The times they are a-changin’

We think that water has no taste, because we were born with it in our mouths.

Most performers of art-music, even many Early Music specialists, believe that the subtle manipulation of rhythm for expressive effect – so-called tempo rubato – is an essential element of fundamental musicianship. To play in strict time is derided as mechanical, the work of “a poor block-head who hammers away in strict time without … artistic expression”. Teachers are advised that “a Metronome is apt to kill the finer Time-sense implied by Rubato”. “Variations of Tempo, the ritardando, accelerando, and tempo rubato, are all legitimate aids demanded by Expression. […] use is determined by sound judgment and correct musicianly taste”. Control of Rubato lies with the conductor, or in chamber music, with the soloist. It is expected that the accompaniment will yield to the melody.


But is Rubato really an Absolute, a fundamental quality of good musicianship that has never changed over the years? Scientific scepticism would encourage us to doubt this: after all, historical pitch standards, temperaments, tempi, and musical notation itself all show significant differences from current mainstream practice. Why should we expect Rubato alone not to have changed over the years?

Happily, solid evidence is available, from detailed analysis of historical gramophone recordings by elite performers throughout the 20th century. Much of our present knowledge comes from the wonderfully-named CHARM project in the UK (the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, lots of materials available here), and Dorottya Fabian’s investigations into rhythm perception, expressiveness and emotion in music, and the Early Music movement & Bach performance, at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

[By the way, the current assumption that expressiveness is connected with Rubato is so strong, that I have suggested that researchers avoid the word ‘expressive’ in their questionnaires to listeners, since it will probably elicit responses about Rubato. A more searching set of questions might ask if the performance showed ‘signs of emotions’, whether the listener had detected the use of particular techniques (e.g. vibrato, rubato, tonal or dynamic contrasts) and (most tellingly) whether listeners themselves felt they had been touched by those emotions?]

Commenting on some results from the CHARM investigations at a recent conference of the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, Nicholas Cook, 1684 Professor of Music at Cambridge University, described a significant change in the use of Rubato around the middle of the 20th century. Before the Second World War, performers followed what Prof Cook calls the ‘tent-pole’ model: the tempo slows down as the music approaches the important point, and speeds up again afterwards, just as the canvas of a tent rises to the point where the pole supports it, and then falls away again.

In the post-War period, a different model emerges, which I have christened the ‘tube-train’. Each phrase begins slowly, accelerates to the middle, and then slows again towards the end. The tracks for London’s Underground Railway, the ‘Tube’, descend out of each station, and ascend again to the next, to help trains accelerate away and slow down again.

There are some famous international Early Music ensembles that apply this Tube-Train Rubato to renaissance and baroque music. I speculate that this approach might be particularly favoured by directors whose formative years of high-level music education were in the 1950s.

Early Music ensembles with younger directors show other models of Rubato. The “Go-To” model, much in vogue amongst baroque orchestras in Germany and elsewhere is almost the opposite of the ‘Tent Pole’: the tempo accelerates towards the important point and dwells on this one note somewhat. This approach is associated with directorial comments and group discussion about ‘where does this phrase go to?’.

Another approach, which I’ve seen at work in renaissance polyphony, is what I call the “Smoothie”. Notated contrasts in note-values are reduced: long notes are cut short, short notes are taken more slowly. Or if the composer writes notes of equal length, the music generally slows down (from moderate tempo) or speeds up (from slow tempo, because the long notes are shortened). The Smoothie is sometimes the result of laziness in observing the written rhythms, or of sloppy bowing from string-players. But at higher levels, it is associated with performers who make sound-quality, fine tone-production, a high priority. Such performers elongate short notes, to make sure that even the little notes have the best possible sound quality.

Other genres of music favour different approaches. Most fans would agree that the emotional power of Heavy Rock is not lessened by that music’s strong rhythm in strict tempo. Mainstream jazz allows a degree of rhythmic flexibility (swing) within a steady underlying beat. In this style, soloists may float freely over a regular accompaniment in the rhythm section.

Such ‘cool rhythm’ might remind us of 19th-century descriptions of Chopin’s Rubato as “timeless melody over a timed bass”, which I shorten to TLM/TB. (I avoid terms like Chopinesque, since TLM/TB clearly pre-dates Chopin). In his book Stolen Time: The History of Rubato (Oxford 1996 details here) Richard Hudson “identifies and traces the development of two main types of rubato: an earlier one in which note values in a melody are altered while the accompaniment keeps strict time, and a later, more familiar, one in which the tempo of the entire musical substance fluctuates.”

Hudson’s book very usefully charts the recent history of Rubato, though his terminology of “Early Rubato” and “Late Rubato” has been criticised. I don’t claim that my own terminology is perfect, but to clarify my intentions, I will use the term ‘TLM/TB’ for melodic freedom controlled by a regular bass, keeping ‘Tempo Rubato’ for entirely Stolen Time. Notice Hudson’s characterisation of the ‘fluctuation of the entire musical substance’ in Tempo Rubato as ‘familiar’.

But what are the artistic and emotional results of this ‘fluctuation’ of musical Time? Assuming it is done deliberately and skillfully, what is its purpose? 

Tempo rubato softens the sharpness of lines, blunts the structural angles… idealises the rhythm…. It converts energy into languor, crispness into elasticity, steadiness into capriciousness.

Wait a moment! Shouldn’t this ring alarm-bells for Early Music performers? Surely baroque music should have clear lines, strong structures, energy and crispness!! Why should we want to soften, blunt, make rubbery, unsteady and capricious a Bach fugue, a Lully overture or a Palestrina mass??? Perhaps things might have been different, before the year 1800…

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

 At the very least, the blind assumption that Rubato is an unchanging, fundamental absolute is demonstrably unsound. Since we now know that our ‘familiar’ Tempo Rubato has a history of change across the 19th and 20th centuries, we should begin to enquire what approaches were taken to Tempo and Rhythm before 1800. But I’ll come to this Another Time.

Galileo and the Philosophers



The three quotations in the first paragraph are from Constantin von Sternberg Tempo Rubato and other essays (c. 1920) available here; Tobias Matthay Musical interpretation: its laws and principles, and their application in teaching and performing (c. 1913) details here ; and W.E. Haslam Style in Singig (1911) here. The remarks that Tempo Rubato softens, blunts etc were made by Paderewski c. 1909, published here. All these are cited – together with the general opinions summarised by my first paragraph – in the Wikipedia article on Tempo Rubato here.

I present Wikipedia not as an academic authority, but as a reliable indication of the consensus view amongst its self-selecting editorial group. Wikipedia is also a powerful influence on students seeking basic information.

My claim is that Wikipedia’s presentation of Tempo Rubato,  with its bundle of early-20th-century citations (most of them pre-World War I), not only demonstrates the consensus view, but shows that consensus to be lacking in historical perspective (there is no suggestion that use of Rubato may be a changeable element of Period Performance Practice) and somewhat closed-minded (Chopin’s use of TLM/TB, also heard in 20th-century jazz, is rejected, even ridiculed).  Yet in ‘the free encyclopedia anyone can edit’ that consensus view remains unchallenged. The article has not changed significantly over the last three years (accessed March 2011 and February 2014). Elsewhere in Wikipedia, debates rage between standard repertoire musicians and Early Music specialists, articles are aggressively edited back and forth between opposing camps, and moderators are kept busy damping down the flame-wars.

But Tempo Rubato circa 1910 is accepted as a universal truth. No-one even cares enough to debate it, even though the arguments are fierce over a few Herz up and down in historical pitch, or even for a few cents this way or that in historical temperaments. Get the flavour from the FaceBook Anti-Vallotti page here.

All this supports my claim that most musicians, even many HIP specialists, consider Rubato to be an essential element of basic musicianship, in spite of clear evidence that it is a historical and cultural variable.

But I urge readers of this Blog NOT to go and edit Wiki’s Tempo Rubato. Let’s leave it there, as a gloriously fossilised dinosaur, and (more seriously) as an indicator of the consensus view, so that we can see if there is any change over the next three years!

fossil dinosaur

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.



19 thoughts on “The times they are a-changin’

  1. Pingback: Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. Hi Mr. King,

    you wrote, “My claim is that Wikipedia’s presentation of Tempo Rubato, with its bundle of early-20th-century citations (most of them pre-World War I), not only demonstrates the consensus view, but shows that consensus to be lacking in historical perspective (there is no suggestion that use of Rubato may be a changeable element of Period Performance Practice) and somewhat closed-minded (Chopin’s use of TLM/TB, also heard in 20th-century jazz, is rejected, even ridiculed).”

    Not true about the consensus view.
    The actual consensus view is:
    * “It should not surprise us that some children do not know instinctively how to play musically. Many youngsters are surrounded by popular music that is rigid and inflexible in its rhythm, characterized by a relentless beat that is often synthesized or computerized. Even some CDs and MIDI disks especially designed for use with piano teaching materials can encourage students to be overly metronomic in their playing. In general, our students may not be familiar with the idea of subtle nuances of tempo, and may need help understanding this”

    * “[…] early nineteenth century […]. There was little interest in using the metronome to tick all the way through a piece of music. But this is how the device is used by conservatory students today.”

    * “Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers.”

    That wikipedia page is a reaction to the “dumbing-down” that art music has had over the years.

    If you surround yourself with HIP (e.g. baroque ensembles) the whole time, then I’m not surprised that you might totally misinterpret the status quo.
    Classical music today is largely a soulless automaton today.

    The wiki-page flies in the face of that. If it can wake up some musicians, then that is a good thing.

    You write “there is no suggestion that use of Rubato may be a changeable element of Period Performance Practice”.

    OK, but it’s also not denied!!

    If you want a contraponent, choose the 90% of mechanical, soulless classical musicians (the “mainstream”); and not wiki-pages that absolutely do not represent the consensus, but are written as a reaction to a very troubling “mainstream”



    • Richard Taruskin, Sol Babitz, Bruce Haynes, Skip Sempé and Robert Hill seem to understand that.

      Why can we not add Mr. King to that list? 😉

    • Yip I absolutely agree with this.

      The mainstream classical musician (think of this as competition-winners, teachers, performers) are just mindless finger-movers: Their main virtue if the physical drill, and the measurable aspect of the metronome. Rubato, phrasing, expression and intuition has been dead for a very long time, and still is so.

      • Thank you for this comment, Frank. Although my work is mostly in the specialist area of Early Music, I quite often coach players of modern instruments, and I do notice the emphasis on speed and precision of physical actions that you identify.

        As a teacher, my remedy is to ask the student to engage with details of short-term phrasing, with changes of tone-colour for dissonances and resolution, and with the ever-changing emotional content of the music. This often requires a significant reduction in tempo, but (I believe) encourages a more interesting performance, one that might have more chance of touching the audience’s emotions.

        As a baroque specialist, I don’t see rubato as the only option for ‘expressive performance’. But in music pre-1800, the practice of maintaining a slow, steady beat (the Tactus) allows for subtle freedoms inside that slow beat, so that the rhythm can be regular, without being ‘mechanical’. The best rock and jazz has this quality, that the rhythm is reliable, muscular, yet not rigid.

        Perhaps the challenge is that, as you write, speed can be measured. Whereas more subtle elements of emotional communication, let alone technical elements of phrasing etc, are harder to assess “objectively”. And those subtle elements can easily get lost, in difficult performance situations (e.g. auditions, competitions, TV shows). Sometimes the most beautiful music-making is almost in private, just playing a much-loved piece together with a few friends. In the end, Music (capital M) is more important than the mainstream music Business.

    • Agree. Today’s musicians are stale rule-followers.
      Elitist snobs, who demand the audience like what they do… and why? Because of the effort they put in.

      That disgusts me. Brainwashing themselves with metronomes and rule-following and then demanding respect for that “selfless act.”

      • Thank you for your comment. Well, Josh, this blog is dedicated to re-considering basic assumptions, assessing which principles are worth following, which “rules” can be more usefully ignored!

        Music, like sport, is an activity that can be enjoyed as a spectator or participant at any level, and the activities of the top echelon depend on grass-roots support from loyal fans. And at any level, music and sport invite one to practise, to seek to improve, to transcend one’s own limits. As in many walks of life, there is an elite group of highly skilled practitioners, who do indeed put in a lot of effort to maintain those skills, even develop them further. So I agree, it is always sad to see elite capabilities sour into ‘elitism’ or snobbery. But I would hesitate to level such an accusation at all musicians in general.

        Respect for the audience is another theme of this blog, reflecting the historical situation in the early 17th-century. I believe we musicians should invite our audiences to enjoy music, but we cannot demand.

        I am neither pro- nor anti-metronome, as a device for establishing a choice of tempo. For most of the music I play (before the year 1800), metronomes are simply irrelevant. I see benefits and dangers in using metronomes as a training device to develop one’s skill in maintaining steady rhythm. If the metronome click is on a fast beat, there is indeed the danger of making the performance ‘mechanical’. For basic training in Early Music, I sometimes advise students to use a metronome on a slow beat (around one beat per second, or slower, as appropriate). More often, I recommend other practice-techniques that get rhythm into the body (arm waving, foot-tapping etc). Recently, I have been studying the differences between a metronome click and the more subtle information that a pendulum swing gives – nowadays, I would advise a student of baroque music to work with a 1-metre pendulum, rather than with a metronome. In the end a metronome is a tool, that can be used wisely or badly.

        Is practising and music-making a “selfless act”? It can be, and this can lead to the best results (see Csikszentmihalyi’s studies of Flow and the Autotelic personality). Personally, I believe that Music itself, and the audiences who listen to it, are far more important than me or my ideas. But if I ask for respect, it’s on the basis of professional competence, of intellectual and artistic honesty: I think about what I’m doing, and try to do what I believe in, to the best of my ability. If you like the results, I’m happy for both of us!

    • I’ll have to agree that the actual consensus view is using a metronome and letting it click while playing.
      That’s what my teacher taught me to do, to get every piece perfectly in rhythm.

      • Thanks for your comment, Harold F.

        Certainly, many musicians use a metronome this way, whilst studying a piece. I suspect that they are more likely to do so for “fast” movements, where the challenge is perceived to be technical, as opposed to “slow” movements, where the demand is to be “expressive”.

        At elementary level, this is one way to learn basic rhythm. But what I think we are all discussing here is something beyond elementary. How should a fine musician deal with the whole question of rhythm?

        A metronome can be used like a whip, to force the musician to keep up with a fast tempo. I find this a rather miserable idea, especially if the metronome is counting very small note-values. The result is likely to be a performance that is rigid and driven. A more interesting result might come from counting the same fast tempo in longer note-values: instead of setting the metronome at quaver = 240, set it at minim = 60. This might produce a performance that is fast, but relaxed and supple.

        I’ve met very many students (and some teachers) who treat fast movements like the Olympics (faster, higher, louder). Personally, I don’t think that speed itself is a desirable quality: what I look for is the communication of some emotional qualities in the performance. Choice of tempo contributes to the emotional character of the piece, of course, but only as one amongst many factors. I’ve often heard performances where everything interesting has been abandoned, for the sake of speed. As a teacher, rather than debating the choice of tempo, I usually ask the student to add touches of phrasing detail on the short-term level, and let the student discover for themselves a way to play the piece that is slower, but much more communicative.

        I don’t believe that use of a metronome in itself produces a rigid performance, it’s a question of HOW you use it. And I have taught pupils at post-graduate level whose sense of rhythm was so poor that some fundamental training, with the aid of a metronome, was urgently needed.

        But the discussion of rubato in my article is linked to the modern idea that expression requires rubato. This would apply mostly to slow movements, and to solo players, singers and conductors (rather than orchestral players). In this context, I find that almost all the musicians I meet (in mainstream ‘classical’ music as well as in Early Music) are shocked by the idea of regular rhythm.

        As a Historically Informed Performer, I don’t believe there is one single way to make every piece ‘perfect’. Rather, the appropriate style depends on the period and cultural context of each particular repertoire.

        And even for 16th and 17th century music, where we have many period sources emphasising the importance of regular rhythm, “perfect” rhythm is not mathematically exact, but is regular in a more subtle, “humanist” way. In a nut-shell, the focus of regularity is at the level of approximately one second, so that shorter note-values can be subtly varied within the regular pulse. But even that regular pulse is structured “architecturally”, first as a pair (two minims, down-up, to the semibreve Tactus) and then into larger units. Such subtleties of timing are indeed very subtle, and they combine with timing subtleties that result from melodic, harmonic or phrasing events. It’s the regularity of a human-being walking, as opposed to a robot; the regularity of human pulse, as opposed to a metronome click.

        But from Harold’s and Josef’s comments, and from some recent teaching experiences, I can see that more thought about avoiding over-rigid playing in fast movements is needed. Good rhythm is neither rigid when fast, nor shapeless when slow: that seems to me to be the challenge!

  3. Most musician’s have been brainwashed by metronomes, literalism, and academia.

    This about this for a second.

    Because all those things are miles away from a personal, expressive, emotional understanding.

    The thousands of recordings of the 20’th century document : classical music has been ripped to shreds by pedantic, metronome-swinging “professionals”.

    Interesting to read in this respect, is the following thesis:!etd.send_file?accession=case1270221548&disposition=attachment

    Best wishes,

    • Dear Frank,

      OF MUSICALITY by ALEXANDER EVAN BONUS. I’m reading this thesis now.

      I find much to agree with in Bonus’ writing, and he pulls together a fine collection of historical citations. But so far (I’ve only read a 100 or so pages) it seems that he fails to observe some vital distinctions. In his strong distaste for metronomes, he lumps together two distinct functions of the metronome: to set the speed, and to dictate the rhythm. When people complain about ‘metronomic’ playing, they are usually objecting to a relentless, mechanical ticking quality in the rhythm, rather than to the particular choice of speed. Also, Bonus fails to notice the change in attitudes to musical time between the early 17th-century in Italy (regular Tactus, word-accents may or may not coincide with the Tactus beat) and the late 17th in French (many different mouvements for different dances, but a regular accent on the downbeat of the bar). This distinction, between Mensural and Accentual rhythm, is well described (and documented) in Houle METER IN MUSIC.

      Bonus seems reluctant to admit to the possibility of a rhythm that is subtle but steady; not ‘metronomic’, but with what jazz musicians would call a ‘groove’, an elegant shaping of time in which different parts of the bar are subtly different lengths; in which (this is the important part) this subtle groove is maintained steadily from one bar to the next. Such subtle but steady rhythm is found in jazz, rock and many traditional repertoires: I would argue this is the kind of rhythm we find in French 17th-century dances (with various different ‘grooves’ at different speeds for the ‘mouvements’ of each dance).

      The Tactus rhythm I am arguing for in Rhythm: What really counts? has another kind of subtle steadiness, in which the slow count (approximately one beat per second) is regular, but there is room for subtle freedom within that steady pulse (and the word-accents don’t always coincide with the pulse).

      But I’m surprised by your and Bonus’ passion in attacking the metronome. Analysis of 20th-century recordings (by CHARM, the Centre for History & Analysis of Recorded Music in UK and Dorottya Fabian in Australia amongst others) shows that rubato (which changed its nature noticeably in the middle of the century) is the norm, rather than metronomic precision.

      As a teacher, I find that many students (and some professionals too!) are simply unable to play in time. My definition of ‘in time’ for this purpose is ‘together with a steady tactus beat in the hand or foot’ – i.e. historical and human, not metronomic. And of course, that tactus-beat is on a slow pulse. See Quality Time for further discussion.

      My current thoughts on rhythm for early 17th-century Italian music are here: Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time.

      And now I’ll look forward to several hundred more Bonus pages….

      All best wishes


  4. I was delighted when I saw Ortiz (wasn’t it?) recommending that when playing quick notes in fours you should draw out the first and rush the following three. I could relate to that. ~Andrew Robinson

  5. Hello Andrew, I have enjoyed reading your time & rhythm posts! I have been reading Joseph MacDonald again recently and thinking about this. Surely it depends very much on different functional repertory? What you say seems conclusive for Continental court music of the 17th-18th century but I hesitate to extrapolate that out to other fields.

    A couple of sideyways questions… how does this relate to human perception of time (psychochronology?)

    And how early can you push for evidence of a tactus-style attitude? Is there a connection with the shift from syllabic to metrical poetry in earlier medieval times?

    • Thanks for your comment, Simon. As you realised, this particular post is part of a larger discussion. Here I’m simply trying to convince readers that Rubato has a history of change, and that we must look at historical evidence in order to determine how rhythm was managed in earlier periods.Specifics about rhythm circa 1600, the concept of Tactus etc, are at

      But there is a lot of evidence to support the musicological consensus (ignored by most performers) that in a very broad period (from the invention of mensural notation in the 13th century until the rise of Rubato in the 19th century) rhythm was controlled by a slow pulse, and that this pulse was kept as steady as humanly possible. The idea that the Tempo should get faster and slower would be as unwelcome as the possibility of the pitch wavering up and down: which is not to say that it never happened, but that everyone worked together to try to prevent it!

      However, there are clearly some special cases. A suite of French 17th-century dances changes Tempo from one dance-movement to the next, not necessarily by an exact mathematical proportion, but according to the character of each particular dance. For toccatas, Frescobaldi gives instructions for changing the speed from one ‘movement’ to the next, section by section. Plainchant is written in unmeasured notation, but there are indications that it was often performed in measured rhythm. French ‘un-measured’ preludes are written in unmeasured notation that seems to invite some kind of irregular pulse (like walking down the street with steps of varying length). There are corresponding preludes written in measured notation, but with the instruction to play freely. I hope to discuss some of these ‘specials’ in future postings.

      But if I wanted to argue that any particular repertory was a special case, I would first look at its notation, for signs that the writer was struggling with the limits of conventional mensuration. If I saw no signs of struggle, I would assume a regular pulse.

      Looking at the Gaelic repertoires that we are both interested in, I see no signs of any worries about notation of rhythm in Bunting’s transcriptions. On the contrary, he emphasises that the old harpers played ‘briskly’ and avoided the ‘sentimental’ style of Rubato that was becoming fashionable in mainstream art music in first half of the 19th century. Even the older tunes in his collections do not pose rhythmic difficulties. The Gaelic Ports found in Scots lute-books also fit well into the mensural notation of lute tablature. For the earlier Gaelic music, that does not survive in notation, or where the notatated source is hopelessly distant from the original aural tradition, the only safe answer is say that we don’t know.

      But we might dare to speculate a little, considering the History of Time and the Philosophy of Art. Our modern concept of Time, based on Newton and Einstein, is very different from that of Galileo’s period (based on Plato and Aristotle). And – see my posting “What is Music” – our modern idea of Art is highly Romanticised: the 16th and 17th centuries considered Art to be a set of rules or Principles. So I think there is a strong argument to be made, that Early Modern musicians generally tried to stick to the Principle of regular Tempo, in imitation of the perfect time of the cosmos. The modern idea that a ‘true artist’ would refuse to be limited by the constraint of playing accurately in time derives from 19th-century romanticism.

      I haven’t studied the science of human perception of time. All that I can contribute from my own experience is that frequent exposure to a given Tempo standard (living with a slow-ticking clock, or performing music at a consistent speed) soon promotes the ability to remember that Tempo. I know musicians who have a strong absolute sense of metronome marks, in the same way that other musicians have “absolute pitch”. My hunch is that it’s easier to learn MM = 60 within 2 or 3 beats per second, than it is to learn A = 400 within 2 or 3 Herz. Concentration on a slow Tactus in performance has an effect similar to meditation, promoting a relaxed focus and attentive mindfulness.

      I like your thought about the shift from syllabic to metrical poetry, which I would associate in many cultures also with the shift from Latin to vernacular. In France, there was a later recurrrence of interest in syllabic poetry, producing very measured but more irregular rhythms in music. But the conventional view is that accurate mensuration was linked to the rise of polyphony, so that the independent voice-parts could be kept together in more and more complicated ways. This well-accepted view would give you an interesting “escape route”, if you chose to argue that some early Gaelic music is not polyphonic. But questions of Notation, Time and Art would still remain.

      But the point of this current posting is just that we should question closely the assumption that “bad time-keeping is expressive”. So I’m delighted that you are questioning it, in relation to your own favourite repertoires!

      Meanwhile here’s a question for you in return: how well understood is the time-notation of the Ap Huw MS?

      • Yes I see and as I said all that you say seems self-evident and good (perhaps because you explain it well, perhaps also because it does seem to be true and important!)

        I like to try and define a norm by looking at the outliers that defy it, so your French dance suites are interesting example of different sections changing to different times. I had also thought of the unmeasured preludes.

        How slow is “slow”? You have spoken before about a 1-second pendulum, but would a pulse as slow as 4 seconds seem reasonable? How slow can you get the regular pulse and still keep the sense of proportion? I am wondering if an entire line of poetry can have a single pulse? Or is that pushing the idea too far?

        You’re right, Bunting does not seem to have issues with irregular rythms, though the variation to Eileen Aroon springs to mind with the sections bracketed and tagged “time wrong”. If those are Cornelius Lyons variations then I wonder if that fits with what Siobhn describes as Lyons’s more “baroque” divisions and his more “Gaelic” divisions, if the former are more regular and the latter more irregular?

        Of course, I would say all Gaelic music is entirely non-polyphonic! Or at least, was before Victorian and modern revivals!

        The bulk of Robert ap Huw’s manuscript has no rythym or time markings at all. Some sections have lute-tablature-style fencing but I am not sure how useful these are, and they are in tunes I have not looked at properly. Basically my perspective on this is that there is very little we are able to say about the rythym of medieval cerdd dant. This doesnt stop some people from having very fixed opinions about the rythmic structures “implicit” in the system of the 24 measures. I just don’t see how you can say anything useful based on the internal evidence.

      • I think ‘slow’ means one or two seconds. The basic assumption around the year 1600 is pulse = minim = approx one second. Of course, there are longer hierarchical structures of 2, 4, 8 tactus groups, especially in dance-music, but around 1600 the evidence overwhelmingly points two one or two seconds. I think that considering longer groupings is an interesting form of analysis, but I don’t see the evidence for using it as a practical tool of music-making.

        I should clarify that I don’t mean a choice over the range 1-2 seconds, but a quantised choice: either one second, or two. This is because the tactus beat goes down-up (like a pendulum that goes back and forth). So to be absolutely precise, the beat in one direction is named the “semi-tactus” (minim, one per second) and the down-up combination is the “tactus” proper (semibreve or two minims, lasting two seconds). This distinction in nomenclature is not always handled carefully in original sources: like me, they mostly say tactus (meaning the beat) even when strictly they should say ‘semi-tactus’ (minim, one per second).

        The slower count, one beat every two seconds, is especially useful for managing changes to sesquialtera proportion (3 in the time of 2). I don’t have enough evidence to judge for sure certain whether musicians in this period were thinking of a one-second count, or of a two-second count sub-divided in half – it’s a subtle difference. But there is plenty of evidence to support the theory that they thought in two-second groups. However, my practical experience is that musicians with modern training find the one-second pulse difficult enough already – the move to a two-second pulse is an advanced step. Probably a desirable step, though.

        Some early musicians are experimenting with very slow counts (e.g. one per four seconds), but I’m not convinced that very slow is necessarily better. Certainly, it is different: the level at which you focus the pulse gives you freedom for smaller note-values, and a hierarchical structure for groups of say, 2, 4 and 8 counted units. So changing pulse from crotchets to minims makes a difference, and changing it again to the level of a breve would make a further difference. What I see around 1600 is the use of minim = tactus = approx one beat per second. This equation changes throughout history, with the tactus being associated with ever shorter note-values, but often at the same speed of pulse. For example, a useful tempo ordinario for the mid-18th-century is crotchet = tactus = one beat per second.

        Thanks for your comments on Ap Huw. The assumption for the “fencing” lute-tablature as for bar-lines in staff-notation is that they correspond to a tactus beat. But that still leaves the question of whether they come every beat, every two beats, every four, or irregularly. Line-breaks tend to behave similarly.

        Italian renaissance commentaries on ancient philosophers make it clear the word “harmonia” in the sense of “things fitting together nicely” applies at least as much to rhythmic organisation as to what we now call “harmony”, i.e. pitches fitting together. Caccini (1601/2) adapts Plato to prioritise rhythm as more important than sound. So within a culture influenced by classical authorities, we should expect a system like Ap Huw that is well-organised in its combination of sounds to be at least equally well-organised in its regularity of rhythm.

        I would not take an absence of rhythm signs to imply an absence of regularity. Quite the contrary, I would take an absence of signs to suggest that the rhythm is easy (once you know what it is supposed to be). The difficulty here is that most historical notation is not fully prescriptive (allowing someone from a distant culture to reconstruct the music in full), but an aide-memoire for people who were already familiar with those elements that are not notated.

        For early Irish, Scots and Welsh music, I think it might be illuminating to consider not only the level of connection with mainstream European music of the same period, but also the level at which those cultures in general share the common European heritage of ancient Greek philosophical thought. Nowadays, we think of high philosophy as very distant from anything practical, but in earlier periods human actions on earth were seen as a microcosm, reflecting celestial ideals. Gaelic philosophy could tell us a lot about Gaelic rhythms…

      • The bar lines in Robert ap Huw seem to me to mark out the structure of the “measure”, so he will write a line in between the notes belonging to a I phrase and those belonging to a O phrase. He is very inconsistent though, sometimes he writes them more often, sub- dividing, and sometimes he only writes them where the sonority changes

        But it seems clear enough if you look at the “measure” and the placing of the right hand chords and the placing of the bar lines, where the pulse is. i.e. on every chord – and it is obvious when there is a section with 2 or no chords per pulse. Sometimes at section-ends he writes the ending with no barlines and no obvious chordal pulse.

        Presumably this is also the significance of the word “measure” (Welsh “Mesur”) to label this sequence of Os and Is.

        The reason I ask about a longer pulse is that I have come across the idea in ceol mor of it not having a “fixed rythym” (meaning the 1-2-3-4- of the quick count) but it ebbs and flows like the waves on the shore.

  6. As always your article provides some work for mental digestion. My own knee-jerk reaction is that in dance, the rhythm must be dependable unless there is some consensus between dancers and musicians with regard to variability of tempo. But how much expression would we lose if tempo alone were observed strictly?

    • Thanks for your comment, Kitty. French baroque dance sources tell us that when dance-music is played for listening, not for actual dancing, it might have a slower tempo (allowing more elaborate ornamentation). But – in contrast to the modern take on these sources – there is no implication of any irregularity in the rhythm, whether or not dancers are at work.

      But the regularity of rhythm at the Tactus level (e.g. one-in-bar for a Minuet) does allow the freedom to structure the three crotchet beats (e.g. long short short), and to swing the quavers with inégalité. So Tactus does not imply a ‘mechanical’ performance, but rather something like jazz: a performance with strong rhythm, a regular groove, and an enticing swing.

      Thank you especially for the second part of your ‘knee-jerk’ reaction, that by abandoning Rubato, we would lose ‘expression’. Your question needs to be answered by rigorous scientific investigation by Music Psychologists, after careful definition of the terms of debate. “Expression” is what the performer does. What matters is the “emotions” (in earlier periods, passions, Affekten or ‘affetti’) that audience members feel.

      As far as I know, investigations of the ‘tingle factor’ or ‘shivers down the spine’ do not link the most powerful emotions experienced by listeners to rubato applied by performers. Rather it’s the big crescendo, the high note, the long-build up in constant tempo etc. that have an emotional effect on the listener.

      My belief is that Rubato is a sign of the performer’s intention to be expressive, but that this sign has little emotional effect for the listener. The listener recognises the performer is ‘being expressive’, and labels the performer and performance as ‘expressive’. But were the listener’s own emotions touched? That is another question!

      So I think your knee has not only confirmed the widespread assumption that “rubato is expressive”, but also shown us the experimental question to be answered. Thank you! And all you Music Psychologists out there – please tell us about the experimental data already available. Or if there is no data, please go out and do the experiments!

      We want to know – does rubato do anything for the listener? Or is it merely a signal from the performer – “please understand that I am an elite, expressive, artistic type!” ???

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