Music and Time

We start the wrong way round: thinking, by learning what we are not, to know what we as individuals are: whereas the whole of human consciousness contains not a tithe of what is, and therefore it is hopeless to proceed by a method of elimination, and thinking by discovering the motion life has made, to be able therefore to produce the motion it will make: whereas we know that, in life the new motion is not the resultant of the old, but something quite new, quite other, according to our perception.

DH Lawrence

More drinks are sold in bars when the music is slow, which makes for a more pleasant atmosphere, one in which customers want to stay-and order another round. Likewise, consumers spend 38 percent more time in the grocery store when background music is slow. The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring named Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to hear while driving. It is not so much the distraction but the music’s tempo that challenges the normal sense of speed of the drivers and causes them to speed up.

Sometimes you may have had the feeling when you listen to the music that time is literally grinding to a halt. The feeling is intense, palpable and strong. It is sometimes a life-changing moment, or a life-changing eon as it feels at the time. Although in my music I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I’m still amazed at the power of some music tricks. Composers predicted, almost two centuries ago, the neural underpinnings of the perception of time that research has underscored in recent decades

The concept of time that Deleuze formulated from the Stoics, Nietzsche, Bergson and Proust, and post-war experimental cinema has distinct ramifications for how we study music’s complex relationship with temporality. In the Stoic model, this kind of “eternal” time that precedes, gives birth to and orders time is Aion, and that which it gives rise to is Chronos. Deleuze saw that duration, or the motion of time, cannot be measured as a quantity, without infroducing a change in quality.

In response to this problem, Deleuze presents a radical decentring of our temporal understanding, by pointing out that the human perception of temporal flow is only one of many differing images of time.

Unlike the literal loss of “self” that occurs during intense perceptual engagement, the subjective perception of elongated or compressed time is related to self-referential processing.

An object — whether image or sound — moving toward you is perceived as longer in duration than the same object that is not moving, or that is receding from you. The directionality of musical melody and gesture evoke similar percepts of temporal dilation.

The subjectivity of time perception can be grounding and self-affirming — a source of great pleasure, or, conversely, able to create a state of disassociation with one’s self. Deleuze not only defines human experience; he also considers the experiences of molecules and plants.

The critique of spatialised time.

Deleuze’s (and Bergson’s) says that time has been traditionally misconstructed via spatial metaphors — where time becomes merely the vessel in which music is contained.

“our exclusive preoccupation with space at the expense of time, with things at the expense of processes”

One of the ways in which we create illusions of transcendence in temporality is demonstrated throughout the history of time/space relationships in Westem thought. Euclidian geometry confirms this concept of space, and therefore implicitly, its related understanding of time. The origins of this spatial understanding of time essentially come from Classical Antiquity: from the Plato and Aristotle.

First, space is infinite and infinitely extendable; second, it is empty, for only if it is empty can it contain things; and third its unchanging immobile. As a self-contained, axiomatic methodology, Euclidean geometry proposed a conception of space that was infinite, homogenous, precisely measurable and accountable according to mathematical postulates. Think of a long line that expands from the past to the future (timelines)

Newton’s time is infinite, absolute, universal, the same time for everyone. Such a linear interpretation of temporality forms the basis of our common understanding of time, in which we plot out points that are considered in relation to the universal temporal continuum.

Western thought has produced ordered wholes from the complex flow of time. Deleuze cites the “self” as one such example: instead of viewing it as an effect of time — what it actually is — the “self” is viewed as the ground of the flow of time.

Euclidean geometry’s was disrupted by privilege the advent of non-Euclidean geometries, such as the hyperbolic geometries of Reid, Gauss, Bolyai, and Lobachevsky. Out of Gauss’ theory of surfaces, Reimann developed spherical geometry, which proposes a world of -dimensions,

Just as these new geometries challenge the primacy of Euclidean representations of space, and the accompanying metaphorical understanding of time what Einstein’s relativity most strongly rejects is Newton’s distinction between space and time as distinct, unitary entities.

Instead, for Deleuze, space, time, and matter become interconnected, undefined, relative terms that are united in spacetime. Time is not linear but “Open.” As such it defies any attempt to specify its movement. Life is governed by multiplicity and time by lines of flight, which are all suppressed by the “One-and-Allness” (universal) of Western metaphysics.

“If the whole [of time] is not givable it is because it is the Open, and because its nature is to change constantly, or to give rise to something new, in short, to endure”

Each thing, living or unliving, flows in its own odd, intertwining flux, and nothing is fixed or permanent, not even man or the god of man, nor anything that man has thought or felt or understood. Everything flows. And nothing is real, or good, or right, but in its own living relation with its own circumambient universe to the things that are with it in flow.

However, these scientific representations of space and time do nothing to describe the passage of time, this being something that we feel innately in a subjective way. We may use clocks to but they tell us nothing of the actual motion of time: the in-between, the becoming

Rather, music embodies a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate “clock-time.” This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose all semblance of objective time.

It has long been held that, just as objective time is dictated by clocks, subjective time aligns to physiological metronomes. Music creates discrete temporal units but ones that do not typically align with the discrete temporal units in which we measure time.


The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals. As human beings we have a way in which we think about time that’s undeniably useful when it comes to tv, bed, lifestyle etc. There are a lot of people out there that use what can be described as a linear use of time.

But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective — and an integral part of our lives.

“For the time element in music is single,”

“Into a section of mortal time music pours itself

Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain.

We are collections of the things that you did in the past and the things that you will do in the future. But Deleuze offers and alt take on time (attributed to Bergson) the past exist in the present. The present exists in actuality while the past exists virtually. There are cells that exist in the present (in actuality) scientist can look at them study them etc. But simultaneously there’s a set of written code deep within that cell written in the past that exists at some level in the present but the scientist cannot see it.

We’re staring to see that the present-moment is not a snapshot in time
But more like a realm in which various thing from past present and future come to interact and within this realm they all exist. For Deleuze, time is

“a virtual flow of divergent durations”

and one can be freed from the illusion of a homogeneous linear time only by thinking time as an intensive flow. In his view, a situation presupposes

“a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild and untamed differences”

Deleuze says that substance expresses itself through attributes. Expression as a process attempts to explain how a substance on its own without the help of any entity like a god can arrange itself into an infinite number of combinations, each combination a different arrangement. The universe is an expression from something within not a creation from outside. Substance, attribute and modes are the same thing. Substance is more like time than it’s like space and time it’s not time but the actualiaction of the virtual

It’s an ontology that doesn’t want to reduce being to the knowable but instead seems to widen thought to prod the unknowable. Thinking that produces new possibilities for life. In Deleuze’s schema, time is not “extensive” — that is, not the connection of separate units — but is “intensive,” as it takes the form of different and divergent “durations”:

“ […] beneath species and parts, we find only these times, these rates of growth, these spaces of development, these decelerations and accelerations, these durations of gestation”

While the sublime sense of being lost in time is relatively rare, the distortion of perceived time is commonplace and routine. Although immersed in the music, we are aware of time in the external world. We tend to breathe along with phrases, and find ourselves coming up short of breath. Neuroscience gives us insights into how during periods of intense perceptual engagement, the sensory cortex which is usually a focal area essentially switches off.

Broadly speaking, the brain processes timespans in two ways, one in which an explicit estimate is made regarding the duration of a particular stimulus — perhaps a sound or an ephemeral image — and the second, involving the implicit timespan between stimuli.

These processes involve both memory and attention, which modulate the perception of time passing, depending upon how occupied or stimulated we are. Hence time can “fly” when we are occupied, or seem to stand still when we are waiting for the water in the kettle to boil.

Rather than enabling perceptual awareness, the role of the self-related prefrontal cortex is reflective, evaluating the significance of the music to the self. However, during intense moments, when time seems to stop, or rather, not exist at all, a selfless, Zen-like state occurs

For Deleuze Time is not an a priori form; rather, the refrain is the a priori form of time, which in each case fabricates different times. Therefore, through deterritorialising the refrain, music has the efficiency of fabricating, or creating, time.

Therefore, when we study such music, we need to create concepts that take temporality into account: concepts that travel through time, as well as through space. In particular, it suggests that our musical examples have the power to transform time.

But having said that the past no longer exists. Same with the future. We may have plans for the future, we may even want to predict it but there’s a sense that future does not exist. Only the present and it’s supposed to be a gift (useful if you need to run errands)

A molecule does not operate in a certain manner by means of “slowing down” perception, thus predicting and considering. It operates at a faster speed, existing within a different temporal framework from that of human perception, and defined by different connections.

The process of creation starts for Deleuze when certain organisms are differentiated from chaos or the flows of difference which constitute life. This happens prior to any organized matter or system of relations. These organisms are not closed forms. They are rather to be regarded as “strata” which create a distinction between “inside” and “outside.” The phenomenon of stratification is behind the origin of organisms on the body of the earth: strata produce

“molecules large and small organizing them into molar aggregates”

All beings thus amount to what are just relatively stable moments in a flow of becoming life. Each organism opens out in two directions: towards chaos and towards its own limited forms. Deleuze described these connections as operating at different types of “speed” and “slowness.” As another example, when we perceive light emitted by the sun, we engage with it according to the way that the human eye and retina responds to this stimulus.

However, a plant responds to and connects in a very different way (through the process of photosynthesis), and at a very different “speed” than does the human eye. Instead, temporality becomes not only integral to music, but music becomes integral to the formation and interpretation of time. Music, through altering the time of recorded sound, demonstrates how the deterritorialising of the refrain can fabricate new images of time

Milieus and rhythms are in turn the elements from which territories are formed. A milieu is a “coded block of space-time” only ever provisionally stable in terms of its periodic repetitions. Despite its codification, a milieu is not in stasis, but rather in a continual change.

The human body. Its various components — the heart, lungs, brain, nerves, etc may be viewed as so many milieus, each with its own rate of periodic repetition. The rhythms of the body, however, take place between the various milieus, the heart’s regular measure etc

In a sense the heart’s periodic repetition produces rhythm, but not by reproducing an identical measure and not in isolation from other milieus. Its regular meter is a vital pulse, not a reproduction of the same. In other words, music can break down the forces that are integral to creating territories. The refrain is not the origin of music, but rather a means of warding off music’s explorations through its estabilizing influence.

Music can act like an instrument of time, or a time machine. We have developed the ability to use memory to consider and predict; to “slow down” thought, and act according to our past experiences. We tend to frace our perceptions back to a proper form of time representation.

The task of the classical artist is to organize chaos by distorting time perception. For that purpose musical time is notated with remarkable imprecision and ambiguity. Composers rely upon qualitative rather than quantitative directives to inform performers of intended tempo

And if the vagaries of such terms as Adagietto (somewhat slow), or Lentissimo (slower than slow) are not ambiguous enough, terms such as Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast), oblige the performer to imagine temporality from the composer’s perspective through guesswork.

While the manipulation of perceptual time is a pervasive aspect of music, particular composers, including Anton Bruckner, famous for his hour-plus symphonies, and Olivier Messiaen, took the warping of subjective time to extremes. Deleuze and Guattari present Messiaen as a composer who uses new approaches to time: in particular, his use of added values, rhythmic characters and non-retrogradable rhythms.

The illustration of bird songs is a constant source of inspiration for Messiean. Usually, he writes either for the piano solo (three books so-called ‘catalog of birds”), or orchestra with or without solo piano. Usually also, these birds are illustrated in a surrounding figured by chords or rather simple melodies, richly harmonized. Here, the scenery of the blackbird and its environment is scored for flute and piano, and so belongs to the small catalog of chamber music of Messiaen with the Quartet for the End of Times .

In the work, he turns contrasting distortions of perceptual time into musical structure. Following the opening melody in the movement, the second movement seems to move slowly and be far longer than it really is, then hastens and shortens before returning to a perception of long and slow.

What follows reverses the pattern, creating the perception of brevity and speed, followed by a section that feels longer and slower, before returning to a percept of short and fast. The conflict of objective and subjective time ultimately becomes unified in terms of structural organization.

An “added value” refers to the technique whereby one short rhythmic value is added to the components of any rhythm, resulting in “rhythmic characters” rhythm permutations that progress and withdraw over time, regardless of the normal meter.

1) Added values give us an ametrical, staggered time of variable intensities;

2) non-retrogradable rhythms, a circular and reversible time in which beginning and end are confused. They are the same whether they are played as written or retrograde (i.e. a rhythmic palindrome)

3) Rhythmic characters, an active, germinal flux of time;

These new images of time correspond to the definition of rhythm that Messiaen proposed, whereby rhythmic music was that which scorned regular metrical structure in favor of the free rhythms of nature. He effectively tricks us into perceiving a timespan far more expansive than registered by a stopwatch.

Within this illusion of stretched time, he embeds another illusion, of a considerably faster and shorter section sandwiched between slow and virtually motionless music, when, in fact, by the metronome and the clock, the sections are of equal length.

This rhythm concept resonates strongly with Deleuze’s idea of repetition. Time here is the power of life to evolve, mutate and become — the power that frustrates all attempts at attaining any stability or fixity.

“Our idea of time as a continuity, as an eternal straight line has crippled our consciousness cruelly”

In relation to any thought or idea, Deleuze envisions a state of carelessness, a state of receptivity, the awakening of the non-mental centers of consciousness. In this state of carelessness, mental consciousness and all of its behavior are suspended, as the individual human being experiences a strong sensual interaction with his surroundings. The concept of time, insofar as there is one, belongs to the knowledge field in which he only knows how not to learn.

We shall at last learn the pure lesson of knowing not to know. The apparently paradoxical dictum of knowing not to know that emphasizes the idea of becoming (something other than the stable/crystallized ego) in response to the superunknown.

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