How Well Can Humans Maintain a Tempo?

For no good reason, I’ve been wondering about this.

Suppose you take two very skilled musicians and place them in two adjacent, soundproof rooms such that they cannot hear each other. On cue, you have them both begin to play a long piece of simple music. As an observer listening to both audio feeds, how long would it take before they before they go noticeably out of sync? Would it be a matter of seconds, minutes or hours?

Suppose you replaced the individual musicians with orchestras. Would that significantly change the amount of time it takes to lose sync?

I know very little about music or audio so I apologize if I have been unclear or butchered a term.

Multiplying errors. Not mistakes per se, but with variations of hundredths of a second differences in timing, I predict their tempo would be noticeably out of sync in 30 seconds or less. Human ears are incredibly attuned to patterns(and lack thereof).

A musician friend once told me that while most musicians have a good sense of time, what’s really important in practice is to be able to stay in time with the rest of the group. And there’s often someone who is not good at keeping time. (He claimed it was usually singers who were off.)

I know of a percussionist who can keep perfect time for an hour or more. People say he can start a metronome, leave the room, go have lunch, and start snapping his fingers as he’s walking back into the room, and still be in PERFECT sync with the metronome.

He’s not the only person with this ability. Occasionally you’ll hear about someone who can tell you exactly when an hour has passed, to the second. I imagine that’s a very similar ability.

The fact is, drummers/percussionists tend to have a MUCH more highly attuned sense of tempo than even other musicians, and many of the best non-drummer musicians have a VERY good sense of time themselves.

The invention and use of the metronome has helped foster better timekeeping among Western musicians, too…although that’s only one reason for musicians keeping better time these days.

If you’re counting out the tiny subdivisions in your head (like 16th or even 32nd notes) you’re much more likely to be able to keep perfect time for longer. As well, a piece that includes lots of very fast notes is easier to keep good time with, than something with mostly long, slow notes.

I could probably keep perfect time for at least a minute or two, and maybe longer, as a WAG. Of course, there are plently of drummers who keep even better time that I do.

And I have some Nigerian friends who can make you rich if you just send them some money.

Have a look here. This is a drum chart that someone has extracted from Rock Band. Rock Band used the original recordings of the Beatles in this case. Note the [quarter note]=number above the stave and how it varies. Now, such variations in tempo are the result of the whole band, and especially the lead singer/guitarist, letting the music “breathe”. But there have been observations of perfect tempo keeping in Rock Band as well… usually in more recent productions. It is assumed that the perfect ones used computers/drum machines/etc. to keep time. Bottom line, musicians can keep good time, but are far from machine-like.

I was going to say. I’ve played with some really good time-keepers, but I simply cannot believe someone could play a perfect metronomic pulse for more than a few minutes, much less an hour.

Well, there is playing to a click track, which is pretty common. Still, drummers will often play slightly behind or ahead of the beat (even with a click track). For example, the kick may be on top of the beat, but often the snare will either anticipate or drag the beat ever so-slightly (see Bonham for behind-the-beat playing for instance, or Stewart Copeland for pushing the beat while still playing in time.)

I seem to recall reading an analysis of drummers somewhere a long time back that analyzed them and how close they came to playing exactly to the beat. Of all the ones analyzed, it was Phil Collins who had the most “metronomic” sense of the beat.

Not exactly the same thing, but the musicians who invented Kodachrome timed precise developing times in total darkness by playing specific songs in their heads.

Getting back to the OP: Two musicians in separate rooms would vary, not merely because of their ability to maintain a tempo, but because of their interpretation of the music . . . even if subconsciously. You might get better results with the same musician recorded at different times. But even then, subconscious factors would still vary.

What would happen if you put two metronomes in the rooms? How accurately are they calibrated?

I think quartz crystal oscillators in consumer products are often on the order of ten ppm and, at two beats per second, could easily be exactly out of sync in six hours. Mechanical metronomes would probably be ten or a hundred times worse.

Sometimes skilled musicians in the *same *room get out of sync. :slight_smile: Can’t say for sure without actually trying this but I am guessing that after two minutes they will be noticeably out of phase.

By the way, it is a common misconception that the drummer’s job is to keep time. In jazz, the bass player is the anchor for time.

Well, it is for a lot of forms of music. Perhaps you meant to say it’s not always or only the drummer’s job to keep time. That I would agree with. In most bands I’ve played with, it’s definitely the drummer that “conducts” the bands, and replacing the drummer made a big difference in group cohesion, musically. Were I to start a band, the drummer would be my most important musician, followed by the bassist, because those two really glue the rest of the band together.

I saw it happen in concert once, and it was only a matter of seconds. The singer’s foldback monitor stopped working at the beginning of one song, and she couldn’t hear the rhythm section well enough, and one of the other musicians had the same problem. Before the second chorus the band was almost half a measure out of sync with itself. It was a real mess. However, the guitar player caught what was happening and started playing on the beat louder and with extra emphasis, and managed to sort of get the song patched back together. I remarked on this to my (non-musician) GF next to me, but she hadn’t even noticed anything was off.

This kind of a stupid cite, but somewhere I read that the colossal pianist Ervin Nyireghazi on more than one occasion would mark off time spans by listening in his head–which in itself is no big deal–a Tchaikovsky symphony, repeatedly. (Also, you gotta love a guy who refused to play piano with Einstein when they met at a party.)

I do not find this all that difficult to believe, and the time periods would be accurate, within reason. It is a matter of concentration–actually it would be fun to try it ourselves with a song we know.

Another point:

In addition to mental recreation, the physical practice is critical. Rather than one-finger playing, consider toe-tapping or foot wagging to a beat, or, most obviously, marching–which can and has been done for hours with rock-solid equivalence–played by someone, or indeed, done “in time” with an internal listening or humming or singing. The participation locks in rhythm better, and in some way generates and reinforces it.

Don’t have cites at the moment, but many serious ethnographical and biopsychological studies, have been done on this.

The accuracy of mechanical metronomes over time is interesting. No doubt a physicist or engineer can easily specify the factors involved.

A famous avant-garde (still is) musical composition of the 20th century is the Poéme Symphonique by Gyōrgy Ligeti (of the music for 2001 fame) for 100 mechanical metronomes.

Your degree in percussion performance is from which university, again?

Or just any degree in music, period, is from which university?

Certainly not every drummer can keep perfect time for an hour. I never said that.

This is relevant why? You made an extraordinary claim. You are the one who has to provide extraordinary evidence.

I know a ton of people who think I have perfect pitch. The fact that you think this guy has perfect time is not evidence.

A really cool exercise we (a bunch of drummers) used to do. You don’t need drums, you can just clap.

First, everybody has to have their eyes closed. Then give a tempo of maybe 120 bbm or a little slower. Once the exercise stops, there’s not metronome or out-loud counting. The game goes on until it collapses.

Round one: Clapping on progressive quarter notes. IOW, 1 in the first measure, 2 in the second, 3 in the third, 4 in the 4th.

Go right in to round 2: Eighth note subdivision, clapping on the progressive up-beat. So, the + of 1 in the first measure, + of 2 in the second, so on.

Right in to round 3, 16th notes, on the beat. 1st measure count 1, second count 2 etc.

And finally round 4, 16th notes starting on the second note of the beat. So depending on how you like to count it, measure one is ‘e+a2’, measure two is ‘e+a3’.

That’s the end, it usually falls apart in round 4 (depending on collective skill level of the group)

Nobody has perfect time. However, humans do vary quite a bit in ability levels in many areas.

The percussionist in question is Bill Wilder with the Atlanta Symphony. I got my DEGREE IN PERCUSSION PERFORMANCE at the same university as a percussionist from Atlanta. This kid grew up playing in the Atlanta symphony youth orchestra, and studying with Jack Bell, another percussionist with the Atlanta Symphony. He said that it was widely known among Atlanta classical percussionists that Bill could walk away from a metronome that was clicking out a beat, go eat lunch, come back, and still be in time with the metronome.

I’ve heard more than one story of people who can tell you, practically to the second, when, for instance, an hour has passed, so I doubt this is a completely unique ability. Rare, but not literally unique.

Sorry, I should specify rock/pop bands, or forms of music where the kick and snare drive the beat along.

Sorry, I’m not buying either story. I literally do not think it is possible.