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.


Jay Griffiths characterises Western, hegemonic time, as inherently anti-natural, and as that which is imposed on cultures. A challenge to this dominant form of time is said to manifest through the various time structures of indigenous populations, which are portrayed as being more natural than the time which has developed from the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual (Griffiths 2002).

Griffiths, Jay. 2002, ‘Boo to captain clock.’ New Internationalist 343(March): 14-17.


Douwe Tiemersma reviews how African literature describes time in Africa as being more closely associated with organic events than time is in Western societies. Tiemersma expands on this definition by noting how African time is perceived to be more natural, present-centric, and less abstract, than the mechanics of Western time.

Mbiti’s description of human life also shows organic time. Birth is a slow process which is finalized long after the person has been physically born…Growth of time is the growth of the child, of growing old with special indicators for the various periods. There is an ordered sequence and duration of periods, and that is time intrinsic to the events of human life. Personal events are also connected to environmental events as the flooding of a river and the enthronement of a king…

Time in Africa seems not so abstract and mechanized as it is in Western societies. It is closer to natural phenomena and everyday life, which are more organic. Time seems to be connected with the important idea of life-force (Tiemersma 1998, 269).

Tiemersma, Douwe. 1998. ‘A model of organic time and development in Africa.’ In Temps et developpement dans la pensee de I’Afrique subsharienne/Time and development in the thought of subsaharan Africa, 267-86. Edited by Souleymane Bachir Diagne et Heinz Kimmerle. Amsterdam: Rodopi.


Michael Flaherty explores the difference between the subjective impression of time’s passage, versus how much of that time has actually passed. The distinction is established between a reality of time, and contingent impressions of time.

Time flies. For centuries, this has been one of the stock phrases in Western civilization. But, on occasion, we are struck by the sense that time has passed even more quickly than is usually the case. This is to say that, in particular circumstances, it feels like much less time has elapsed than has actually been measured by the clock or calendar. Regardless of whether the relevant interval is ten hours or ten months, it seems to those of us in such circumstances that a much shorter length of time has gone by. Therefore, we can refer to this sensation as “temporal compression” (Flaherty 1999, 104).

Flaherty, Michael. 1999. A watched pot: How we experience time. New York: New York University Press.