Historically, musical ensembles were led by either the keyboardist or the principal violinist of the group. As chamber groups developed into orchestras, it became harder for all the musicians to see the leader, and the need for an individual to guide everyone arose. Early conductors would use a roll of paper or a long staff to create steady beats for the orchestra to follow. The baton that is used for conducting today became popular in the 19th century. As orchestras and their repertoire developed, the conductor’s function became to mediate between the ensemble, the piece of music and the audience.

Facts and Features

  1. A conductor’s baton is held in the right hand and is used to direct the tempo of the music.  
  2. Batons used by conductors are generally made from wood or graphite. 
  3. A conductor’s left hand signals musicians when to enter and cut off, indicates the volume of sound and directs the phrasing and expression in a piece. 
  4. If a conductor’s hands are occupied, their facial expressions or breath might mark musicians’ entrances and exits in a piece of music. 
  5. Choirmasters, or choral conductors, do not use a baton, unless directing the choir with an orchestra.

Famous Conductors

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)
Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989)
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Sir Simon Rattle OM CBE (1955-)
Marin Alsop (1956-)

Music to Listen to

Beethoven – Egmont Overture
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
Debussy – La Mer
Haydn – Symphony No. 80
Mahler – Symphony No. 5 

Find Out

  1. Which orchestral conductors prefer to direct using only their hands?
  2. In 1687, which composer and conductor accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting staff, and died as a result of the infected wound?