Why am I learning this?
Understanding musical temporality means understanding the most basic connection between music and life. It can expand the depth of your life experience and conversely expand the depth of your musical expression.

Musical temporality is the sense of time in music. Clock time proceeds relatively evenly regardless of what is happening. But experienced time can seem fast or slow, or it can even be rearranged. Represented time in music (as in cinema) is similarly flexible.


In the early twentieth century, the physicist Albert Einstein theorized time as relative to the observer, and philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, and Martin Heidegger gave increased attention to time. In the late twentieth century, Jonathan Kramer theorized musical temporality in Western music. More recently, Michael Tenzer and John Roeder have theorized musical temporality across different cultures. The distinction of linear vs. non-linear time comes from Kramer.

Linear vs. non-linear

Linear time is when later events follow from earlier events. In life, linear time involves a continuous internal narrative (I got up this morning, I went to school, etc., and now I am reading a wiki). In music, a sense of linear time involves:

  • flow, especially flowing lines, but also rising and falling dynamics, etc.
  • signs of beginning, middle, and end, especially harmonic function, meter, and form, but even narrative lyrics or a narrative program
  • variation, something changing and something remaining the same. The most common kinds of variation are motivic variation and variation of phrases or sections. Variation can imply a narrative, for example the fate of a motive.

Non-linear time is when events do not follow from earlier events. In life, non-linear time involves such things as dreams, time slips, altered states of consciousness, and religious experiences, all of which can expand, contract, reorder, or combine events. In music, non-linear time involves:

  • minimal flow
  • absent or rearranged signs of beginnings, middles, and ends
  • minimal variation of motives, phrases, and/or sections, meaning that they will be either basically the same or utterly different

Music is not always (or ever) entirely linear or entirely non-linear. Here are different possibilities with examples:


Example: Arnold Schoenberg, No. 1 of Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 (1909): Although the piece lacks cues of temporality from tonality, the motives are continually varied, leading to a climactic combination and reconciliation.

Example: Claude Debussy, “La cathédrale engloutie,” No. 10 of Preludes, Book 1 (1910): The piece builds toward and away from the climactic rise of the cathedral.

Example: Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Chile,” from Electric Ladyland (1968): The song unfolds in a series of mounting waves that reach a blistering culmination.


Example: György Ligeti, Atmosphères (1961): The piece consists of drifting and shifting masses of sound.

Example: Iannis Xenakis, “Metastaseis” (1953–54): The piece is meant to embody the relativity of time (specifically relating to gunfire during the Second World War) through mathematical formulas translated into sound. It consists of three unrelated movements played attaca.

Example: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from Revolver (1966): The repetitive melody and accompaniment as well as the lyrics create a sense of turning inward, where time seems to dissolve.

Partly linear, partly non-linear

Example: Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time (1941), I (“Liturgy of Crystal”): The flute and clarinet have motives that exchange some features and reach a culmination. Meanwhile, the piano and cello repeat cycles at different rates.

Non-linear within sections, partly linear between sections

Example: Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913), introduction to Part II: The individual sections are composed of contrasting motives alternating and combining freely. The successive sections are mostly unrelated but dramatize the story of a pagan rite.

Further reading

  • Stephen Kostka, Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music, Chapter 7
  • Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music

External links

There is no Wikipedia article on musical temporality.


Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Music Copyright © by Matthew Arndt. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book