Why Lockdown Music Jams Don’t Work

We’re seeing a lot of virtual choirs and orchestras out there, as well as other groups. It all looks and sounds great, until you decide to get together with your musical friends via¬† your favourite app and do some real time jamming. Then chaos ensues! So, sometimes I hear people asking what’s the best way to pull it off? Recently I answered this in a music group (after first quipping “Time travel”), so I thought I’d do an edited version here for others wondering the same thing.

To have any success you need to be local and have good internet. The fastest anything can travel is the speed of light, which is about 300,000 km/second in air. Think about how finely we rely on timing in our music. Suppose we want to ensure that our semiquavers (16th notes) at 120bpm are in alignment. Each beat is a half second. A 16th note is 0.03 seconds. So, assuming it travels without delay, the signal can travel 9370km in that time. So, twice the distance across the USA. But, assuming most of it is via wires, these are a lot longer than the direct point to point distance, so let’s assume it’s double. That makes it about the distance across the USA. You play a note, your band member on the other side of the continent hears it 0.03 seconds (a 16th note) later and plays in time with it, but you hear what they played 0.03 seconds later again. So what they might hear being the same time, you hear with a 0.03 second delay between. So you’ll be a 16th note out. Maybe you don’t mind being a 32nd note out. That cuts us to ~2000km. But, the speed of light through copper is about half of the speed of light through air, so that brings us to 1000km. But there is overhead from the way that information travels via internet, so maybe that cuts it to 5% of that distance. Now we’re down to 50km. Your internet speed might be rubbish, there could be delays from everyone watching Netflix etc. So that’s why local is best and may _still_ have noticeable delays.

Maybe you can try something really slow with slushy timing. Or write something that works with people that are out of sync. Like improv over a drone. I’m thinking of writing/arranging something like this for my singing friends to try.

Disclaimer: These are all estimates and could be way out. You can find out the real delay with internet tools and decide whether it is feasible.