Tempo of life & music

Life is getting faster and faster. At least it feels like this.

The reasons are obvious:

  • Constant shortening of travel times
  • Technological inventions that make communication quicker
  • Increased computing power, which allows us to do more things at once

All that surely makes life feel quicker.
Some people hate it, some love it.
Some see it positive, some negative.
C’est la vie.

That increase of speed makes me wonder: Did life feel slower for people in the past?

Due to the subjectivity of the feeling of speed and tempo, it’s tricky to say how people really perceived it in the past. One can’t even know for sure how a close family member really feels. Everybody feels tempo differently.

Why is that? Two factors are responsible here:

1. BRAIN = HARDWARE

Firstly everybody’s brain, body and sensors have different levels of sensitivity. They have different capabilities and sensory information is processed differently.

2. ENVIRONMENT = FRAMEWORK

The other side to consider is the “world around us”. Which is actually just our perception of nature, infrastructure and living beings. It’s the world we got used to and were educated in. It’s our norm. I call this our “framework”.

We tend to assume, that in the past, the pace of life was slower. But was it really?

Mozart was on the road for in total 10 years, 10 months and 9 days of his short 35-year-long life. While he was traveling in a horse-carriage through Europe, composing on the way, learning music, giving concerts all over the place, did he feel that his life was slow? My guess is: probably not.

While Mozart was born into his 18th century framework, Millennials are born into our framework, full of noises and distractions. But in both cases the feeling for speed is influenced by independent factors, such as workload, health and emotional state. Not by the times they live in.

So, should Millennials care and think about past “speeds”, lives and frameworks?

Of course not, less pondering is for most of us probably better. Except for one thing: if they are interpreting musicians and want to bring music from the past to life – then they should care… The feeling for tempo and deciding which one to take is one of the most important pillars in music. Without it, it’s impossible to succeed in creating music of value. Imagine for example the famous Blue Danube Waltz performed in twice the speed (or twice as slow).It would totally change the mood, narration and feel. It would become a different piece.

Now, the more sensitive a person is, the more one notices how music changes even with slight tempo differences, and how crucial this subject actually is. I personally consider it a great art in itself to choose the right tempo for a music piece – even only the basic ground tempo. Let alone the art of rubato, which will be covered later on this blog.

Why choosing the right tempo should be considered an art?

In the strange scene that is “classical music” (I don’t like the term much – for me there is only music – high level or low level, no matter which genre! But let’s use it here for the sake of identification), we play mostly “OLD” pieces of music. These pieces by Mozart & Co., which are performed to this day, were conceived and written down in a completely different framework. Therefore it depends solely on nowadays performing artists’ feelings, sensitivity levels, sensors, knowledge and brains to choose tempi that should serve the music the best. Therefore not Mozart but the nowadays’ artists’ quality is responsible for the overall quality of the music we get to hear.

Why do people choose different tempi in the first place? We must know these by now, don’t we?

Well, the bad news is, nowadays performers didn’t live in Mozart’s time. So none of us really knows which tempi he wanted. Deal with it! You may think you know, but you will never be sure. That’s the truth. Also, there is obviously no hearable proof of composers playing their own music from before 1900.

There is good news though: the music was composed by members of homo sapiens (so: one of us or at least one of most of us). And it’s quite lucky for us that our DNA didn’t change that much that it would alter our basic feelingsThat’s why we can be pretty sure that the way we feel joy, love, fear, pride, disappointment etc. today, is similar to the feel of those living in the past. And it’s those feelings that decide which tempo to take.

However, the devil is in the detail!

How does one find the right tempo for “old” music?

We have to stick to the only real evidence we have: the score and the human feelings hidden between notes and harmonies. And that’s where our own feeling comes in… which complicates things :).

First of all one has to really listen carefully to the music and identify what the composer most probably wanted to depict with each of his choices of harmony, melody and phrasing. By “listen carefully” I mean to really open oneself completely, forget all past recordings and let the music alone go deep into one’s nervous system. (If you haven’t done that yet, try it, it’s totally worth it but difficult!)

Secondly, observe the reactions such as goosebumps and what kind of thoughts and images the music invokes at different speeds. But attention:

From the time your brain stores a certain pattern, it immediately gets used to one way of hearing music and we are not “objective” anymore. So usually the first new impression is the one to pay attention to, on condition that you are not fixated on what you think you “know already”, which most of the people are and there is a big chance you’re one of them.

Once you have deciphered the feelings in the music, the next step is to evaluate and to study if these feelings fit to your own personality and the one of the composer.
If one listens deeply one gets a lot of insights as to how the composer must have been like as a person as well as a musician. Luckily we can also get more information regarding that through evidence such as letters, trusted sources and trusted traditions. And by trusted sources I don’t mean the teachers who tell you “Play like this, because one plays like this”. Many of you have probably heard it this way, but it’s the wrong way and ultimately destroys artistry. In other words, the right tempo choice should ideally be found by using one’s own feelings combined with the knowledge, dignity and utmost respect for the beautiful masterworks.

Sadly, many modern performers often lose their innate feeling which tempo feels right for the composition and for themselves. Many simply cannot trust their own feeling anymore, or even worse: they don’t want to and prefer to imitate. What they do then is, they take the copy/paste route: switch on a record of a respected interpreter and simply copy it, trusting it’s the right thing. Neither questioning if it’s the right tempo, nor if it fits to the composition and one’s own hardware. What comes out of that is a pastiche.

In such cases, the people from the past do the thinking & feeling part and 21st century machine-sapiens execute something that doesn’t fit to their hardware at all. It happens because we let our subconscious mind, steered mostly by the name and fame, make the decisions.

So, just in case, let’s also always keep in mind that “respect” often depends largely on celebrity status, and this status is not always equal to high quality.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter if an artist is famous or not, it’s the public, business-people and nowadays artists that have to be aware of their great responsibility towards the masterworks of Mozart, Chopin and others. Because it’s to a large degree the tempo choices, which create what we feel when listening to a piece. And delivering deep unconditional (!) feelings to fellow humans is the only meaningful purpose of music. That’s why the pulse in music is so crucial.

I have a question to you. If you are an artist reading this, do you really think enough and on your own about how quick a piece should be played? Or you, concert goer, have you ever thought why you like a particular tempo? Do we really have our patterns and listening habits stored so deeply and are we influenced by the size of the celebrity statuses or looks so much, that it makes us disabled to judge objectively what’s appropriate and what’s not in music?

I leave the answer to your conscience.

2 Comments

  • Piotr M
    👍👍 ⏰💪
  • Michael Chi
    Thanks for this, Ingolf! 👍👍

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