In tune, on time and in time

Tempo, beats and time signatures in music

What does music teach us about the perception of time?

Listen to the audio cast:

Mark Nelson

TIME is a key factor in the concept of music and rhythm. Without time musicians would have no dimension to play notes against.

We often take time for granted. However, it is an essential ingredient to those tunes and compositions we all know, and love, so well.

Time Signatures

Most Western and Eastern music works to specific time signatures in order to flow and to have a recognisable rhythm. Time signature is a notational convention which is used to specify how many beats (pulses) occur in each bar (a small amount of time). This is where Mathematics becomes significant in music, like it does in so many aspects of our lives, for mathematics is at the heart of ‘sound’ itself as well as at the root of how we notate, record and measure music.

Whilst there are some improvisational and avant-garde music, which deliberately do not work to set time signatures, most other music does, as it has to set against some form of time signature, if anything, to allow fellow musicians to be able to know when to play music together as well as keeping a notable rhythm of sorts.


Most music has a regular beat, which can be felt, and anticipated, and is set to a certain number of beats per time-period. When you tap your toes to a tune you are commonly tapping the beat rhythm. Generally, the time signature indicates the feel of the beat the music has.

Time signature also notates the length of each note, For instance, a note might be played on the third beat, say, of a bar but it might last for one beat or last over several beats as it could be played for a very short time (think of a snare drum being hit, a short sharp loud sound) or it might be held and played for a long time (a cymbal hit loud, crashing and heard over several bars).


The Tempo measures the speed of the music, that is how many beats of music to a specific time-period, usually expressed as the number of beats in a minute. If in a piece of music there were 100 beats happening in a minute, this tempo would be expressed as 100 beats per minute (or bpm for short). This method of time measurement for music is still used prolifically today, and is especially relevant to DJs and dance composers utilising loops of music consisting of specified bpms.



Imagine if Paul is playing his drums in a 4/4 time signature (4 beats to the bar) and at 100 bpm (or beats per minute) then Charlie decides to play his trombone along with Paul’s drums but in 3/4 time (3 beats to the bar) and at a completely different speed (say 150 bpm). The resulting noise would, quite likely, be a cacophony; possibly something that Paul and Charlie had intended, but not necessarily pleasant for anyone else’s ears!

Mathematics and Music

There are mathematical laws to the principles of harmonics and rhythms in music, some simple, some complex, which are fundamental to how music is written and recorded as well as our understanding of music theory and rhythms. From the simple '1, 2, 3, 4' count-ins we sometimes here, or even say, down to our anticipation of what the next note will be and when, precisely, it will occur and how long it will last.

Not all about timing

However, it is important to remember that musical performance, whether Western or Eastern, Classical or Popular music, is a not just about being on, or in, time exactly,. It is a lot about 'feeling', playing with expression and feeling to recreate a mood. Dance music tends to adhere to time signatures and notes occurring exactly on a beat far more than, say, Jazz.

Therefore the interpretation of playing to a specific time signature or tempo is subjective and notes can often be played 'loosely' in sections of musical performance, yet they come together at key points in order to maintain the rhythm. Jazz is a good example of 'straying' from the time element and introducing feeling into a musical piece.

Therefore, time and music work together like 'hand in glove' but there is room for interpretation and playfulness.

Listening to music – our perception of time

It has been said that when people listen to music their perception of the time passing is significantly different than if they were indulging in another activity; so, it could be said that music can distort our perception of time. For some time passes quickly, for others  time slows down as they get lost in the music.

Thomas Mann, the German novelist,social critic and philanthropist, put it so aptly in his novel, The Magic Mountain, when he wrote that "into a section of mortal time music pours itself, thereby inexpressibly enhancing and ennobling what it fills."

We generally conceive time as a continuum, as we 'travel' along it, but we often perceive time in specific units (hours, minutes, seconds).  We could say that clocks dictate time. Music, however, shows us that the perception of time is fundamentally subjective.

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