Books, Music

The Weirdness of Time in Classical Music (And Books, Too)

Time is what you might call capricious. It can crawl at an agonizing pace or it can pass in the blink of an eye. It can steal an hour of your sleep in the spring or graciously bestow it in the fall. If you’re the Mad Hatter and tried to murder it, it can even freeze. And of course memories and hopes allow you to dwell in the past and future, respectively.

In your musical adventures, time is flexible and to a large extent up to your interpretation. Even when a passage is repeated note for note, it is ultimately you who determines whether this is a memory of the past, a repetition of a previous event happening in the present, or even (gasp) an indication that everything sandwiched between the two identical passages has elapsed in virtually no time, like a trip to Narnia through the wardrobe. So here are some overall noteworthy things to consider about time for when you’re listening:

1) Time does not have to move in a straight line.

Examples of breaking the linearity of time include memories, flashbacks, two things happening at once (think of those classic movie moments where the camera alternates between a girl helplessly approaching her impending doom and the hero who is racing to rescue her), foreshadowing, and omniscient glimpses of the future.

Time can also jump forward or backward to events. (We don’t get a minute-by-minute recap of Jane Eyre’s studies at Lowood, but instead fast-forward eight years until something notable happens again.)

2) Time does not have to be explicit in order for it to be important.

This point expands on the first one, so let’s return to that last example for a moment. In Jane Eyre, we don’t know much at all about what occurred during those eight years at Lowood. But despite the deliberate vagueness on Jane’s (Brontë’s) part, spending that span of time in that way must have impacted Jane in some way. Think about if you went to a fairly austere boarding school for eight years—wouldn’t you be a slightly (or extremely) different person when you left? Mr. Rochester at least thinks so, since he attributes many of Jane’s characteristics to her time spent there. All of this is to say that omitting detail or a portion of time altogether does not mean that it was unimportant to the story. Hence, the reader-turned listener can at times feasibly imagine a gap between two events in the musical chronology that is not present in the music but shapes the listener’s interpretation of the music to come.

3) Time can move quickly or slowly.

Have you ever taken a test? Or have you ever looked forward to a friend’s arrival? Have you ever had a birthday and wondered at how big the number was, or found that there was only one week left of the summer even though it felt like it just started? Then you know that time doesn’t always move at the same speed. Nor does it move the same for each person.

These are just a few ways that time can be finicky in classical music, just like it can be finicky in classic literature. What do you think about these ideas? Have you ever heard a section or entire piece of music that sounds like a memory or a weird twisting of time in some way?

If you liked these ideas you might also like How to Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers).

11 thoughts on “The Weirdness of Time in Classical Music (And Books, Too)”

  1. A thought-provoking post. A quote by Einstein comes to mind – “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once”.
    To my mind also comes the memory of certain dreams, in which a dream is experienced within the dream. This is hard to grasp at first, but ever so much fun to untangle once awake.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I love this! Great post and inquiry into the finical nature of time. I personally find time fascinating; as a dancer it is fun to play with timing within a dance piece. In my composition classes and books I read for that, there were whole chapters on how to play with time within a dance that could completely transform the music and tone.

    There was one time when I was in high school that I performed to the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony and boyyyyyy that was crazy timing (I think we spent at least three or four rehearsals just getting the timing right for the first 30 seconds!). The music was just so full it felt like everything overlapped and made the dance crazy difficult to count and know when and where you were supposed to be.That’s when I really learned how much you could play with time in music (and obviously dance).

    As far as literature – I’ve found that plays play (pun intended :P) with time in really fun ways. Because they have such a confined time they have to adhere too, it forces the writer to use inventive means to accomplish the story (like in Greek tragedies, where the chorus and prophets serve to move the timeline forward and fill in information) or ignore coherent time entirely (like Othello – where the timelines in no way add up). One play I particularly enjoyed was Stoppard’s Arcadia – where there was a lot of movement between the past and present, and sometimes the characters in the past and those in the present were on stage simultaneously (which was particularly delightful). Very fun to watch how time was played with.

    Sorry for the long comment, hope it doesn’t take too much time (;P) to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, thanks so much for the amazing comment!! I haven’t heard of that play but it sounds really interesting…I’m not familiar with many plays but now I really want to check out more! Also, I’m fascinated when people add dancing to classical pieces like Beethoven. How does it bring out different aspects of the music? (The other day I found a brief part of a dance set to Bach’s cello suites the other day. So cool!)
      Could you tell me what books you read for your dance classes? I’m actually getting really interested in dance right now and how it interacts with music so that would be amazing to read!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You should definitely read/see it if you get a chance, it’s probably the best play I’ve ever seen – funny, tragic, intelligent….basically everything you could want! Yeah, I am not particularly well read (versed?) in plays, but I’m working on expanding my knowledge.

        Oh my goodness, it is truly so much fun to dance to classical works, especially ones that are incredibly layered. In my experience, they usually do one of two things to the music. Either they enhance the music or defy the music – and I think in either case (when done well) it draws your attention to the music in a way that allows greater appreciation. Additionally, I personally love when choreographer’s focus in on little parts of the music that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. (I think Jiri Kylian does a great job of this in his duets in “Petite Mort” – There was a piece I choreographed once, which while not classical had many layers in the music, and I listened to it….well more times than I would care to admit, and there was so much music that I could use. So sometimes I would focus on the vocals while other times I would ignore them entirely, and when you choreograph you can choose accent points that might not be the most noticeable when you listen to the music once or twice, but that the dance can bring out for the audience.

        Oh neat! Sure, of course I can. These three are the ones I liked the most 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Time, I need more time. This is what I usually tell my music teacher when I make more mistakes I than I intend to commit when I play my piece. The truth is practice indeed makes perfect music but unfortunately I just don’t have that much time.


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