How can we define such a vague, encompassing term as time?



Part of my doctoral research involves attempting to do just that. To pin down exactly what we mean by time, and, specifically, what we mean by musical time and how these might correlate.

Recently I took part in the Lady Margaret Hall Research Fair at Oxford, in which we presented posters to our friends and colleagues working in very different fields of research. I thought I might write up some of these ideas for my blog, introducing my research in non-specialist terms.

Time: we know what time is, right?

It’s the ticking of a clock. The passing of a day. Counting the months, the years, the seconds, the centuries. Time is a stopwatch on your phone. It’s the marker of centuries and historical periods. Travelling in time means revisiting past lives, past decades that have already been lived. We might refer to this first sense of time as “clock time”. Measured, understood, countable.

But what about the feeling of time? The way in which the passage of time might shift, jump, pause, hesitate, rush forward? When you sit down and listen to a piece of music, or read a book, and time seems to stand still, listlessly? What do you do about that feeling when time rushes forwards, and other times seems to take ages? Boiling the kettle takes forever, yet sometimes we look back and wonder, where did all those years fly by to?

When applied to music, we might refer to this as musical temporality: the “feeling” of time when listening to a piece of music. Does it pass slowly? Does it march, linearly, in a clockwork fashion towards the end of the piece? Or does it feel timeless, static, cyclic, non-linear?

Musical Temporality 

What is musical temporality? Musical temporality can encompass and involve rhythmic elements, beats, the use of time signatures, musical structure, the sense of duration, or the perception of the passing of time within (or from without of) a piece.

What does it mean if music feels ‘timeless’, ‘static’, or ‘non-linear’?

Traditionally, music was seen to be moving forward, underpinned by structural, linear, forward-moving harmony. What happened when composers started ignoring and breaking these rules around the turn of the century?

Paris, at the turn of the century.

New train-lines, a new Metro system, silent films, telephones, airplanes, global communication and transport. Gangs of composers begin to eschew traditional tonality in favour of abstract, atonal, or non-traditional forms of harmony.

map 1913 metro
A Map of the Paris Metro System from 1913

1913 Paris: A Shift in Musical Temporality

By 1913, it’s possible to witness a shift in Parisian musical time: this is the starting point of my thesis argument. The Rite of Spring (Paris, 1913) was infamous for its daring rhythms and sense of time: it is still known as a piece of music well ahead of its era. But what if this composition by Stravinsky was in fact a product of the era, in which there was a ‘culture of time’, rather than a decades-early composition foreshadowing post-war innovation? 

Cultural and technological changes in Paris: Key Research Questions

Now that we’ve addressed the shift in musical temporality around the urban centre of Paris in 1913, I can illustrate my key research questions:

  1. Why did time become important?
  2. How did cultural and societal change impact musical experimentation?
  3. Why did technological developments encourage a preoccupation with time and ideas of time?
  4. Was there a preoccupation for concepts of time, memory, nostalgia in pre-WWI Paris and how did this manifest itself?

I’d like to think that my research might serve to challenge conventional narratives that the WWI was a catalyst for provoking temporal concepts in cultural activity. I’ll argue for a need to unravel to implicit causal connections between the First World War and modernist pursuits.

I hope to able to share more of my research over the coming months as I gradually write up my thesis. Stay tuned for updates! 

Here’s a link to my poster, if you’d like to take a look: LMH Research Fair Poster.


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