Musical Attention Spans

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Attention span graphAttention span graphThe ‘end effect’ is something that is a mainstay of managing people’s attention quality in both teaching and rehearsal situations. In any one session of an activity, the best quality attention is just after the start (it takes a short while right at the outset to shed the distractions of daily life), and then it declines over time as people get both more tired and more accustomed to the activity. The low point comes somewhere between the 2/3 and 3/4 mark, and then something interesting happens. As we head towards the end, attention perks up again.

Now a couple of observations about this:

First, you only get the end effect if you have a defined end point. This means that you get more done if you say, ‘we’ll work on this until 8.20,’ than if you say ‘we’ll work on this until we get it right’. It also means that after a sluggish spot during the second half of a rehearsal, things are often really cooking when it’s time to stop. This is why it’s tempting to over-run – although yielding to that temptation will dilute future end-effects, since if you do keep going no-one will really know where the end is next time.

Second, it works both on the large scale and the small scale. So, in an eleven-week term, everybody’s brains fall out in week 8. Or, if teaching an 8-bar phrase by ear, everyone gets the first four bars and the last bit, but forgets what happens in bars 5 and 6. Once you know this is going to happen, you can plan for it of course. For instance, I visited one choir when researching my choral conducting book that had moved its break time to give a much longer first than second half to the rehearsal and reported significant gains in productivity thereafter.

And if you think about it, musical structures are often built to counteract the wandering attention that sets in over time. After the exposition repeat, the listener’s brain is saying, ‘yeah, yeah, I know what’s going on now, let me have a rest,’ so composers launch into the development section – chopping up themes and modulating all over the place to shake this complacency. Likewise, the bridge in the AABA song form brings in tonal, thematic and narrative contrast to revive flagging cognitive engagement. The map of emotional intensity of a musical performance is often the exact inverse of the attention span graph.

Formal conventions are important here. The satisfaction the listener feels in the reprise section arises not just from the sense of recognition of material heard earlier, but from meeting this material just as their attention is getting back into its stride in anticipation of the end. This only works because we are used to the sense of pacing and shaping different genres of music use to project where the end point is going to be. If we can’t gauge en route where the end will come, our brains lose traction – this is part of the reason why it takes a few listenings to get your head into an unfamiliar musical idiom.

There are lessons here for composers of course. Control of long-range structure is a major component of the techniques composers learn during their training. But there are also lessons for performers about the limits of rubato. Like composers, you can play with the listener’s expectations, but if you confound them entirely, you will lose them. Listeners want to be able to meet you at the end of the phrase, and your job is help them anticipate where that will be.

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