanging a single word during the concert? The answer is in the impact that practicing music in groups has on our brains. Laurel Trainor, psychologist and Canadian musician explains….

Chamber musicians, synchronization virtuosos
Quatuor Cambini © Festival Métis

Seen from the outside, it may seem hard to believe. Four people are on stage, playing different traits of the same piece at the same time, no one speaks and yet everyone seems to know exactly what do. And overall, they seem to love it while the public enjoys what they hear. 

This is the image of a string quartet reduced to its simplest description. But you would describe the same thing observing a trio, a duet, a sextet. In short, all chamber music formations seem to follow this same mysterious process. How can chamber musicians play together and make such beautiful sounds, without ever uttering a word during the performance?

“At the beginning of the concert," keyboardist Louis-Noel Bestion from Camboulas explains, "there is not much coded language that would allow us to understand each other. It is the preparatory work and the on-set experience we have together that guides the performance. When a piece is mastered, the musicians get carried away with the music. "

Getting carried away with the music ... what does this mean? Laurel Trainor, a musician and psychologist from McMaster University of Canada, explored this question to better understand the interactions between chamber musicians in a concert setting.

At the beginning, there was rhythm...

“In a conversation, generally, one waits his turn, in a group musicians play at the same time. To be successful, this means their brains must constantly anticipate being coordinated, "explains Laurel Trainor. "They must also anticipate the emotion they want to convey to other colleagues, but also to the audience. If they wait to hear what others are going to play, it is already too late. The same thing happens when we dance to a given rhythm: our brain anticipates the rest of the music in order to coordinate our movements to the rhythm. This coordination and anticipation is extremely fast and unconscious. "

To be clear, our brain synchronizes with the music, a synchronization which is possible thanks to its rhythmic structure, explains the researcher. The rhythm has a very strong impact on our brain: it is at the base of the music, but it is also inherent to any other activity: speech, walking, heartbeats ... And as our brain likes anticipation, it will find support in its predictability by synchronizing itself on the highlights. At the same time, several regions of the brain will be affected, including the area responsible for movement. Hence the irrepressible urge to stomp when we hear a rhythmic air. And it's accurate from the youngest age:  

There is only one step between synchronization to socialization

But if music makes us move, it also brings us closer. In formed ensembles, when you play a song that we had time to prepare before, it's unconscious. We follow each other without thinking, explains Julien Chauvin, violinist, founder of the orchestra Le Concert de La Loge and member of the Cambini Quartet. How to explain communication between musicians? As we explained with the popularity of choral singing, group music requires coordination, and therefore interaction, and increases pro-social behaviour and a sense of belonging.

Laurel Trainor's explanation: "In a group, moving on the same music creates a social dynamic. Research has shown that people who have moved/danced on the same music synchronously, have developed more affinity and confidence: they communicate and collaborate better, trust and appreciate each other better. " A sense of belonging that is sought after in all cultures, where music is part of all the important events of a community: weddings or funerals, sporting events or religious festivals. And this feeling of belonging has a simple explanation in our hormonal system. As the researchers note, physical efforts in a social context, such as laughter, dancing, or music, cause increased secretion of endorphin, the pleasure hormone. And if the pleasure is more demurred in the case of Cambini Quartet, it is quite evident in pop history’s most famous quartets:

It’s the key to the mystery: once "synchronized", musicians can adopt a non-verbal language that allows them to "ride the same wave": The body and gestures allow us to mark articulations and phrasing but the main vector is the eyes. Thus connected, it is through the gaze that we can achieve refined nuances and communicate feelings, concludes Julien Chauvin.