Photo by Mrs Logic.
Music is a study in time. The tick-tock of the metronome accompanies our first lessons in musical training, offering a perfectly even-metered beat to serve as a template for all our musical endeavors. The metronome is the backdrop on top of which songs are painted through meticulous variations in timing. On a base level, what is a song but the groupings of pitch in time?
While the most recognizable elements of music, such as the beat, the rhythm, and the tempo, all have to do with how timing is utilized, the overall landscape of the song can be the most stirring component. The power of timing in music lies in both our genetics and in our brains. Listeners always have temporal expectations for songs, whether or not they consciously realize it. Composers know this and subsequently thwart expected crescendos, delay pauses, or give us what we want.
In his book, Emotion & Meaning in Music, composer/philosopher Leonard Meyer put it this way: “Although music does contain representational elements, its emotive power lies in the realm of expectation it creates.” This sense of expectation is created by playing with the durations of beats and melodic structures within the song.
First, some brief definitions of musical terms. The beat, a regularly recurring pulse, is the most basic unit of musical time. How fast the beat moves is called the tempo. The grouping of beats is called the meter. Duration is simply the length of time we hold a pitch. Rhythm is the combination of beat division, and multiplication into distinct patterns. Rhythm is the element of musical time that brings the music to life. All of these essential elements are products of the temporal manipulation of sounds and those sounds purposefully played in a particular timing is music.
The ability to keep time to music appears to be almost unique to humans. During musical performances, brain areas linked to emotion (the limbic system) activate, showing bursts of activity with each deviation in timing. This strong connection between the brain and timing may be a product of evolutionary adaptation, said research neurobiologist Nina Kraus in a New York Times piece on the subject, since “a nervous system that is sensitive and well-tuned to timing differences would be a nervous system that, from an evolutionary standpoint, would be more likely to escape potential enemies, survive, and make babies.”
To take the notion of biological sources for timing in music even further, Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing. “We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg told The New York Times in the same story. “These were quite subtle differences, and (non-expert) listeners were clearly distinguishing between them.”
Music is created toward the end of either artistic expression or entertainment (or both). Either way, timing is of the essence in order to relay the emotional mantra of the piece. Scientific studies have found that the timing of notes is more important than loudness or softness in people’s perceptions of emotion in music.
For most lyrical music, a song tells the listener a story and, like a book, the listener at the end puts down the story and decides whether or not they liked the song. What they expected or wanted out of it to begin with will vastly affect their feelings of whether or not they enjoyed the song. Did the plot evolve at a pace they thought was believable? Was there an element of surprise? Of suspense?
Most of all, did it deliver what it implied? Whether or not we realize it, all of these considerations are based largely on timing. When we hear a piece of music we (unconsciously) consider this: To what extent did the song conform to our expectations of timing and delivery based on our innate rhythms? In other words, did it utilize instrumentation to make an emotionally or psychologically effective use of timing?
When putting together a song, much of a composer’s thinking is directed toward choosing a particular point or moment to act — how quickly should one introduce a change, begin or end a phrase or theme? Music theorists have noted that “to understand how to use time in music one must understand the mechanisms that create and release tension, that generate a sense of movement and pattern, and that stimulate the need for, and produce, closure or rest.”
Music theory contains some of the most sophisticated thinking about unfolding temporal practices. Author Victor Zuckerkandl was quoted in the previously cited study, titled “Timing In Music,” as saying, “Time is so active a force in music that we should not be surprised that all other processes in which time is an essential factor are governed by laws similar to those governing musical processes.” Indeed, scholarly papers have been written on how to apply music time theory to “real-life” organizational dilemmas like police raids and negotiation practices in order to decipher the most optimally effective time to act.
Deviation from expectation created by pitches played within different timings is what really arouses a strong, emotional response in human beings when listening to a piece of music.
“When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom — after a while you don’t hear it,” Geoff Emerick, recording engineer for the Beatles, told The New York Times. Back to the good ol’ metronome which allows us to know the expected pattern from which to deviate for effect. How can a song shock and thus engage you?
“It’s deviation from a pattern,” well-known composer Yo-Yo Ma said in the Times piece. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.” And a departure from the expected is what grabs musical audiences and leaves them with the sense of having heard a “powerful” piece.