Joe's Blog

Rubato. How to make the piece “breathe”

June 3, 2018

P. is an adult student who is playing Brahms.  She asked me, “How do I make my playing sound like the recordings of it I enjoy?”

“I know there is flexibility in the performer’s playing. I sense it, I ‘hear’ it.  It sounds so natural and obvious, yet I don’t know how to reproduce it when I am playing the piece.  I can’t make it sound as musical.  Why?”

My answer: “Welcome to the wonderful world of rubato!”

The following was my attempt to “teach” rubato.

First, I said that I thought the way by which she evaluated her success at playing a piece was ‘measured’, and in inverse proportion, by the number of mistakes.

P: “Shouldn’t I know all the notes solidly before I start playing around with them musically?”

Me: “To develop rubato, you may need to change some long term habits.  Don’t evaluate your success by right or wrong notes.  And don’t wait until you know the notes of the piece before you add musicality as if it were an added ingredient.  It’s the other way around: you learn the notes more quickly if you play musically if, for no other reason, than  you come to understand more quickly why the composer the chose the notes that he chose.”

Michelangelo said that he could envision the finished shape of his sculpture when he was looking at the untouched block of marble, from which the sculpture was to be carved.  He would then cut away the material of what in retrospect would be the “negative space” surrounding the inner form, until the positive space of the inner form was revealed.

His first cuts of the chisel were probably rough and not meant to be specific.  Your first experiments at rubato can also be rough and random.  Pick a spot in the piece, any spot, and try speeding up or slowing down the next group of notes.  As the sculptress of the musical phrase, you then ask yourself, did this change, did this bending of the steady tempo into a curve, make the piece sound better?  Did the change make the music make more sense to the ear?  If not, pick a different random spot and try to distort it again with a change of speed lasting a group of notes.  It will not take much experimentation to discover the proper places and degrees of “bending” in the phrase.

In the above analogy, the un-hewn block of marble stands for the piece played with correct notes but without rubato.  The final form of the marble is what results from the rubato.

A “planar” (and “plainer”) version of the Venus de Milo would be far less inviting to the eye than the curvaceous form we see in the Louvre.  A musical phrase is an elastic thing, it stretches and contracts.  It is a living thing that constantly breathes in and out.

The violin bow must distend the linear shape of the violin string before it will ring true to its pitch.  Harmony is always the result of a reconciliation of conflicts.

In the following more geometric analogy a base,  or unvarying tempo, is like the x-axis of a graph: an unvarying straight, horizontal line.

The application of rubato creates a curve that is sometimes above the x-axis and sometimes below.  If the y-coordinates of this curve are summed up over an entire cycle or phrase then, the positives added to the negatives, in a true rubato, will result in the values canceling each other out by the end of the phrase.  This leaves us arithmetically a net value of zero, but at the expense of loosing any aesthetic shape.

This balancing out can happen in many ways. Only rarely will the speed-ings up (positive y values) and the slow-ings down (negative y values) exhibit the same values as each other, although this can happen in principle.  More likely there will be an unequal division of the musical phrase through time in terms of when accelerando is taking place and when a ritard is taking place.

Here is one of many possibilities: a few large positive y values (a few notes dramatically speeding up) can be balanced out by a large number of small negative y values (a greater number of notes slowing down but little by little).

The result of this final balancing out by the end of the phrase is that the next phrase tends to begin at the same time on the clock that it would have begun if the phrase had been played without rubato, but in a steady tempo.  But in the interim instead of a static phrase we have one that exhibits a dynamic equilibrium of opposing forces.

P’s first attempts at rubato resulted in her playing a measure or two in one steady tempo followed by another phrase at a different, but still steady, tempo.  Rubato probes more deeply into the evolving phrase.  The changes occur more frequently and dramatically.  Slight ritards and accelerandos may not always be enough to carve out a shape to a phrase.

A last word about “emotion.”

P. said, “I try to feel the emotion in the Brahms but it doesn’t seem to emerge. ”

Joe: “You don’t put emotion “in,” the emotion comes “out” as a byproduct of the bending and shaping of the phrase.  Then the phrase resonates with emotion, both pianist and listener experiencing it for the first time.  When properly shaped the phrase ‘rings’ like a bell when struck.”

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  1. This is brilliant. From a listener’s point of view, maybe you don’t hear the rubato, but the curves in the phase that cause you to emote. What an insight you have here! Genius! I guess this is why that I always hear music when you play, and not just a composition.

  2. I agree that one can create rubato by trying things out and manipulating the tempo and push and pull of the notes to see what sounds or feels best. However, I think that the true rubato that makes us want to play comes from emotion. So I don’t know if I agree that you don’t put emotion in, that it comes out. I think it only comes out naturally if you have it first – you don’t ‘put’ it in, but you feel it, you hold it. I think that, like the Michaelangelo statue, an emotion or thought triggers how the rubato happens. Otherwise it sounds too calculated and logical – unnatural. Or, even if it’s beautiful, it’s lacking that something – the feeling and trueness that we only get when we can hear it or imagine it how we want it before. That hearing it or imagining it isn’t always thought out of course, most of the time it happens naturally in a performance state. But we can practice it the same way. I do agree that every time we play something, we need the musicality and emotion from the beginning, but that happens when we have an idea of how we want it at the beginning. The same way that when we listen to our favorite performances, we feel something, and when we think about a certain piece, we feel something (or lots of things!). We can always change it (and should, every time because no feeling is alike). I would approach it by having someone have a story or a feeling to go with a chunk (meaning they know how they want that chunk to go), then inner sing or play a small chunk in that way, then play it right afterward. Trying this in different forms I think can trigger the rubato naturally, and do what music is supposed to do – communicate. I guess the main difference in method then is more imagination or feeling on the front end rather than playing and seeing how it makes you feel.