Musical Time Part 3 — Beyond the Drums

This is the third post in a series on hearing musical time.  In "Hearing Musical Time" and "Musical Time Part 2 — Three of Bruce's Drummers," we investigated the particular shape and texture a drummer lends to a piece of music.  

Drummers, of course, are not the only shapers of musical time.  Though the drummer's role is decisive, the entire ensemble takes part.  As you listen to a Motown track, you can hear James Jamerson's bass lines bending the shape of Benny Benjamin's backbeat. Indeed, the push and pull of the bass and drums enlivens things.  

And of course, we have thus far limited ourselves to the shape of small units, musical measures played at tempo.  Today, I offer examples of musical time unfolding over the course of an entire piece of unaccompanied music.

Joni Mitchell's guitar and vocal phrasing on "Tin Angel" contract and expand musical time.  This is an essential element of her insight.  Notice her little pauses, which might be thought of as analogous to adding a blank line or white space to a poem.  The slowed endings and beginnings of each verse help us organize the song in our mind, and the sensitivity with which these expansions and contractions are executed express the very content of the song.

Arthur Rubinstein's performances of Chopin's Nocturnes offer breathtaking examples of how musical time can be shaped.  Notice how each phrase spills out, slowly, faster, and then slowing again, giving the sense of someone moving down a path and stopping to investigate this or that before moving on.  The subtle contractions and expansions of time are what keep a listener's mind zooming in on the details and then telescoping out to take in the big picture.  His dynamics, how softly or loudly he plays, are a part of this, but notice how his interpretive insight relies on his wonderful sense of musical time.

Ella Fitzgerald's singing is beloved for many reasons—her tone, full of heart but with a touch of rasp around it; her inflection of the lyrical meaning; her sense of humor.  But her expressiveness is also apparent in her nuanced mastery of time, her intuition for where to hold back a word and by how much.  Here she is accompanied, deftly, by musicians who are letting her drive the song and then pull it back.  They provide just enough framework for her expansions and contractions of the phrases to push and pull against the ensemble.   And these small distortions of the time are what bring the words to life with devastating effect.

Master of musical time Ella Fitzgerald.  Image via

Master of musical time Ella Fitzgerald.  Image via


The true masters of any instrument, singers most of all, are those who have a deep grasp of musical time.  Perhaps that's because they've learned how to practice it, something we will explore in the next post.

Thank you for reading.