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How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time: A composer details how music works its magic on our brains.


One evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.

It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes. Although I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I still stand in awe of Schubert’s unparalleled power. Nearly two centuries ago, the composer anticipated the neurological underpinnings of time perception that science has underscored in the past few decades.

We conceive of time as a continuum, but we perceive it in discretized units—or, rather, as discretized units. It has long been held that, just as objective time is dictated by clocks, subjective time (barring external influences) 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. Rather, music embodies (or, rather, is embodied within) 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 ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.

Considering the composer’s goal of distorting time perception, musical time is notated with remarkable imprecision and ambiguity.

Composers, more often than not, 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), or terms that connote speed through emotion such as Allegro appassionato, Bravura, or Agitato, or terms that confuse complexity with speed, such as Tempo semplice, oblige the performer to imagine temporality from the composer’s perspective through guesswork.

My favorite temporal marking is the term Tempo rubato, literally “stolen time,” in which duration is added to one event at the expense of another. Long after German inventor Johann Maelzel patented the metronome in 1815, composers continued to persistently avoid strict measures of time in their scores, instead relying primarily on adjectival description.

It is Schubert, more than any other composer, who succeeded in radically commandeering temporal perception. Nowhere is this powerful control of time perception more forceful than in the String Quintet. Schubert composed the four-movement work in 1828, during the feverish last two months of his life. (He died at age 31.)

In the work, he turns contrasting distortions of perceptual time into musical structure. Following the opening melody in the first Allegro ma non troppo movement, the second Adagio 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. The Scherzo that 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 is so forcefully felt in the work that it ultimately becomes unified in terms of structural organization.

Even though I attended my first concert of the String Quintet 40 years ago, I am still overcome by its powers. The slow second movement persistently puts me on the verge of a sense of temporal stasis. I feel submerged in a viscous medium—not at all struggling to move forward, but rather fully absorbed in an alternate temporal universe.

Although immersed in the music, I am aware of time in the external world. I tend to breathe along with phrases, and find myself coming up short of breath. Remarkably, this sensation is relived each time I listen to the String Quintet.

Like all music that feels both part of time and beyond it, the String Quintet seems to connect us to something bigger than ourselves—in the words of Schubert’s friend and collaborator, the poet Franz von Schober, “time’s infinite ocean.”

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Period instrument recording of Schubert’s String Quintet: