Disrupted Synchrony: Does it matter?

Gary’s thoughts

As we reported in the last Vignette, the Skype sessions at Hill House in the last six months seem to have been – surprisingly – successful. Surprising, that is, for Gary – who feared that the famous ‘latency effect’ [aka sound delay] would make musical activity just too difficult between him and the residents. 

During these Covid times musicians of all types have been talking extensively about the possibilities of playing together ‘synchronously’ on Skype or Zoom. The problem is that split-second timings are disrupted due to latency. So fully synchronous, rhythmically entrained, music making is difficult if not impossible. (Which is why so many web-performances rely on ‘a-synchronous’ re-combinations of music’s individual parts – to bring them into sync.)

The irony is that only by going off-line – and non-live – can synchrony be achieved. And yet, being online is being together in time – if not in sync. Which then to choose? Non-interactive and in sync or interactive and out of sync? For music therapy, and indeed for any situation where music is being used as a medium of emergent, ‘live’ interaction, there is only one option – live. But latency complicates the picture and for us the question arises: what’s lost when we make this compromise – and what, perhaps, is gained?

On long-distance phone calls and over Skype/Zoom we can usually cope with some degree of latency when talk is the expressive modality. But musicking together is a different thing. Latency in online synchronous music making means we see things before we hear them, and for music this can matter.  The traditional assumption has been that successful music-making relies on very split-second timing, and often when we’re deprived of being in sync we feel dissatisfied, frustrated. So, when sync isn’t possible people won’t feel they are ‘together’ in the music. Or will they? 

There’s a theoretical interest here too. A whole raft of theory from the sociologist Schütz (1964) to the early communication theorists Daniel Stern (2004), Colwyn Trevarthen and Stephen Malloch (2009) have argued that successful non-verbal communication both in and out of therapy is based on precise interactional synchrony, and that disruptions in shared timing have (bad) emotional and relational consequences for the communication partners. There’s a further literature that suggests split-second synchrony gives rise to good emotional consequences – bonding, empathy, even a surge in endorphins (Clarke, DeNora and Vuoskowski 2015). 

Music therapists have been particularly concerned about musical latency as they’ve been experimenting with online work. This concern is heightened because many of the people music therapists work with already have problems with conventional verbal communication.  For these reasons, we thought that sound delay might be a particular problem in the care home setting: to be sure the residents already encounter too may barriers to communication, such as hearing and sight impairments, or the unknown effects of dementia on participation in music. So adding a further complication initially felt like it would be impossible. Gary experienced this first hand, and at first it’s odd and disconcerting to see someone’s mouth moving and then to hear the sound a split-second later, or to hear an echo of singing in the care home that’s not in synch to the music he was making in his room more than a hundred miles away in Norwich. Our thinking was: if Gary finds that disconcerting what must the residents and carers make of it down there in Hill House? 

But it turns out that although the latency problem has featured in every one of the 25 sessions Gary’s done so far, this hasn’t made sessions impossible. To the contrary, it seems that residents and staff at Hill House are finding ways to cope with latency – pointing to the screen, helping each other to take part, conducting the music with a hand or a walking stick, miming gestures or engaging in improvised dance. The visual features of music have, it seems, come to the fore and helped to compensate for what is not so easily achievable online. Gary is now continually working on ways to develop those ways that people are helping to keep the music relevant, and building on the new resources he’s finding week-to-week. And some of these strategies, and the larger questions they’ve raised have been unexpected prompts for our research, and our thinking about ‘care for music’ in these settings – and perhaps others too. 

We’ve been looking in some detail at latency effects in the sessions, and how residents, carers, and Gary as the music therapist cope, and possibly ‘repair’ the musical communication in live musical time. 

Here are some of the questions that we’re pursuing through what we see as the ‘accidental experiment’ of socially distanced music making:

  1. What are the different experiences of musical latency for ‘each side’ of an online musical encounter within a music therapy scenario? For example, is it worse for someone producing or receiving music (perhaps acutely for a highly trained musician?). Is it less important for people who may experience music making as just a way to be together socially? 
  2. What techniques and strategies is each side learning to use to cope with latency, or to compensate for it?
  3. Are these musical ‘repairs and adjustments’ (from both sides) a continuation of the ‘normal life’ repairs and adjustments we all make in communicative interactions – perceptually, cognitively, socially?
  4. How is latency helped by ‘musical intermediaries’ (we have started calling them ‘musical mediums’) such as carers conducting the music, and dancing, singing with the residents? Is this a form of ‘devolving’ the latency into real-time musical synchrony within the room? 

We’re interested in probing these questions through further inquiry. It’s an intriguing question: when is disruption not disruptive? 


Clarke, R, T. DeNora and J Vuoskowki (2015). Music, Empathy and Cultural Understanding. Physics of Life Reviews (December), pp. 61-88. Report version available here: https://www.music.ox.ac.uk/assets/Cultural-Value-Music-Empathy-Final-Report.pdf

Malloch, Stephen & Colwyn Trevarthen (eds) (2009a). Communicative Musicality.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schutz, Alfred (1964). Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship. In: Collected Papers, vol.2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Stern, Daniel (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life.New York: Norton.

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