How To Stretch Time in Style: More Effective Ritardandos
To play beautifully, we often speed up or slow down the rhythm of the music. This is one of the ways we turn black dots on a page of music into an emotional experience for us and anyone listening.
And the better we become at speeding up and slowing down, the more expressive we can make our music.
To play the music to its fullest, we must decide how much to slow down. And, we also can decide where to slow down.
What is a Ritardando (musical term)?
In musical jargon, one word telling us to slow down is “ritardando”. This could be written in the music as “rit.”, “ritard.” or the full “ritardando”. We may also see other similar words, such as “rallentando”.
We may also not see any of these in the music, but still feel that a slow-down is in order. This is our right as a musician playing the music.
Why do we use Ritards in music?
What do ritards do in music? Why do we slow down? What is the goal of slowing down the time?
It could be to bring special attention to a musical moment. It could be a new or surprising chord (harmony), the end of a phrase, or end of a large section. It may also be the end of the piece.
Slowing down tells the listener that something is happening. It can be dramatic or tender, sweet or tormented. When done well, a ritard can add psychological insight into the character of the music.
Other Musical Considerations: Forward Momentum
But we also have other desires for our music. Namely, we want our music to keep moving forward. If we slow down too much or too often, we can lose momentum.
Forward momentum is crucial to beautiful music, even (or especially) in slow pieces.
So we must strike a balance between slowing down for effect, and keeping our forward momentum.
This issue comes up particularly at section endings.
How to Negotiate Conflicting Desires: Back Up the Ritard
One way we can both create drama and keep momentum is to back up the ritard.
Instead of slowing down at the very end of a section, we can instead ritard a bar or two back. This is often where we find the final cadence anyway. So it may be even more effective and interesting to listeners.
Then, we can speed back up and transition to the next section at the normal speed of the piece. This leads the listener into the next section. It links the two sections, and removes any gap between them.
Theories are Great, But It Has to Sound Good
This, like all phrasing strategies, is an idea. It’s one possibility among many. And as such, it may or may not be the right strategy for any specific musical example.
The ultimate test is how the music sounds when we ritard this way. If it works, then it’s the right idea at the right time. If not, we should keep looking for other options.
Backing up the ritard is a valid strategy used by many of the best musicians of history. And each had to decide where and how much to slow down the music in each instance.
As we practice and experiment, we can breathe more life into our music. Exploring strategies such as this one is fun, and makes practice a joy. When it works, we’ve performed a type of alchemy. We’ve created a beautiful moment, and also maintained the movement of the piece. A triumph!
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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