Latency: what’s the problem?

A Christmas Story

Doing sessions ‘down the line’ really highlights the physical distance between, in our work, the Hill House residents and staff on the one hand and Gary, music therapist, miles away, on the other. But it also reveals what it is that everyone involved – Gary, residents, staff – are doing to care for music in times of social distancing to compensate for the enforced separation…. To think about this, we’ve been rereading Mercédès Pavlicevic – in particular, her abiding concern with what she called, ‘moments’.

Mercédès’ deals with ‘moments’ in several texts. The first might have been a contribution to Voicesin 2001 (Pavlicevic 2001; Pavlicevic 2010; Pavlicevic 2012). Her conception of what makes a moment special (at different times she calls these ‘optimal’, ‘special’, ‘magical) is inclusive. Each time she speaks of moments, though, there is one constant: moments are understood as fulcrums for change. In the moment, after the moment – things are different. And the scenes of action where they occur become charged with new possibilities and potentials. It is perhaps a little bit like after a thunder storm the air is – electric (one of Mercédès’ favourite words by the way).

So, in her publication, ‘Between Beats: Therapy Transforming People and Places’ (Pavlicevic 2012: 202), Mercédès’ considers a day room in a care home and poses the question: 

How do the people – who are in disparate and separate intrasubjective orbits, some with reduced and fractured capacities for ‘being social’ – gather into one shared musical moment…?’

She considers how being gathered is produced in ‘moments’. A moment might contain the social and musical practices, one after another, that draw people into a shared situation, an event with some kind of felt, perceived, spoken about, sense of something shared. A jointly owned happening in other words.

Such practices might include a dramatized shift in participants’ roles. For example, Mercédès’ describes how two carers sitting in a corner of the room start clapping in sync, and in a way that quickly transforms them – while still members of the care team they are now also very conspicuous musicians. This identity shift in turn underscores the general, and shared, sense of musical purpose and energy in the room at that time. Here, synchronous demonstrates to others – Something Musical is Happening – and We Are Together!

Not all transitional moments involve synchrony however. They can also be musical, as it were, gear shifts – changes of genre, material (a new song, a different volume level, octave or key, tempo), gesture, energy flow.


Gathering. Reorientation. Happening. Shifting. Transitions… Mercédès’ understanding of musical moments resonates with sociological theorist Emile Durkheim’s notion of, ‘collective effervescence’ – the drawing out, and drawing together of otherwise – Mercédès’ term again – ‘disparate’ individuals – drawing them in or on to something that stands outside of each of them – but is capable of holding all of them, something that generates collective energy. 

The word ‘above’ is important – it references what Durkheim spoke of as the ‘supra’ individual. Durkheim understood culture as lifting individuals up and into a realm of forms – cultural patterns and materials that offer shape for experience, that socialise us in present action for future action. It is through participating in this ‘lifting’ process that we become, and learn how to become, a member of a group, a social human being. It is how we find ‘ourselves’:

Society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common’ (Durkhiem 2001 [1912]: 417-18). 

Seen in this context, our human capacity for communicative musicality – and the synchronous activities that constitute live musicking – is a means for human social being. So what does music made during social distancing highlight about social assembly, shared processes of acting and being? In online synchronous music making we are not able to effect split-second precision of musical timing. But can we gather anything new from studying online musicking? In particular does it illuminate new features related to how music can ‘gather’ us?


We put this question to Simon Procter (Director of Music Services, Education, Research and Public Affairs at Nordoff Robbins) because, as it happened (and as you do in Music Therapy PhD Seminars), we (11 of us plus families) had recently produced an online partially improvised Christmas Panto, using Zoom – in costume (part of Gary’s script is reproduced here – we’d love to share the video but people’s kids were also involved and – frankly we all look extremely silly!). The plot was based loosely on Dick Wittington and His Cat, adapted to reflect the joys and sorrows of doing a PhD. Simon was cast as the Fairy of Bowbells, resplendent in gold lamé and baubles, a bearded ‘furry fairy’, complete with magic wand (the flashlight on his phone we think). He led us in a song he had specially composed for this occasion – about the trials and tribulations of finishing a thesis. 

 Dick is introduced to Barney the cat by the Fairy of Bowbells Dick is lonely, and needs a research partner to help him. The NR Director of Research Enterprise, Strategy, Quality, Certainty and Paperclips makes an introduction…Fairy of Bowbells [Simon] – speech/song to introduce Dick to Barney. The value of research partnerships, etc… Dick expresses gratitude
Scene 2: Nordoff Robbins PhD Seminar Christmas Panto, 2020, Script by G Ansdell

Simon’s song had a chorus: ‘We’re all here to help you write/We’re all here to help you write/We’re all here to help you write/Your magnum opus!’ Cue synchrony. Or in this case, not. The voices wafted in and out, some took longer to finish than others. They were – most precisely – out of sync! You can hear most of the final verse, followed by the chorus here:

Simon Procter’s Fairy of Bowbells PhD Song

Tia (Dame Cicely Suet, abusive supervisor) took part heartily. She, barely noticed (or cared?) about latency. ‘Latency? What Latency?’ If anything, the mismatched voices seemed to underscore (that word again) the bizarre sense/fun of what was happening – the fact that we were doing a song together, live, and indeed, in defiance of what the medium could not deliver (sync). You might say that Tia failed to notice zoom’s ‘failing’ here because it was eclipsed by something more important – singing the chorus of this new and very amusing song together. You might even say that this specific context (its haeccceity or unique ‘this-ness’) was as beautiful in its way as any perfect, split-second sync. It was, we think, a ‘moment’, in Mercédès’ term.

We began to think it might be similar to how music works in pain management. If you engage with music, or with the social interaction linked to music, perception of pain can be eclipsed. The fact is the mind can never notice everything at once; it’s selective. Psychologists speak about Inattentional Blindness. That’s when we don’t see one thing because we’re focused on another (DeNora 2014:107-23). Ethnomethodologists (the study of ordinary people’s methods of sense making) speak about how we add things to what we perceive or encounter, ‘filling in’, letting unclear information ‘pass’ and generally colluding to produce the semblance of a sensible, ‘natural, normal’ world (Heritage 1984: 96). We cooperate – and collude. Whether or not we find coherence, beauty, logic, or even a sense of musical togetherness, depends on many factors. It depends upon what we bring to the scene, how cooperative we are in the shared work of producing ‘collective effervescence’ and – of course – these things are linked to how motivated we are to do so.

Meanwhile, Tia was reminded of her involvement in another research project, with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. The interdisciplinary team there, led by Raymond MacDonald, has been exploring how online music making is embracing latency as another instrument, playing with zoom’s affordances, and through that finding novel ways to stay together (and care for each other during Lockdown). The team (Rob BurkeRoss BirrellMaria Sappo Donahue) has just finished its first major article and is hard at work on a second. And GIO have graciously let Tia sit in on their Tuesday night sessions. 

Yesterday, while writing up this blog entry, Tia went back to Simon and asked him: had he noticed the latency during his Panto song, and if so, did it bother him? Yes, he did notice it. He thought as he was ‘leading’ the singing that he had to take care to keep moving, not to wait until everyone ‘caught up’ otherwise the music would get progressively slower and grind to a halt. But then, he described how this was by no means his first experience with the ‘latency problem’. Earlier in his career, serving as a church organist, Simon routinely dealt with the ‘latency problem’: ‘ you have to plough on… you’re miles away from the congregation and what you hear back from them is miles too late’ is what he said (on this topic, see Stack Exchange 2015). No doubt there are other forms of latency that we encounter socially – for example at Hill House where many of the residents live with dementia and responses are often, ‘delayed’. No doubt our own responses are sometimes, ‘delayed’ and, indeed, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil argues that, ‘[m]usic to be personally involving and socially valuable must be “out of time” and “out of tune”’ (1987: 275). The question is when this ‘problem’ matters, and to whom, and how, through what cultural means? It is, in Thomas Szasz’s sense, just one more ‘problem in living’ (Szasz 2010 [1960]) which might be over-come.

Maybe the constraints of enforced distanced musicking are helping us notice (and extend) the para-musical features of music. Maybe our already-existing notion of music as Music+ (music is always somewhere, in some context, linked to other things/meanings) is now Music++? In other words, music PLUS all the things that music can be when perfect synchrony is denied are coming to the fore (and this was a key finding in the GIO study): gesture, comportment, words, props, actions, activities, costumes, pictures, people (this list only begins to scratch the surface)… Maybe the ‘latency problem’ will lead to a more fully-fledged (or fully acknowledged) notion – following Cook’s pioneering work on this topic (Cook 1998) – of music as a multi-media modality, even when we might think we’re simply making or listening to ‘sound’? Maybe, this period of enforced latency will help us to see just what music can do includes but also extends beyond the sonic and the sonic-semiotic . For example, sometimes making music, or listening to music, music might be more of a pretext for other forms of meaningful and aesthetic activity – ceremony, sharing, displaying, moving, communicating… (doing the Panto, in spite of ‘the latency problem’ was definitely part of a group consolidation or ‘gathering’). Feminist improvisers have been demonstrating this point for decades in the concepts of social virtuosity and mixed abilities (Nicols). 

As long ago as E M Foster’s Howard’s End (‘only connect’) and his dystopian story The Machine Stops, writers have debated technology’s dual-edged quality.  These debates underscore how, as with music, technology is always technology+. So, maybe creative ways of addressing ‘the latency problem’ – indeed, of embracing latency and working it into the musical system – underscores some of the themes that disability studies have pursued for some long time (Groce 1988), namely that ‘problems in living’ can be transcended if collaborative practices change.


Cook, N (1998) Analysing Musical Multimedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeNora, T (2014) Making Sense of Reality: culture and perception in everyday life. London: Sage.

Durkheim, E (2001 [2012]) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (Trans. C Cossman). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Groce, N (1988) Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness in Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Heritage, J (1984) Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity.

Keil, C (1987) Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Aug., 1987), pp. 275-283

Pavlicevic, M (2001) Moments. Voices Resources. Retrieved June 19, 2018, from

Pavlicevic, M (2010) Let the music work: Optimal moments of collaborative musicing. In B. Stige, G. Ansdell, C. Elefant, & M. Pavlicevic (Eds.), Where Music Helps. Community Music Therapy in Action and Reflection. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Pavlicevic, M (2012) Between Beats:Group Music Therapy Transforming People and Places. Pp. 197-217 in R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz and L. Mitchell (Eds). Oxford Handbook of Music, Health and Wellbeing. Oxford University Press.

Stack Exchange (2015) How does a pipe organist deal with latency or delay? Retrieved on December 16, 2020:

Szasz, T (2010 [1960]) The myth of mental illness: foundations of a theory of personal conduct. NY: Harper Perennial Edition. 

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