Perception of time-speed

You may have noticed that the music listening experience is often not perceived as metric time. That is, the speed of time seems to vary throughout a piece of music. Some parts seem race by as if the clock were somehow accelerated, whereas other parts feels as if they last an eternity. This is the speed of time.

The word perception is important here because, while we cannot change the actual speed of time, we can (through music) change our perception of the speed of time.

Altering our perception of speed time can be done in many more ways than simply changing tempo. But first we must ask the question: How do we percieve time?

Imagine for a moment that you do not wear a watch, and you cannot see any clocks or other time-measuring devices. How do you measure time? Probably by remembering a number of events for a particular time period. This is not exact – “events” means anything that happens, and “time period” is your short-term memory. Both are variable. Consider two situations.

The first situation is that of sitting down, doing nothing for five minutes (or even better – watching the clock!). Time seems to crawl past.

The second situation is that of cleaning a messy desk in five minutes. Very busy, moving everything in its right place. The busy activity gives the appearance of time passing quicker.

In both cases, the elapsed time is five minutes, but the perception of time is different.

The same principal can be applied to music.

If you want to slow down your listeners perception of time, use less events and introduce less changes per time period.

If you want to speed up your listeners perception of time, use more events and introduce more changes per time period.

For example, we could focus on a section of music, and look at how many times the drum pattern changes, or how many chords there are, or how many notes (or note events) are in the melody.

It’s important to note that while changing the number of events is useful, controlling the rate of change is most important. This is somewhat similar to the (more “classical”) notion of “rate of presentation of material”.

Another interesting way of looking at it is: Instead of measuring events+change per time period, look at time period per change. Approaching it from this angle, you might count the bars between each change, or look at the length of each section. A “faster” bit of music may have more sections, each shorter; whereas a “slower” bit of music mayb have fewer sections, each longer.


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