Edited: May 29, 2019, 9:29 PM · What is the definition of rubato? Is there a scientific definition? Why do some performer's attempts at rubato make no sense to the listener, while others do?

Replies (21)

May 29, 2019, 10:22 PM · Scientific?
Rubato is simply playing with the timing--either speeding up or slowing down. Who knows why some attempts make sense to the listener and others don't? There could be many reasons, including the past experience and expectations of the listener, or decisions made by the musician.

All I can say is that timing should sound natural. The metaphor I use with my students is how you would expect a good driver to pull up to a stop sign. There's a natural deceleration curve: it doesn't feel right to slam on the brakes right at the stop sign. And it doesn't work to slow down 50 feet before the stop and crawl up to it for a while. The curve of deceleration (or acceleration) works in a similar way: it has to feel natural. I guess some drivers aren't that good at it either.

I've heard many performers put it rubato where it doesn't make sense just because they feel they need to do something. For example, the first movement of the d-minor partita. It's just 16 notes, and sounds like it just runs on continuously. But if you really look at the phrases and patterns, you can see where it might make sense to take a little time. You can't just do it randomly, though.

May 30, 2019, 1:10 AM · I think Bruce is teasing us. There is so much about music that can't be defined scientifically, or even logically. A friend recently came up with the idea of programming a computer to read and play music from old manuscript scores. It doesn't take much thought to realise that this is quite impossible on account of all the interpretative factors that rely on ineffably "human" powers of perception, experience and insight.
Edited: May 30, 2019, 6:37 AM · Personally I like it when the beat remains discernible during rubato passages. In other words the listener ought to experience the rubato as a deviation from the beat (with certain effects on the emotion of the performance) and not as the absence of any beat.

One observes that rubato is used most in solo literature, e.g. the Bach sonatas and partitas that Scott has mentioned. The bigger the ensemble the harder it is to play rubato.

BTW Steve, I have sometimes thought that a "Google-approach" to the problem of interpretation may be possible: Read as many interpretations of representative examples of a style into a database, have the software search for repeating patterns and then reproduce those in the contexts they are found in in the search. No? To be sure, it is probably quicker to just take the fiddle and play--if you have learned to play the fiddle.

Edited: May 30, 2019, 7:22 AM · The best explanation of rubato that I have seen is that the individual beat may be slightly ignored, but the overall pace maintained.

That is, single notes may be long or short, coming early or late, but the metronome keeps beating, keeping the concept of regular timing running in the background. The opposite is to keep every note strictly within its space, making everything have a bit of the personality of a march rather than a dance.

The degraded example would be entirely losing the pulse of the music, with timing that wanders and never comes back to the beat. One often sees this with amateurs who think they are being "expressive".

This, watch the very enlightening video:

Edited: May 30, 2019, 8:05 AM · I think it's a very good question as posed. Are there "acceleration and deceleration curves" (borrowing Scott's apt description) that tend to be more pleasing than others in particular situations? Would it be possible, say, to take a passage that a violinist has played completely metronomically, and introduce artificial rubato by electronic means, varying those "curves" while asking some audience to judge which they like best? I don't see why a "scientific" approach should be dismissed so readily. For many among us, it's our go-to line of thinking about any meaningful question.
May 30, 2019, 8:21 AM · In my tango days, I met two sorts of rubato:
- fixed tempo, while the solo voice (or bandoneon or violin) "stretches" the melody, then catches up before the end, (failing which, we had to add a measure!) This the Mozart vibrato.
- all the instruments suspend the beat together, while the dancers do amazing things with their knees, without falling over. Apparently some would rehearse this at home with discs of their favourite bands.
Edited: May 30, 2019, 4:12 PM · Martha Argerich tends to use a lot of rubato. As my violin teacher said about vibrato "it is like a parfume. If you apply a right amount, it does miracles. If you apply too much, it is awful!" In my opinion, rubato is supposed to mimick natural speach. We change speed for a good reason, typically to highlight something important or intimate
Edited: May 30, 2019, 9:00 AM · "The metaphor I use with my students is how you would expect a good driver to pull up to a stop sign."

I had a teacher once who liked this metaphor too - I think for shifting. As a 13 year old with absolutely zero interest in cars or driving, it made no sense and was not useful - but I remembered and applied it when I got my drivers license almost ten years later!

Edited: May 30, 2019, 9:13 AM · Rather than just speeding up and slowing down, the Italian "rubato" actually means "stolen" and I think it's widely accepted that the time stolen from one beat is given to another in the same bar. Does the shorter beat occur before or after the longer? Either I guess, according to how you feel about the music. It does puzzle me that pianists' rubato is often hugely exaggerated while string players apply it much more sparingly.
Edited: May 30, 2019, 9:18 AM · : gives a broader definition.


Rubato: "The temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace."

The remaining question in my mind is: How long is "temporary"?

Is it the duration of a beat, of a measure, or of an entire phrase?

I think it takes amazing talent to do this in ensemble playing without external direction (conductor) and make it convincing. Unaccompanied solo players can do this any way they choose and need not keep to any consistent overall timing. But even this takes great understanding of the music and skill to be convincing.

May 30, 2019, 10:06 AM · Steve,
I like your definition. It describes a different musical phenomena than what I described, which is taking time at phrase endings. Slow a little, catch up...overall beat stays the same.
May 30, 2019, 10:21 AM · @Steve Jones "programming a computer to read and play music from old manuscript scores".

I look forward, not very optimistically nor indeed with any desire, to the day when such a programmed computer can successfully interpret and play a Beethoven autograph score.

May 30, 2019, 1:50 PM · Hi,

I remember reading this somewhere and my experience confirmed it. In good rubato, the harmonic rhythm or pulse, stays constant and the bending of the rhythm happens between the chord changes. Originally, the symbol ^ that we find was not an accent, but meant that the note's value was elongated (agogic accent). I think that this is discussed in volume 2 of the original edition of Flesch's Art of Violin Playing. It was a symbol I seem to remember designed by Schumann, and indicated in the rubato with a stable harmonic rhythm, where the principal elongated note occurred and the others around being adjusted accordingly.

In rubatos that sound unsuccessful usually, the harmonic pulse is not steady (the chord changes come early or late). I personally always use to say that we speak of harmonic progressions, not regressions.

I also in this line of thought remember something else, which is about fermata signs at the end of the movement. If the fermata is on the bar line, there should be no slowing down before. If it is on the final chord, then there is a ritard to that chord. In my experience, following this simple rule has proved usually very successful.

Very interesting topic!


May 30, 2019, 4:24 PM · I tend to be fairly conservative with tempo, probably because I've heard a lot of unpleasantly bad attempts at rubato. My car analogy, like on that Living Pianos video, is one of slowing down while climbing a hill, then speeding up on the way back down the other side. Done properly, it feels very natural.

Unfortunately, often the sense of the overall beat is lost. Part of this is when the adjustments are made too abruptly - there is no cue that something is about to happen. Listening to music played this way feels like riding as a passenger in a car whose driver is erratically speeding up and slowing down, or swerving back and forth, without any warning. It's a very unpleasant experience.

There are some recordings of the Bach cello suites that I simply cannot listen to. Often the first note of each phrase in suite number 1 is drawn out to nearly twice its length, while all other notes remain at their normal value. This makes the piece sound as if it were written in 9/8 time - except for the odd measure where the player plays it straight. For me, this destroys any sense of rhythm - I can't relax and roll with it, but constantly brace myself for that heavy braking, acceleration, and swerving. Eventually I just give up, allow myself to be tossed around at random, and try not to get seasick. (If it's on the radio, I just turn it off.)

That perfume analogy is excellent. A little bit, properly applied, can enhance, while too much is simply dreadful.

May 31, 2019, 10:50 AM · The simple, mathematical explanation is that an understandable rubato is a geometric progression. I have found that students immediately understand this.
May 31, 2019, 1:42 PM · Ah Bruce, I thought you might have an answer! By "rubato" do you mean accelerando and ritardando in any context? You're saying that the tempo should increase or decrease by the same percentage in each time interval of say half a second in order to sound correct. Maybe you're right but that's a hypothesis that could be scientifically tested, not yet an accepted definition.
June 1, 2019, 9:20 AM · It's the fancy name we give to being out of tempo.

There are a few more, like "ostinato" instead of "repetitive".

June 1, 2019, 9:38 AM · I have heard Steve's definition in various formulations but I don't like it. It is too mathematical for me. I do not think that you need to return to the beat of the same metronome that you deviated from. It is enough to return to the same beat wether it is shifted a little in time or not. And the unit may be larger than one measure (e.g. speeding up or down a whole phrase before resuming the initial tempo).

BTW: repetitive means boring, ostinato means stubborn, not the same thing.

June 1, 2019, 4:11 PM · So what are the main points of context for this issue? I'll take a stab:

1. Music functions in part through quantitative relationships which are both varied and united in relation to a beat.

2. The listener needs to be able to grasp and even predict a sense of the beat (although often this is through an intermediary sense of pulse) in order to best grasp the quantitative relationships.

3. It is not unusual for the beat rate to change within a piece, this is often detailed in the score, including instances of notes which, by disconnecting from the beat entirely, force a kind of rhythmic reset when the beat resumes (fermata).

So thinking more broadly than just the issue of rubato, one can vary the beat in an objective presentation of the score, so long as the audience generally can tell what one is doing, and one doesn't destroy either the quantitative relationships or the unity of the music.

I suspect that insofar as a thinker defined rubato in terms of 'borrowed time' it was thought of as a way to think about departing from a strict rhythm in contexts in which it is otherwise important to preserve the beat rate of the music. One wouldn't use the concept to think about a fermata or a written or even convention-based change of tempo.

I think the comparison to speech is worthwhile so long as one remembers that speech doesn't rely on rhythm for meaning (at least to anything like the same degree.)

June 2, 2019, 1:11 AM · Spot on, Andres! What we love about music is its predictability (in terms of melody, harmony, pulse, rhythm, texture...) and to be taken slightly by surprise. Just how far it is possible to introduce the surprise factor by stretching those elements without leaving the listener completely confused has been the question that has occupied composers for centuries.

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