Raymond Monelle observes the belief that there are simultaneously plural cultural temporalities, which musical temporalities exemplify. This is distinguished from the impression of natural time, as a flow that is uniform and singular.

One could hardly exaggerate the importance of temporality – cultural time – in musical decisions, because music is predominantly an art of time. Although we live in the “monochronic” west, where time is imagined to be uniform and linear, we nevertheless possess a musical culture that reflects several forms of temporality.

It is important to distinguish time from temporality. These two aspects, the first natural and the second cultural, have quite different functions in music as well as in perception. Natural or “objective” time is a condition of life, a “transcendent form” in the expression of Kant. It is continuous and irreversible, the present always poised between a past and a future…Apparently, natural time flows at a uniform pace in one direction and penetrates all that occupies it…It is the time in which events can be placed, the tabula rosa on which the temporal forms of life are written.

It is argued nowadays that natural time is itself a cultural convention…A musical writer confesses that natural time is “little more than a social convention agreed to for practical reasons” (Kramer 1988, p.5)…Nevertheless, for ordinary purposes we base our serialities on a conception of linear and uniform time. But it is impossible to live in natural time; in order to perform any of the ordinary functions of daily life, we must somehow grasp time imaginatively, either in the present or in the longer scope…

The unifying imagination which enables us to grasp time is furnished by culture. As was realized by Henri Bergson, our freedom and our power to act are founded in imagined or experienced time, not in natural time. But different cultures furnish different times, and culture normally offers several simultaneous times. Every anthropologist stresses this, but nevertheless one sometimes hears of “monochronicity.” Modern western culture is apparently governed by one time alone, the time of the clock…

If we adopt “temporality” as the term for cultural time, then we are obliged to make a further distinction. Sign systems may proceed in time; however, it is not necessarily the case that the levels of content and expression acknowledge the same temporality, or that pertinent juncture occurs correspondingly on the two levels. In other words, the levels of content and expression may be temporally nonconformal…Language and music are temporal signs, of course, but the time within which they are structured is not necessarily connected to the time they may mean.

For example, most linguistic and musical syntagms in traditional styles end with closure, the grammatical completion of the phrase…Of course, closure is not the only temporal feature permeating linguistic syntax and semantics. Yet the condition of music is even more complicated. As in language, there is a temporality of syntactic structure. But theorists have studied this sort of time, in its typical forms of meter, rhythm, and phrasing, with such profound attention that we forget that music can also signify time. There is a temporality of the signified, as well as a temporality of the signifier.

Unlike language, music usually signifies indexically, and every temporal feature of its syntax is available to signify some temporal meaning. We are apt to find often in music…that syntactic features acquire semantic load, by indexicality. But musical syntax does not necessarily carry semantic weight; the failure to distinguish syntactic and semantic temporality has led to much confusion in the temporal theory of music.

Monelle, Raymond. 2000. The sense of music: Semiotic essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


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.


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.