James Greer argues that given the pervasiveness of time-technologies, primarily involving the clock, humans have domesticated and artificialised time. The result is that increasingly, natural time becomes absent.

In a music recording studio, just like in a Las Vegas casino, there is no evidence of the passage of time. You work in the dark. There are no windows because windows are not soundproof.

In the absence of natural time, artificial time rules everything that happens in that room. Recording sessions can now take place continents away, simultaneously. For example, say a band has recorded a drum part in Los Angeles but the lead guitarist is in London pretending to go out with Kate Moss. He can go into a London studio, connect via broadband using Pro Tools, which is probably the most common recording software in use today, and lay down a guitar solo that will sync perfectly with the drum part.

Pro Tools synchronizes the two sessions using an artificial time code to establish what sound engineers call positional reference. The code is recorded onto one audio channel of whatever recording device the session is using (these days, usually a computer’s hard drive). In effect, it creates its own time. Anything stored on the device can be precisely located and synchronized by time-code reading devices anywhere, at any time.

What might be called the domestication of time is nothing new, but the pace at which it is developing seems to have recently accelerated. For centuries, because the human race was ruled by the “sunup, sundown” method of timekeeping, the sundial provided a sufficient answer to the eternal human question, “Why can’t anyone ever be on time for anything?” (Maybe because it’s cloudy.) During the Middle Ages, monks—required by monk law to know at what hour a particular prayer was to be performed—needed a more reliable system for keeping track of the time. They developed (or stole the idea from the Greeks, whatever) a clock that worked by allowing water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole in a vessel. This was apparently not good enough: Between A.D. 1280 and 1320, the first references to partly mechanical water clocks show up in church records.

From there it wasn’t a huge technological step to the purely mechanical clock, prodded in large part by the twin developments of the Industrial Revolution (factory workers needed to show up on time) and the railroad (it would be nice if 10 o’clock in London meant the same thing everywhere in England). Next came the pendulum, which is more or less how your grandfather’s grandfather clock operates. We have arrived today at the atomic clock, the one to which “official” clocks are linked. As quantum physics develops, we may yet see even more accurate clocks, which will be useful to astrophysicists trying to fix the coordinates and movements of distant celestial objects.

For us ordinary people, though, the clock is a tyrant. The tyranny of the timepiece has burrowed its way into the fabric of our daily lives—flashing on our iPhones, embedded into every e-mail we send, printed on every ATM withdrawal slip. We never do not know what time it is anymore, and this, I think, is a by-product of our appetite for speed. Many readers will remember the first computer modems, which connected us to the Internet at the then lightning-quick rate of 14.4 kilobytes per second. We may as well have carved our messages into stone and flung them across the country, given the 10-megabit rates now achievable by broadband technology. With an outpouring of data from the Large Hadron Collider, a huge particle accelerator starting up near Geneva, we can look forward to something called the Grid, which will make the Internet seem like a very old man walking his broken bike on the shoulder of the highway…

Artificial codes have erased natural time, and distance, too. The speed of sound is irrelevant; time zones are irrelevant; we can implant code on anything, transmit it over a fiber-optic cable or via satellite, and machines at any spot on the globe will be in sync.

The very notion of “on time” has been replaced by the notion of “in sync” (Greer 2008).

Greer, James. 2008. ‘What is the future of time.’ Discover: Science for the curious. 21 October.


Barbara Barry observes that there are different interpretations of musical time, based around measurement and experience. The clocked measurement of time is here distinguished from the natural time of sun and moon movement, and biological experience.

Alternative interpretations are different kinds of measurement or quantification of time, taken from the standpoint either of experiential consciousness – through awareness of changes in external events or internal changes of state – which is dynamic model (empirical), or by reference to an objective standard, such as clock time, which is a static one (formal schemes of measurement). Almost any temporal event can be explained by one kind of direction in terms of the other; that is, an event as experience can be checked against clock time, or the other way around, a given duration can be used as the limits within which certain events take place. Any abstract (non-interpreted) duration can be matched against any of the four types of explanation, according to content, frame of reference and initial standpoint. For example, two hours as a typical sub-span in an individual’s life can constitute part of biological time (formal/analytic): as time marked by natural time-keepers (movement of the sun and moon) it is cosmological time (formal/synthetic): and as time as creative thought or enjoying works of art it is aesthetic time (empirical/synthetic)…

For music the term “experiential” seems preferable to “synthetic” because it clarifies the two basic standpoints of musical time, as either objective investigation or continuous experience. In analytic musical time the work is regarded as object, in order to demonstrate its components and relationships by means of an analytic method or procedure which interprets the work’s organization usually from one point (or possibly two points) of view – for example, motivic construction, serial organization, rhythmic structure, pitch classes and set theory aggregates. The converse of this, experiential musical time, considers a work as musical/temporal experience; it is concerned with how inherent and individual factors are inter-related, what factors contribute to affective response, and how musical time passes (Barry 1990, 84-86).

Barry, Barbara. 1990. Musical time: The sense of order. Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press.


Mark Smith observes that with the proliferation of clocks and watches during periods of American slavery, plantation owners forced slaves to move from a temporality which naturally revolved around the sun and stars, to an existence governed by the clock. Whilst natural time and clock time are not entirely divorced for Smith, a distinct transition between them is apparent.

Nor should we be misled, as Michael O’Malley has wisely counseled, into thinking that a naturally derived understanding of time (time defined by sun, moon, wind, and a host of other naturally occurring phenomena) necessarily precludes a commitment to clock time. Not only is the dichotomy false, not only is nature itself sometimes as frenetic as the clock (as humans find when planting and harvesting, for instance), but there is evidence suggesting that natural time and clock time are in many respects complementary. Both are largely cyclical in their movements, and the regular, perpetual movements of the clock are to some extent mirrored in the rhythms of the seasons or sun. Naturally derived, task-oriented, and clock-regulated forms of time measurement, in short, coexist in any society, the most modern included…

Under modernity, the clock becomes a fetish: the clock is time itself, and clock time develops an apparent autonomy and hegemony. The dictates and needs of the capitalist mode of production ensure that the clock is used to control workers, measure labor, increase efficiency, and heighten personal time discipline in order to coordinate workers and society generally. Given these imperatives, clock and watch ownership under capitalism tends to increase considerably. Conversely, in pre-modern societies, clock time is usually bound to religion and has little secular significance or function…

Before anyone, whether master, industrialist, or worker, could reduce time to money, however, they had to dilute, or at least modify, age-old Christian imperatives stressing that all time was God’s time. According to Jacques Le Goff, this process began in the Middle Ages, when “[a]mong the principal criticisms levelled against the merchants was the charge that their profit implied a mortgage on time, which was supposed to belong to God alone.” But God was not the only impediment to secular commercial time. According to Le Goff, “Like the peasant, the merchant was at first subjected by his professional activity to the dominion of meteorological time, to the cycle of seasons and the unpredictability of storms and natural cataclysms.” To rationalize time, European merchants used God’s time by recruiting the aural power of his church clocks to coordinate city life and the times of markets. “The same process for the rationalization of time,” Le Goff points out, “was responsible also for its secularization.” Once this rationalization was under way, mercantile activity, while “distinct and, at particular points, contingently similar,” to God’s time, became regulated by the clock. And it was the dual forces of God’s temporal imperatives and merchants’ commercial time that provided the historical basis for the rise of clock consciousness among workers and managers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Slaves remembered the clock and watch and testified that they had come to accept, albeit grudgingly, timed agricultural labor under slavery. Although they originally came from societies where natural time was predominant and that same reliance on natural time remained important to them, southern slaves, like nineteenth-century urban-industrial workers, found their reliance on sun and stars as exclusive arbiters of time attacked and, ultimately, undermined (Smith 1996, 1435-37 & 1461).

Smith, Mark. 1996. “Old south time in comparative perspective. American historical review 101(5): 1432–69.