Jonathan Kramer explores the position that a real, musical time, exists. In comparing the clocked measurements of the durations of musical notes, with how long such notes seem to a listener, a consideration is developed of which constitutes the real time of music.

Many writers on music acknowledge, directly or indirectly, that music provides more than one kind of time experience, more than one temporality…Some writers address implicitly, some explicitly (and some not at all), which of music’s temporalities is/are “real” and which are, in some sense, virtual or illusory or transitory or imaginary…

I will take up questions of time taken vs. time evoked in a musical performance, real time as a performer’s or a computer’s reaction without delay to a musical stimulus, real time as objectively measurable (clock time) vs. real time as the essence of subjectively perceived music, and the relationship among the composer’s, the performer’s, and listener’s real time.

The distinction – between musical time that is real and musical time that somehow is not – is meaningful not only on the abstract philosophical level addressed by my questions above. Even in the pared down context of a simple sequence of durations, the question fo what time is real is complex…We now understand that the durations implied in musical notation do not generally correspond to the “actual” durations performed, yet our perception of these durations corresponds more closely to the notation than to their clock-time measurement. Consider, for example, this series of durations, which has been studied by Henkjan Honing and Peter Desain.

Honing and Desain have found that, in an expressive performance at a certain tempo, the duration of note A is 0.34 seconds and the duration of note B is 0.35 seconds. Note B – a sixteenth note, presumably representing a quarter of a beat – is performed slightly longer than note A – an eighth note of a triplet, presumably representing a third of a beat. Yet listeners do not perceive B as longer than A. Quite the contrary: they invariably hear A as longer than B, because of the rhythmic and metric context.

So: which is the “real” time? The objectively measured time, which tells us that B is longer than A, or the musical time as interpreted by performers, which tells us that A is longer than B? The answer depends on just what we mean by “real.” Is real musical time an objective time, out there in the world, or is real musical time the way listeners perceive musical events in relation to one another? Scientists may be more comfortable calling clock time “real,” but performing musicians may well feel the opposite. The musical time they feel and project, and that they hope listeners sense, is for them the essential musical reality. Musicians tend to disparage or dismiss outright objective time…

So, which is the real time? The lengths of sections as measured by the clock, or their apparent lengths as felt by listeners? (Kramer 2016, 161-62).

Kramer, Jonathan. 2016. Postmodern music, postmodern listening. New York and London: Bloomsbury.


Lewis Mumford posits that mechanical time and organic time are polarised, whereby the former inadequately represents the latter. Mechanical, mathematical time is comprised of separate, superposable, identical instants. Conversely, organic time states are cumulative, and qualitatively differential, in the way that organic functions change tempo.

In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measure back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has it own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion and the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time – what Bergson calls duration – is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction – through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death – and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to he born (Mumford 1934, 15-16).

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt.