The Primacy of Time

Musicians are often taught to view time as merely an element of music. We might listen to a performance and say that someone has a great sound, great technique, and great time. Most of us associate musical time with rhythm or possibly tempo. However, very few of us would associate time with pitch, tone quality, articulation, or facility. In fact, time is not merely an element of music. Without time, music simply could not exist. Time is the medium in which music itself is crafted. It is simply impossible to be a great musician without a great sense of musical time.

Sound itself is transmitted by air pressure fluctuations in time. Microphones and human ears both receive acoustic information in the form of sound pressure waves. The music we’re accustomed to thinking about as black and white notes written on staff lines is actually a series of fluctuations in air pressure measured over time. Harmony, melody, timbre, articulation, rhythm, texture, etc. are all somehow encoded into those sound pressure waves. Everything musical is fundamentally related to time in some way.

Little explanation is necessary for the relationship between rhythm and time. However, time is also fundamental to understanding pitch, harmony and intonation. The human auditory system (the combination of our ears and central nervous system which processes what we hear) cannot physically perceive time intervals shorter than about 1/20 of a second. Two events which occur closer in time than 0.05 seconds are perceived by human beings as simultaneous. This means that when steady vibrations occur at rates faster than 20Hz they are perceived as pitches instead of rhythms.

In other words, pitches are just very fast rhythms even though we don’t perceive them that way. Bad intonation occurs when the rhythms of these pitches are not well synchronized (or very close to being well synchronized). It’s no coincidence that all of our harmonic intervals occur between pitches of small intervals ratios. For instance, octaves exist when the ratio of two frequencies is 2:1 (for example, 440Hz and 880Hz), Perfects fifths when they are 3:2, Perfect fourths at 4:3, and so on. When two pitches are tuned to a simple harmonic ratio, the two pitches align regularly at a short interval of time. Our auditory system usually appreciates this. We perceive the two pitches to be “in tune.”

When two pitches are more significantly out of tune we hear beats, a rhythmic pulsation that results from the phasing between the two frequencies. It’s similar to what happens when two car turn signals flash at slightly different rates. At one point they will flash at the same time, and a few seconds later they will flash at opposite times. When two pitches are out of tune they are really just out of time. Thus, intonation and harmony are intimately related to time.

Timbre is also intimately connected to time. First of all, it is not a coincidence that most timbres are formed from from a set of pitches which are all harmonics (or close to being harmonics) of the same fundamental. If they are all harmonics of the same fundamental, they are also well synchronized with each other. Random combinations of pitches which are not well synchronized are not perceived as timbres. They are usually perceived as unpleasant and somewhat confusing to the human auditory system. Many have called this phenomenon “dissonance.” In other words, timbre is intimately linked to time and synchronization.

Instrumental technique is closely linked to time and synchronization. A great sound often begins with a great articulation. A great articulation synchronizes everything which is necessary to create sound. It consists of a steady pitch and even volume. As the articulation evolves into the body of the note, the pitch will usually stay somewhat steady as the volume diminishes. Instrumentalists spend thousands of hours perfecting their respective techniques to produce great articulations and great sounds, which are the result of synchronizing the hundreds of specific muscle movements necessary for the job. Wind players learn to carefully time their inhalations and exhalations properly to produce great articulations and great sounds on every note.

Nearly all aspects of instrumental technique relate to synchronization of some sort. A great sense of musical time is imperative for anyone wishing to improve their skills as a musician, not matter what their age or playing ability. It all relates to time.

I’m not recommending that everyone turn on their metronomes immediately and drill everything at a constant tempo. In fact, even great rubato requires a detailed sense of musical time. Rubato isn’t a random fluctuation of tempo. It very specifically slows and accelerates tempo as an expressive device. Anyone using rubato in their playing must have a great sense of the tempo from which and to which they are fluctuating. In fact, a great deal of rubato sounds the best when the overall time isn’t lost. In other words, every ritardando has a corresponding accelerando.

Chopin’s rubato (the type he taught his students) was “contra-metric.” Contra-metric rubato is rubato against the meter. The left hand of the piano remains steady while the right hand speeds up and slows down over it. A great deal of vocal and instrumental music is based on this principal of constant accompaniment under a rubato melody. Again, it all relates to having an intimate sense of constant time.

Time cannot be removed from music. No aspect of music can even be conceived without referencing time in some way. Great music is always well synchronized at some level. Keep this in mind during your next practice session, at your next concert, and the next time you decide to listen to your favorite recording. Always figure out how to better synchronize your music.

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