The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music


Mid-20th-century Early Musicians faced a grim choice of rhythmic styles: Maelzel’s (1815) metronome, or Paderewski’s (1909) tempo rubato. Neither are historically appropriate for baroque music – Rameau and Quantz tell us that musicians simply didn’t use Loulie’s (1696) chronomètre , and Monteverdi’s notation suggests that Caccini’s senza misura was similar to Chopin’s rubato, a timeless melody over a timed bass.

Happily, there is rhythmic hope for Early Music, beyond that miserable modern binary of metronomic rigidity or vacillating rhythm: that hope is Tactus. Historically appropriate Tactus offers both structure and freedom, using which musicians can shape Time itself. For Monteverdi’s period, the structure is stabilised around a steady beat, minim = ~ 1 second, shown by the movement of the Tactus-hand: down for one second, up for the next second.  My previous post, The Practice of Tactus has links to articles on history, theory and philosophy; it also provides practical exercises for training yourself (and your ensemble) to work with Tactus. This post looks at advanced skills within that steady beat.

Further articles will introduce dance metres, even more subtle skills around the beat, and the difficult subject of tweaking the Tactus.


As a warm-up, repeat the Tactus Skills Maintenance exercises described in The Practice of Tactus:

Exercise One (Beat Tactus, eyes open/shut) 2 minutes

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

Exercise Three (Whichever piece you are working on) 2 minutes

If there is any feeling of agitation or stress, extending Exercise One will help you find calm and focus.

You’ll find all the details you need to make sense of these cryptic reminders here.


Advanced Tactus Exercises

Exercise 1

This exercise introduces and strengthens a crucial, but subtle, Tactus-skill. The rhythms are taken from the setting by Morelli in Samuel Pepys’ music-book; the well-known words are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Pepys heard Thomas Betterton perform, in the declamatory style of the period.




Beat Tactus down/up with your hand (or use a 1-metre pendulum, but do NOT use a metronome), and say the words.

In modern, additive rhythmic practice, you would count from the beginning of the bar and sub-divide – “one two and” – in order to find the moment for the first word To. If you didn’t bother counting, you might well be early on the entry.  But the Tactus skills you acquired from the previous article (go on, you know you want to read it!) give you another option. Because you have steady Tactus, you know when the next beat will come, so you can place the word To just before Be on that next beat.

Tactus allows you to link phrases into the future.

And of course, in this example, the mini-phrase [or in CPE Bach’s terminology, ‘Thought’] To be belongs together. Similarly, the three-syllable Thought or not to be can be linked together, and placed so that this next be is also on the beat. And also with the four-syllable Thought that’s the Question: this is linked together, and placed so that Ques… comes on the beat.

Linking forwards to the next Tactus beat, rather than counting from the previous beat has many benefits: it allows you to keep your focus on the Tactus (without subdividing), it makes sure you don’t shorten the rests, it helps you keep the phrase linked together, and it gives you subtle freedom in where to place the little notes, as long as the main note is on the Tactus beat. You could make the upbeat on To short (‘overdot’) or very short (‘double dot’), not by counting, but by feeling what corresponds to speech-rhythm, aligning your freedom with the accompaniment by arriving at the main Tactus beat be on time. Try different versions of the short syllables in or not to be: there is a wealth of subtlety in the length you give to or.  But none of this subtlety disturbs the underlying beat, which remains

regular, stable, solid, firm… clear, fearless and without any pertubation

(Zacconi 1592)


Exercise Two

Staying with the Bard of Avon, here is a very structured line of blank verse:

When I do count the clock that tells the Time

Syllables in bold are on the strong beat of the iambic pentameter: syllables in red are accented. In this line, Shakespeare characterises the regularity of clockwork time by having every strong syllable coincide with the beat.

But in this line (formerly attributed to Shakespeare, now know to be by Richard Barnfield), the word-accents are not always on the beat, and the beat is not always accented.

If Music and sweet Poetry agree

The secret of good poetry, and of historical Tactus, is that word-accent and regular beat often, but not always, coincide. The interest and the beauty lies in the places where they diverge.

Shakespeare wrote plenty of blank verse. Try your favourite passage, and notice how the beats and the word-accents meet or diverge: that’s where meaning and beauty emerges from dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum.

Exercise Three

The next level of subtlety is to move beyond the crude binary accented/un-accented for each beat, and to investigate how each Good (i.e. accented) syllable sounds. Is it long or short? Slow developing or crisp? What is initial consonant? What is the vowel colour? What is the emotional flavour?

Now each of your Tactus beats can be regular yet subtly differentiated. You can find the extent and limit of these freedoms by working with a pendulum, which gives a subtle stillness at the beginning of each movement, rather than the sharp click of a metronome. Explore the particular flavour of each Tactus beat (as suggested by the sound and meaning of the words), in some more Shakespeare, as declaimed by Betterton and notated by Morelli for Pepys.

To ↓be; ↑_or not to ↓be; ↑_that’s the ↓Question. 

↓Whether ‘t be ↑nobler in the ↓mind; to ↑suffer
The ↓slings and ↑arrows ↓of outragious ↑fortune;
↓Or to take ↑arms a↓gainst a sea of ↑trouble,
↓And by op↑posing, ↓end them? 

To ↓die; ↑ _ to ↓sleep; ↑_
↓Noe ↑more. ↓ _ ↑And by a ↓sleep to ↑say we end
The ↓Heart-ake, ↑_and the ↓thousand nat’rall ↑shocks
That ↓flesh is ↑heir to, ↓is a consum-↑mation
De↓voutly *↑to be ↓wish’d. 

Notice, for example, the truly outrageous placement of the word-accents in ↓of outragious ↑fortune, and the unaccented down-beat of ↓And by op↑posing, in contrast to the sharp accent on ↓end themor the slow accents on ↓Noe ↑more.

This is what Tactus is all about – regular rhythm, with beautiful, subtle phrasing. And notice also that, in my text-only transcription, I haven’t notated anything at all inside the Tactus: this is an area where the soloist can suit the fine detail of syllabic timing to the sound and meaning of the words, without disturbing the regular pulse.

Exercise Four

The previous exercises were all syllabic, note-for-note. But where a single syllable is sustained as a melisma over several short notes, period sources give examples of how to vary the notated rhythms to create subtle beauty, within the steady beat of the Tactus. The following examples are from Caccini: the first of each pair shows how it would be notated, the second, how it could be sung, more beautifully.



Practise these examples with the Tactus-hand.


The Shape of Time



In the previous post, we already practised the subtle difference between the down- and up-strokes of the Tactus Hand (arsis & thesis). The downstroke is (almost imperceptibly) longer – notice in the illustration (above) that the down-curve is slightly longer than the up-curve. You can practice this by saying “L..O..N..G   / short” as you move your hand D..O..W..N / up.

The characteristically slow start to each pendulum movement also creates a kind of funnel-shape in Time, where the movement is slow at the beginning of the stroke and then accelerates. The regularity of the structure is maintained by the Tactus skill of linking to the next beat, and (with arsis and thesis) those two beats have a subtle LONG/short pattern: tick is not quite the same as tock. Notice in the next illustration that the down-funnel is subtly broader than the up-funnel.

This fits beautifully with the typical syllabic patterns of the Italian language. Simple two-syllable words have the pattern Good-Bad:  for-te, pia-no, piz-za, vi-no, dol-ce. This encourages a long-short shape in Time, whether on two minims (arsis and thesis on two successive Tactus beats) or on two crotchets (funnel-shape of Time within the Tactus beat). Some writers, for example Caccini, even refer to Good/Bad as Long/Short.

Further confirmation comes from Caccini’s fundamental exercise for learning the trillo, which he describes as the basis for all other ornamentation: in contrast to the tendency of many modern performances, Caccini insists that the trillo begins slowly, and accelerates all the way into the next beat.


Diminution treatises around the year 1600 show a general tendency for ornaments to accelerate from slow to fast, as Caccini teaches. See Bruce Dickey’s excellent introductory article in A Performers Guide to 17th-century Music.


Here are two simple exercises for practising the “funnel-shape” of 17th-century Time. You can tap your feet, or use a pendulum, to externalise your sense of Tactus, but – Rule 1 – do not use a metronome. We are now in a world of subtlety that Maelzel never dreamt of!


In the first exercise, experiment with different amounts of “funnel effect” – a strong effect gives strong forward energy towards the last note, but be careful not to arrive early, and not to accent the last note, which will be a Bad.

In modern performances, we often hear the opposite: a fast start to the ornament, a long delay before the final note whilst everyone waits for the conductor and each other, and then a catastrophic false accent on the last note. I’m sure you’ve all been there, got the T-shirt!



But now, this exercise will hone your skill in shaping Time together with the regular Tactus playing of the other (non-ornamenting) musicians. Nobody needs to wait, nobody needs to push, nobody should accent the last note: you just arrive there, beautifully in Time. As your ability to create balanced Shapes in Time increases, you will find that you do not need rallentando. Just let your awareness of Tactus continue, whilst you stop playing: now you can pass Time back to the Celestial Spheres, to continue in perfection and silence.

In the second exercise, you should breathe after each quaver, and be careful not to wait just before a quaver. The Shape of Time creates extra space for you to breathe, with the quaver following the Last-Note-Short rule to be a “short note in a long space”. The Funnel of Time helps the fast notes flow all the way into the unaccented final note, just as Caccini taught his pupils.

A breath just after the beat is a characteristic of baroque phrasing, so the Shape of Tactus Time has miraculous benefits for all musicians in giving extra space to show phrasing, and especially to wind-players and singers, in giving extra space to breathe. Any continuo-player who learns this skill will be much appreciated by their soloists – the soloist might not realise why, but with this way of accompanying, it just feels more comfortable, there is more breathing-space!

This article is perhaps the most important in the current series. Please take the time to read and practise it carefully. This is the subtle but essential skill-set that transforms rhythm from mechanically metronomic rigidity or flaccidly unstructured mush into something beautifully regular yet subtly structured. Each Tactus beat is like a snow-flake: symmetrically and regularly formed, yet unique in the exquisite detail of its realisation. This is the perfection of the Music of the Spheres, imitated by human hands, through the mystery of music.



P.S.  You can throw away your metronome now, I don’t think you’ll be wanting it again.


One thought on “The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music

  1. Pingback: Let’s Practise Tactus with Andrew Lawrence-King – ATELIER PHILIDOR News

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