Tempo Rubato and the Mysteries of Time

A well known rock musician once enthusiastically described to me how all the band members slowed down together during a song, while the drummer held a steady beat. It’s the kind of thing classical musicians do all the time, I mused silently to myself, and yet his story highlighted an important point – the relationship between melody, time and the underlying pulse.


How Does Tempo Rubato Work?

Tempo rubato – the freedom to stretch or compress the speed of the melody – requires a clear inner sense of the pulse and beat*. For the quality of rubato to be truly musical, the connection with the beat must never be lost. (Note: Increasing the overall tempo, where the pulse also speeds up, is often called rubato as well.)

While the give and take of the melody may appear intuitive and unplanned, genuine rubato comes from a deep knowledge and familiarity with the music, a result of intensive study and experience. It is strongly associated with the performer’s own musical expression of melodic and phrasal shaping.

Many descriptions of tempo rubato – Italian for ‘stolen time’ – include a reminder of the moral imperative: that it must be paid back, yet arguably this is not always true. There are times when the orchestra or accompanist, for example, waits for the solo melody to arrive before proceeding and the stolen time is never repaid.

Usually it is the melody that is held back, slightly delaying resolution or the sense of forward motion, creating tension by momentarily restraining momentum before catching up with the pulse. Rubato creates a kind of emotional ebb and flow in the music that is both deeply expressive and satisfying, even to first time audiences.

Chopin and Rubato

Polish composer and piano virtuoso Frédéric François Chopin is acknowledged as the unrivalled master of rubato. Watch and listen for yourself, first to Lang Lang and to Grigory Sokolov’s wondrous recording of the Nocturne No. 20.

The Romantic period is the golden era for expressive rubato. I would include music from other times and composers, especially by W.A. Mozart and other Classical period composers. Viewed simplistically, much of the piano music from these periods tends to have a time-flexible right hand melody above a pulse-steadier left hand. On the other hand, so to speak, it is very difficult to exclude rubato from any music at all. The interplay between the melody line and the pulse makes music truly human.

Going Ahead

Holding back in relation to the beat is better known than the opposite – going ahead.

At a concert of the Brahms violin concerto, I remember my surprise, enjoyment and admiration for the charismatic soloist, Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung, when she came in a millisecond or two earlier than the orchestra at the start of the 3rd movement of this momentous concerto, riding on the crest of sound like a fearless surfer on a monstrous wave. The violin’s powerful opening chords struck our ears in a shockwave of sound, taking our breath away.

Getting it Right

It’s not always easy to get it right. The time connections between musicians as they play and the pulse of the music have a profound effect on what the listener experiences. In a small ensemble such as a trio or quartet, if one instrument pushes ahead too far or holds back too much in relation to the others, the music may sound rushed or lethargic, irrespective of the tempo. For a true perspective it’s necessary to know what the audience is experiencing, since we often hear too subjectively while playing.

There are times when the musician must appear to pull the reluctant beat of the music along, providing the melody with brightness and vigour, leading it forward with confidence.

When playing with piano accompaniment, the pianist’s part and role is of equal importance to the soloist. I love playing with experienced accompanists, because their artistry contributes so much to the success of the performance, especially with expressive qualities like rubato. Good accompanists know the music inside out, and empower the soloist with the joy of expressive freedom.

Finally if in doubt, singing the music is one of the best ways to understand where to use rubato.



*Many musicians use the terms beat and pulse interchangeably. Some describe beat as countable accentuation, able to be grouped, and the pulse as the longer ongoing series of of beat patterns, although in this explanation the terms could work just as well in reverse.

Further reading:

The Uses of Rubato in Music, Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries by Sandra Rosenblum

Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato by Richard Hudson

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