Defining Rubato

Defining Rubato


Time is an illusion. 

~ Albert Einstein



Rubato literally means stolen, as in stealing time, but it traditionally means the giving and taking of time.  Richter said of the metronome, “It just is.”  And I love that! 

But it isn’t.

All music must be balanced between four pillars – song, dance, painting and architecture.  The dance-derived element is linked to music's meters and rhythms and must always be present.  And these often near the disciplined evenness of the metronome.  But try to put a metronome on any great recording of the 20th century.  How many beats does it last?

Great dance is not metronomic.  I’ve worked with many wonderful dancers, but the greatest is the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov.  I came to our first rehearsal of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke prepared to mold the musical energy to his every whim.  But within the first few bars, I realized he was following me!  It was pure chamber music.  We discussed different phrasing possibilities and defined the underlying energy so that we would be in perfect sync.  And it wasn’t metronomic – it pulsed with rhythmic life, it breathed, it sang.

{I’ve always believed that the underlying energy of a work of art can be faithfully translated into other art-forms.  This experience and many others have proved to me that this is possible.  Dancers, painters, actors, musicians and all artists work with the same energy principals and energy spheres, which can be translated into code using the methods presented in these pages.  Something magical happens when two or more people move in sync, especially when more than one art-form is involved.  Even among celebrated chamber groups, it’s rare to find artists that succeed in truly breathing and moving with the same energy.  If they were to have a more conscious understanding and agreement about the movement of energy, this could become less rare.}

Horowitz described rubato as spice – too much and it’s in bad taste, too little and it’s boring.  He had a way of speaking like Confucius out of a fortune cookie.

Rubato is generally thought of as manipulating the flow of the beats, but it also involves manipulating time within the beats.  It can become extremely complex when 3-4 levels of rubato are happening at the same time.  Let’s return to our Prelude and I’ll show you an example:


Rachmaninoff rarely plays with anything resembling metronomic pulse.  In a group of four sixteenth notes, each has its own unique length.  His pulse as well varies from beat to beat, breathing, expanding, surging, lingering.  And his tempos often change markedly every few bars.  His markings in his scores often negate his own recordings, yet the premise of expressive fluidity remains.

In the above, within these eight bars, I’ve added four tempo indications.  It begins with Rachmaninoff’s Lento marking, then in measure four I take a poco rit. e cresc., only to surge ahead in the following measure with a Più Mosso.  The following bar, I relax the tempo with a poco rit. and in bar six return to Tempo I for the restatement of the theme.  This level of rubato is formed from the will of the larger gestures.

Underneath this you have the constant pull and surge of the beat, exacerbated by the juxtaposition of two opposing themes occupying the same temporal space.  The Red line tends to want to slow and look backwards.  When it doesn’t actually pull the beat backwards, it falls slightly after the beat in objection.  I begin each of these gestures with a comma, heightening its emphatic nature. 

The Blue line begins each gesture boldly, leaning forward against resistance, only to resign herself to fate and gently slow, looking backwards regretfully.  In the eighth notes you can observe the constant movement of time within the beats, the micro-world of rubato seldom examined.

Underneath all of this, and this is the subject of a more advanced exploration of rubato, you have the relationship of vertical chords entering the horizontal landscape through the placement of each note in relationship to the others within the chord, and the placement of each chord in relationship to the beat. 

And beyond that, there are more complex questions to explore – what is the difference between a chord placed on the center of a delayed beat and a chord placed after a centered beat?  This is not a philosophical difference, there’s a real difference that a common listener can feel!  What’s the difference between a chord placed on the beat and one placed before a delayed beat?  Experiment on your own.

Don’t underestimate the microscopic elements of rubato – sometimes the slightest displacement of a note is enough to change the mood from hope to despair, even alter destinies.


When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. 

When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. 

That's relativity.

~ Albert Einstein