Musical Sense and the Stroop Effect

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The Stroop Effect: it takes longer to process mixed messages than congruent onesThe Stroop Effect: it takes longer to process mixed messages than congruent onesOne of the things I love about coaching is the way that other musicians help you see things you already thought you knew in a new light. A lovely example of this happened when I was up in Edinburgh with MacFour at the end of March. We were talking about the relationship between the manager and the communicator, and how I’d originally started using these terms when thinking about the nature of the task the arranger sets up for the performer. We somehow also managed to divert into one of my favourite rants about the nature of the baritone line.

It was at this point that Elaine Hamilton, the quartet’s baritone, came out with the remark:

Yes, and if the baritone line is illogical, you find that you start to sing a bit behind everyone else as it takes you longer to process it.

Well, yes, but of course. That makes perfect sense. Indeed, there’s a classic form of psychological test, called the Stroop effect, that shows how the brain takes longer to process cognitive tasks that involve in-built contradictions than those whose elements are experienced as congruent. This insight not only adds a new item to my list of underlying issues in synchronisation problems, but also holds some quite far-reaching implications for both arrangers and performers.

Implications for the arranger:

  • All the parts need to have roughly the same level of cognitive demands to promote good synchronisation within the ensemble.
  • You want the relatively more surprising bits in each part to coordinate well with the others. Either have everyone having a greater cognitive load at the same time, or if one part has more to do mentally, build in the opportunity for the others to give them space to execute the challenge
  • The faster the tempo, the less intricate, rangy or disjunct the lines can be.

Implications for performers:

  • The pacing of the whole needs to be developed in dialogue with all the parts, not just the primary melody; the lie of the lines in the harmony parts may place quite specific constraints upon which of the many interpretive possibilities inherent in the tune will actually work.
  • If you find some songs harder to synchronise than others, investigate the relative complexity of the parts.* Rehearsing each part in unison and/or doubling up into two-voices-per-part in duets will help you understand the song from the perspective of all the parts, not just your own.
  • The more intricate, rangy or disjunct the lines are, the slower and more rubato-laden the delivery needs to be.

There’s nothing wrong with musical complexity or the cognitive demands it makes on both singers and listeners of course. Indeed, fascination with increasing complexity is an inherent part of the pleasures of connoisseurship.

But complexity needs a context to make sense. Thinking about it in terms of the Stroop effect helps us deploy it strategically. If we can avoid either setting (as arrangers) or falling into (as performers) traps built of mismanaged or gratuitous cognitive demands, we will be in a better position to communicate directly, without stubbing our toes on technical obstacles en route.

*If you find all songs hard to synchronise, your difficulties are more basic than this. Though exploring the relationship between the parts will still help you get more coordinated.

Wow! Didn't see that coming! Glad I could add something to your wealth of great stuff about singing, singers and all things musical!

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