As we play music, we all want to cross the chasm from just playing notes, to playing expressively. We all dream of conjuring melodies that touch the soul and transcend daily life.
But it’s not all magic. It’s not all “feeling”. There are real, tangible skills and techniques we can use to play beautifully.
For instance, to play expressive and flowing music, we sometimes speed up or slow down. The musical term for this is “rubato”.
What is Rubato?
Rubato is the musical term for slightly adjusting the speed of the music and the placement of the notes within a measure or phrase. It comes from the Italian word for “stolen”.
Rubato, used well, can make music feel more “human”. It allows for personal expression and a wider emotional range in music.
Two Types of Rubato
Though not official, we can think of two types of rubato: rhythmic freedom and “the big fermata”.
We use these two types of rubato in different ways and for different reasons.
Type #1: Rhythmic Freedom
When we use rhythmic freedom, the underlying pulse of the music stays steady. The “big beats” stay in time, while the in-between notes may adjust.
As an example, consider bars of quarter notes, marked 1,2,3 and 4. With rhythmic freedom, beat one will fall with the metronome, or in perfect time. Beats 2, 3 and 4, however, may subtly speed up or slow down. The first note of the next measure would fall directly in time again. The underpinning pulse stays intact, while the time between individual notes may vary.
We can use rhythmic freedom in melodies throughout a piece, or in specific chosen spots.
Singers use this often to inflect meaning and add character to melodies. More on rhythmic freedom below.
Type #2: The Big Fermata
A fermata is a musical symbol telling us to suspend time for a given note. The note with the fermata symbol last longer than the written note value (quarter, eighth, etc.).
We can also think of a group of notes as one big fermata. The notated rhythm (quarters, eighths, etc.) is still present. But the entire section suspends time and takes longer than usual.
In music, the notation used for slowing down is often the term “ritardando” (rit.) or “allargando“. Speeding up is notated with the term “accelerando” (accel.)
For a larger section using this technique, we sometimes call it a “cadenza”.
Here, we may change the underlying pulse, or abandon it altogether. And the time taken might not be re-gained later.
The “Rules” of Rhythmic Freedom
With musical interpretation and expression, individual taste is a deciding factor. That said, there are “rules” that help us make expressive playing, and rubato, sound better. When done well, the music sounds natural, organic, and “believable”.
These “rules” of rubato are a great place to start. As with most rules, we sometimes break them. But they are a good place to start.
Checks and Balances
With rhythmic freedom, the underlying pulse remain constant. When we speed up within a measure or phrase, we must slow back down at some point before the next pulse. This way, the total time remains steady.
Likewise, if we slow down, we must make that time back up by accelerating before the next big pulse.
This forms a system of checks and balances. Any debit is balanced by a credit. Any push is balanced by a pull.
Don’t Mutate the Rhythm
In the written music, we have a specific rhythm notated. When stretching time, we need to keep this rhythm intact.
This means the rhythmic relationship between notes is still proportional. We can still hear the original rhythm, even though it’s speeding up and slowing down.
That said, players may sometimes stretch this rule to its limits and exaggerate the written rhythm. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see dotted rhythms become double-dotted.
How to Use the Metronome to Develop Rhythmic Freedom
Few of us were born able to stretch and compress time while keeping the pulse steady. As such, if we want to master this skill, we must practice.
Below is a practice routine we can use to master the push and pull of expressive playing.
Tip: Use Melody Only for Practice
For practice, simple is often better. Even if the music has a bass line and inner accompaniment voices, we can practice just the melody. Afterward, we can add everything else back in. This reduces the physical and mental load, and lets us concentrate on the rhythm.
Even more, we can use one note to play the rhythm of the melody. This simplifies things even more. After we work out the melodic rhythm, we can then add the melody notes back in, and finally all the other parts.
We can also put the guitar down altogether and clap and count the melody according to the steps below. We can do this anywhere, and is a productive way to practice off-guitar.
Step One: Play in Time
First things first, we must be able to play the written rhythm in time, in tempo (at the speed of the piece). If we don’t know the starting rhythm, or can’t play it to speed, we won’t be able to objectively judge the quality and effectiveness of our practice.
Step one is to play the line with the metronome, in steady time. No pushing or pulling. Absolute accuracy and precision are the goal.
Step Two: Use Half the Clicks
Next, we half the tempo on the metronome. If we were playing at 120 beats per minute, we set it to 60.
Then we play at the same speed as before, but with more time between clicks.
Step Three: Half the Clicks Again
Repeat the previous step. Now we have a quarter of the original clicks.
Note: You may need to adjust your metronome settings to make this possible. These three steps are explored in greater details in the article “How to Develop Internal Rhythm”.
Step Four: Stretch and Compress the Rhythm, Landing on the Beat
Lastly, practice speeding up and slowing down (progressively) between the metronome clicks. Each click should synchronize with the same note as when played with steady rhythm.
This is the actual practice of rhythmic freedom.
As a mental aid, we can use imagery to help gauge the time between beats. For instance, we can imagine throwing a ball to someone running far away. We know where we want the ball to land, and when. If we can hold that trajectory in mind, we can better slow down and speed up while the “ball is in the air”, and still have it land on time.
Record Yourself for Honest Feedback
While practicing, it can be difficult to accurately assess how well we’re doing. Recording our playing is a useful practice tool.
The point is not to criticize or condemn (nor is it to play perfectly). The point is to notice what is working and what isn’t. We can then gain valuable insights to inform and guide future practices.
Forests Don’t Grow Overnight
As with most aspects of music and classical guitar, these skills take time and practice to master. It’s important we embrace the practice itself, and allow the mastery to come as it will.
This type of practice can be difficult and humbling. The fruits of any individual practice may be few. But in time we get better.
All we can do is bring our best focus and attention. With repeated effort, we build the muscles and skills, and witness the results of our labors.