How and Why of Rubato

Rubato is the musical term for the elasticity of music - most often expressed in time, or rhythm.   It is from the Italian word rubare, meaning “to rob.” The musical definition is the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace of the piece. In other words, if you rob time from one place, you need to give it back somewhere else. Think of how a rubber band stretches but returns to its natural shape when the tension on it is released.

When teaching elementary students, I work to help the student put their music into a ‘rhythmic’ box. What I am looking for is proper counting and an even tempo. I ask the student to use the metronome and count aloud a lot. My goal is to instill in the student a good understanding of rhythm. Once they can consistently demonstrate staying inside the rhythm prescribed by the musical score then I will introduce the concept of rubato.  

However, this creates its own problems. Adding ritardandos and accelerandos may be easy enough, but encouraging rubato is difficult. Students cling to a solid, even tempo. So, before my students break into intermediate music, I need them to understand the concept of rubato and how to use it. Even the highly experienced musicians struggle with when to use rubato in their playing and how much to use.

 Another analogy for rubato is to compare it to how we speak. We speed up and slow down our speech to reflect the feelings that inspire the words. We use pacing to emphasize certain words and even silence to highlight others. Rubato has the same effect on music. Without rubato music can feel mechanical and pedantic. Rubato adds an emotional context to music.

Rubato means playing with the elasticity of time - giving and taking time.  Rubato is what gives music a human feel and adds to the emotional experience.  A well-programed computer can play a perfect piano piece - but it can't play with the same feeling that a human can who is using rubato.

Below is a link to a TED Talk by Benjamin Zander.  He talks about how students progress through phases of learning musical expression - like using rubato. Please watch the video.  Let me know your take on it!