Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Music has been called the chronologic art. In contrast to the plastic arts, which are presented in space and with the impression of completeness, music involves a temporal succession of impulses converging toward an end. The character of a piece—its shape, purpose, temperament, quality, etc.— is divulged gradually through linear progression. Musical information is performed and perceived through the passage of time and the ordering of sound within it.
The idea of music unfolding in time is a staple observation in the philosophy of music. Schopenhauer viewed tempo as the essence of music. Hegel understood music as sound which retains its temporality, but is liberated from the spatial and material. Time, in other words, is as crucial to a musician as canvas to a painter, wood to a carver, stone to a sculptor, paper to a poet. It is the fundamental surface upon which the art is created and experienced.
Music’s relationship with time can be thought of in two distinct yet interconnected ways. The first is real or ontological time, which consists of organized elements such as duration, rhythm, meter and tempo. Duration is the length of a note. Rhythm is a regular and repeated pattern of sound. Meter refers to the number of beats and time value assigned to each note in a measure. Tempo involves the rate at which music is performed. These time-centered parts are the basic properties with which music is made.
Music’s second temporal component is psychological time, or the listener’s perception of music as it is played in real time. How we experience time is not always in accordance with the clock. Engagement in time is shaped by a slew of factors, including but not limited to physical surroundings, inner disposition and momentary circumstances. Feelings such as boredom, excitement, anxiety, anguish, expectation and pleasure set life at different paces. Similarly, moods and sensations derived from music convey temporal movement that seems to exist apart from meter and tempo. The seconds that pass slowly during a dreary piece are the same as those that fly quickly during a scherzo. Their psychological effects create the illusion of independent clocks.
Musical time, then, exists both within and outside of measurable temporal units. The music itself can be divided according to ordered parameters, and is subject to mathematical dissection and scientific analysis. Yet the movement of time becomes less mechanical and more impressionistic as the sounds travel from their source, through the auditory system and into consciousness. Ontological time makes possible and gives way to psychological time.
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