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Time

Music starts here.

Flying at the speed of sound.

Music is what is known as a temporal art form. It relies on the passage of time to even exist. Other forms of art, like paintings and sculptures, don’t necessarily need time to pass in order for them to exist. They cetainly do need time to pass for people to observe them existing, but they do not rely on the the passage of time itself for their existence. This makes them static art forms. Music, on the other hand, absolutely cannot exist without the passage of time, which is what makes it a temporal art form. An object that can vibrate, and thus produce the energy required for us to hear it make “sound”, needs time to pass for the vibration to occur.

No vibration, and no sound.

Time

Time

noun

The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future, regarded as a whole.

But what does time mean in relation to music? How do we percieve the passage of time in music and how does it relate to notes and chords and sounds? Is it rigid? Malliable? Is is explicit? Implied? What does it mean?

To really understand time in music we need to consider it’s implications upon everything in music and how they in turn relate to each other as well.

Speed

Speed

noun

The rate at which someone or something is able to move or operate.

At the most fundamental level, time is the measurement used to define speed in music. And the most fundamental use of speed in music is that of the Frequency.

Speed, Part One: Frequency

Many, many frequencies.

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This sound is creating a vibration, which our ears can percieve, but the rate, or speed, of the frequency that it is playing is constantly changing. It should sound like it’s moving up and down all the time in varying amounts.

Sometimes it moves quickly.

Sometimes it move slowly.

But in the end it is always moving and changing and keeping our ears guessing. This is what makes the sound interesting to our ears, and therefore, our minds.

One continuous frequency.

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This sound is creating a virbration as well, but unlike the previous example, it is maintining the same rate, or speed, of vibration, from beginning to end. This seemingly simple concept has profound implications, as it essentially lays the foundation for the concept of “music” as we know it. Sound is created all around us, all the time, as almost everything that exists can vibrate and create what is called “machanical energy”. This is the type of energy that is needed to make sound in our minds. Another fun little bit of information. Sound doesn’t really even exist, so to speak.

…come, again?

Well, machanical energy makes the air around an object move back and fourth, or osciallate. The ossicalations travel to our ear, where the anatomy of our ear picks up that energy and transforms it into many elecrrical impulses, which are in turn sent to our brains, which end up interpreting the mechanical energy as “sound”. In the end, the “sound” really only ever exists in our minds.

So any frequency that we hear that we might generally consider to be music is the same frequency being repeated for some amount of time. From this idea we can derive the concept of a pitch and from a pitch we can derive the concept of a note, which is a nice abstraction on top of pitch, which is a nice abstration on top of frequency.

Essentially:

Frequency > Pitch > Note

…but we had to start off by defining the speed at which our oscillation moves.

Fast, faster, and fastest

The speed of a note osciallation is actually rather fast. In fact, we are talking about speeds that are faster that the human ear can descern.

I’ll show you what I mean: Here is a kick drum, playing at a very slow rate of speed. To be specific, (roughly 😬) 1 kick drum per second, for a few seconds:

One Kick Drum per second

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It is easy for the human ear to discern the space between each kick drum hit, and therefore, distinguish each kick drum as an individual sound.

Now, here is the same exact kick drum, but played (roughly 😬) 131 times per second, for a few seconds.

131 Kick Drums per second

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This is a very different kick drum experience, I would reckon. It almost sounds like a pitched instrument. Kick drums are still being played, but the speed at which they are being played makes it impossible for the human mind to distinguish one kick drum from the next one. The kick drums start to blur together into one single sound.

Just so you can be sure that what you are hearing is true, here is the same kick drum, just starting slow (a little faster than one kick per second) all the way up to full speed ahead at 131’ish (close enough 🤪) kicks per second:

From slow kicks to fast kicks

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Phunnn! 🤗

So, hopefully the concept of time as it relates to the concept of music is starting to take shape in your mind. But there are even more ways in which time interacts with, and lays the foundation for, music. Osciallations aren’t the only game it town.

Speed, Part Two: Tempo

We gonna slow it down a little bit now…

…slower…

…slower still…

…getting there…

…almost…

…got it…

…you see, when we talk about osciallations, we are (usually) talking about very fast speeds. But when we switch up the conversation and talk about very slow speeds, we start getting back into the audible realm. Remember the first kick drum example? One kick per second? If you don’t, then here you go:

One Kick Drum per second...again

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That is a slow speed, relative to hundreds or thousands of kicks per second. And this conversation leads us down a very different path…that of the path of the tempo.

Tempo of Groove

If our kick drum is playing once a second, that would mean that it is also playing 60 times per minute! And if we keep going with this idea and abstract away the term “kick” with something a bit more generic and generally useful, like, say “beat”, then we arrive at another fundamental idea of music. That of BPM, or “Beats per Minute”.

60 bpm is rather slow, as you can probably gather, but we can, of course, make our bpm faster if we want. What if we played two kick drums a second? That would be twice as fast as one kick per second, of course, but how would that affect our perception of the kick?

Let’s see, shall we?

Two Kick Drums per second

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Much more exciting, don’t you think? Doubling the rate, or speed, of kicks increases the drive, intensity, activation, motion, etc…a bunch of terms that we will dig much deeper into later on. But the basic idea is that the faster the tempo, the more energy is injected into the music. Two kicks per second will translate into 120 bpm.

So, we’ve discussed the idea of the bpm…but there are other words that describe the same thing…and they fall under the umbrella term “Tempo”.

The speed of a peice of music is what is known as it’s tempo. This word is in reference to the idea that we can choose a speed for the music that is not necessarily tied to the speed of your average clock, although one could make their music the same speed as the seconds hand on a clock, if one wanted to do so. but a clock is not necessarily meaningful in it’s own right, either.

Ultimately, we can make the tempo, or BPM, of our music any speed that we want, and that choice will greatly impact how the music is percieved by our audience. And once a tempo is chosen, we can start to think about another fundamental concept in music, that of rhythm, which we can build on top of, and in relation to, our tempo.

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