Tempo rubato

Musical concept: Tempo Rubato

Tempo rubato, a type of tempo marking, instructs the performer to freely, expressively speed up or slow down at certain passages. In Italian, "rubare" means "to steal," and "tempo" means "time." Therefore "tempo rubato" means the time of some measures are stolen by the others.

There are two different kinds of tempo rubato. The first kind is when the underlying pulse stays the same and the tempo is slightly varied. This type was common in the eighteenth century and received a lot of discussion from writers at that time. During the rubato passage, some measures are longer and some are shorter, but the average time of each measure is the same as the passages before and after the rubato passage. In a piece with a soloist and an accompanist, the tempo in the accompaniment stays the same and the soloist varies the tempo. Thus the two parts sound momentarily out of sync.

The second kind of rubato is when the tempo is changed in all parts (accompaniment and solo) and the original tempo simply returns when the rubato passage is over. In other words, no time is stolen from one measure by another. This is more common and also how we understand rubato.

Try both types of rubato, even when you are singing in the shower, and see which type you prefer. Listen to how Arthur Rubinstein played Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 in B-flat Minor. Tap along and feel the tempo rubato.

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