Know Your Music: Tempo Rubato as a Persuasive Technique

When you lay on a couch and listen to Chopin, you’re bound to notice something very specific. One of the things that makes a Chopin piano piece is the lingering resonance and/or the quick succession of certain notes or phrases. There’s a technical term for that. It’s called “tempo rubato.” (If you’re burning to hear an example, try Martha Argerich’s performance of Nocturne No. 16 in E Flat, Op 55, No. 2.)

I would suggest (and I do) that tempo rubato is a rhetorical technique within the form of musical performance. It is a style meant to express improvisation and feeling. . . pathos. By speeding up, we are hurried through the piece and by slowing down we are forced to contemplate that musical phrase. Like any good romantic period piece, it emotes and manipulates. Tempo rubato manipulates its audiences into feeling differently than if the piece were kept in strict time.

I know, I know–you may be asking yourself why this is important. Why does it matter what it’s called as long as it’s effective, right?  Well, I guess I’m kind of a music geek (I did minor in it), but the effect that music has on our current society is undeniable. Don’t you think?

How many musicians have benefited from Apple commercials using their songs (The Ting Tings, Yael Naim, CSS, Prototypes, etc.) or car/alcohol/sports commercials (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Young Dubliners, etc):

(Which, I am a fan of Spread Your Love by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It’s definitely a driving-in-your-car-feeling-bad-ass song.)

Music is used to add to other persuasive forms/arguments/compositions, yes. It’s used in movies, tv, commercials, grocery stores, department stores, etc., etc., but music also has its own persuasive techniques within itself. I once learned in some music class which I can’t pin down that what most people were drawn to most of the time was the use contrast and repetition. That’s why songs on the Top 40 lists follow the same basic format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus.

This is where tempo rubato comes in. This technique is used to offer that contrast which maintains a person’s interest while repeating a phrase that we’ve already heard. It draws us in because there is familiarity and keeps us there because there are slight changes. It persuades us to keep listening.


I’m in love. And it’s with a website. Perhaps I just have music on the brain lately, but I came across a site called Musopen. I don’t know how many other people this completely applies to, but I’m wicked excited.

You see, I’ll think that a particular classical piece would be extremely well suited for say an audio or video piece, and while the piece itself is no longer copyrighted, the performance of that piece typically is. So, you usually just can’t use it unless you want to risk a cease and desist order or even worse–a law suit.

I suppose I could gather 50 of my closest friends together for our own little performance, but have you ever seen that many musicians together in one place? The geekiness sticks to you for weeks. And then somebody brings up band camp and it’s all downhill from there, but I digress.

Musopen, however, has gone out specifically to make recordings of some of these classics in order to be copyright-free. As in public domain, as in no copyright infringement when you want to use that piece that you should be able to use!

I’m excited. Like super excited. So, while you’re making a video or audio piece for Harlot and fall into the same conundrum or if you were just looking for some very copyright free ambient music, then check out the site.

Oh, and you can also bid to raise funds for the piece that you want the professionals to record. If I really had my way then that’d be the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major (especially the 3rd movement), but considering that it’s one of the top 3 hardest pieces to play and the cost of finding somehow to play that would ginormous, I’ll just support Debussy right now. You can pick your own, but, you know, Debussy . . . ’tis awesome (and cheap).

Victor Borge

Victor Borge was a classically trained pianist, but fantastically funny comedian as well. The thing about Borge was that he knew how to manipulate and communicate with his audience in a humorous way on the piano. He didn’t even need to speak in order to be funny.

For instance, the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1:

But when he did speak, he knew how to manipulate his stories and language in order to underline the sometimes inadequate nature of it.

But, seriously, the man could play.

I just the love the way that he was able to be so creative with some of the most common, everday things. We hardly even think about “happy birthday,” but when it shows up in Tchaikovsky, we’re all thinking about it.