What Is Rubato? Inside the Flexibility That’s Revolutionizing Music Production

Unravel the magic of rubato in music. Learn its impact on performances and production, and the controversy it stirs up. Find your rhythm, redefine it.

Ever been caught up in the vibrancy of a live performance, hanging on to each note as it sloshes between the steady tempo? Well, that’s the enchanting move of a seasoned musician dancing their fingers over the keys or strumming their pick on a guitar with an intriguing technique called rubato.

What is rubato? Rubato is a musical term that refers to the temporary and expressive manipulation of a piece of music’s tempo, rhythm, and phrasing. When performers play with rubato, they intentionally deviate from the strict, steady tempo indicated by the written notation. Instead, they allow for subtle fluctuations in the timing of individual notes, phrases, or entire sections, adding a sense of freedom and expressive nuance to the performance.

Does rubato fit any styles of music?

Rubato can fit into many styles of music, but its appropriateness and extent vary depending on the genre, era, cultural context, and specific piece in question. Here’s a look at how rubato is perceived and utilized across different styles:

Image of sheet music.
Image of sheet music.
  • Classical music:
    • Baroque (e.g., Bach, Handel): Generally, there’s a more strict sense of rhythm, but some performers still apply subtle rubato for expressive purposes, especially in more lyrical pieces or movements.
    • Classical (e.g., Mozart, Haydn): While the structure remains crucial, there’s more flexibility than in the Baroque era. Some rubato can be applied, but it should be restrained and not disrupt the overall clarity.
    • Romantic (e.g., Chopin, Schumann, Liszt): This is where rubato is most prominently used. The music of this era is highly expressive, and rubato is often employed to enhance its dynamic qualities.
    • 20th century and contemporary: Depending on the composer and the piece, rubato’s use can vary widely. Some modern compositions might call for a strict rhythm, while others encourage more fluid interpretations.
  • Jazz: Jazz musicians often play with the rhythm, stretching and compressing time in a way that can be similar to rubato. However, in jazz, this rhythmic flexibility is often intertwined with the concepts of “swing” and improvisation.
  • Pop and rock: While these genres generally prioritize a consistent beat (especially with the prevalence of click tracks in recording), some ballads or more expressive songs may incorporate elements reminiscent of rubato, especially during live performances.
  • Blues: The blues, rooted in emotion and personal expression, can sometimes have a free, rubato-like feel, especially in solo vocal or guitar performances.
  • Folk: Depending on the culture and the specific song, some folk music can be free in rhythm, allowing for expressive tempo variations.
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is rubato? Inside the flexibility that's revolutionizing music production | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are the things to consider before using rubato?

“Rubato” is an Italian term that means “robbed,” and in a musical context, it refers to expressive and rhythmic freedom by temporarily speeding up and then slowing down the tempo of a piece, effectively “robbing” time from one note or section and “giving” it to another. The use of rubato can add emotional depth, nuance, and personal interpretation to a performance.

Determining the amount of rubato to use in a musical performance can be subjective, but here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Composer’s intent: Research the composer and the period in which the piece was written. Some composers or periods might be more associated with rubato than others. For instance, Chopin’s music often benefits from rubato, while the use of rubato in a Bach piece might be more restrained.
  • Musical context: Understand the structure and emotional content of the piece. A melancholic, romantic piece might call for more rubato than a lively, rhythmic dance.
  • Technical considerations: Sometimes, the technical challenges in a piece can determine the use of rubato. For instance, a challenging passage might be slightly slowed for clarity, or a particularly expressive phrase might be given more time to breathe.
  • Personal interpretation: At its core, rubato is a personal expressive tool. Different performers will feel and use rubato differently. Trust your intuition and musical judgment. Listen to different recordings of the piece to understand how other performers have approached it.
  • Audience’s reaction: Always be attuned to your audience. Overusing rubato can make a piece feel indulgent or disjointed, while underusing it can make the performance rigid. A balanced use of rubato keeps the audience engaged and emotionally connected to the performance.
  • Collaborative performances: If you’re playing in a chamber group, ensemble, or accompanying a soloist, it’s crucial to communicate and rehearse the rubato sections together. This ensures that everyone is in sync and the performance feels cohesive.
  • Balance: Rubato should feel natural and not forced. Remember that it’s about “borrowing” time; if you take time in one place, it’s often good to return it elsewhere.
  • Practice with a metronome: While this may sound counterintuitive, practicing with a metronome can help you understand where you’re deviating from the written rhythm. This can be particularly helpful in ensuring that your rubato doesn’t disrupt the overall rhythmic integrity of the piece.
Representation of rubato in a sheet music.
Representation of rubato in sheet music.

Who are the artists who used rubato?

Many artists across various genres have used rubato to enhance their musical interpretations. In the realm of classical music, the use of rubato has been especially prominent among composers and performers from the Romantic era. Still, it’s also found in other styles and periods. Here are some notable artists, across genres, known for their use or mastery of rubato:

  • Classical Pianists:
    • Frédéric Chopin: Not only did Chopin’s compositions often call for rubato, but the pianists who played his works frequently used rubato to convey the music’s emotional depth.
    • Vladimir Horowitz: Renowned for his expressive interpretations, especially of Romantic-era works, where he employed rubato masterfully.
    • Arthur Rubinstein: Another master of the Romantic repertoire, Rubinstein’s Chopin interpretations are particularly celebrated.
    • Martha Argerich: Known for her passionate playing, Argerich employs rubato effectively in her performances.
  • Classical Composers:
    • Franz Liszt: Like Chopin’s, Liszt’s compositions often benefit from the judicious use of rubato, especially given their virtuosic and expressive nature.
    • Robert Schumann: His lyrical pieces, especially for the piano, are often played with a sense of rubato.
  • Jazz Artists:
    • Bill Evans: The renowned jazz pianist was known for his lyrical style and subtle time manipulation.
    • Miles Davis: While not rubato in the classical sense, Davis’ phrasing and sense of time were fluid, often playing around the beat in his solos.
  • Vocalists:
    • Maria Callas: The iconic opera soprano was known for her emotional delivery, sometimes stretching or compressing musical phrases for expressive purposes.
    • Ella Fitzgerald: In her ballad singing, Fitzgerald could stretch a phrase or play with time in a way that resembled rubato.

It’s worth noting that while individual artists might be known for their use of rubato, the concept itself is a broader musical tool, and countless performers in various genres have employed it to some extent in their interpretations.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Now, a few questions about rubato might still buzz around your head, so let’s dive into them and clear up any lingering doubts!

Can rubato really lead to better performances?

Absolutely! Rubato can bring out a depth of feeling and add a personal touch to performances that set them apart when used effectively and thoughtfully. However, it’s important to strike a balance and not overuse rubato to the point where it detracts from the composition’s original intent.

Is rubato only for solos, or can it be used in ensemble performances too?

While rubato is generally associated with solo performances, that doesn’t mean it’s off-limits for ensembles. In fact, when an entire ensemble manages to execute rubato cohesively, it can produce incredibly heart-tugging results!

What are some good examples of rubato in modern music?

While rubato has classical roots, it also has a place in modern music. Listen to artists like Norah Jones or John Mayer; they often play around with the timing of their music, expertly adding a tinge of rubato to enhance the emotional impact of their songs.


So, there you have it. We’ve danced with the idea of rubato, spun around with its controversy, and even stretched our understanding to explore its importance in music production! Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below (I read and reply to every comment). If this article struck a chord with you, don’t forget to share it! Check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on this rhythmical fiesta.

Thanks for reading! Keep experimenting with your music and remember: when in doubt, let rubato take the lead, and you’ll hit the right notes—or rhythm, for that matter!

Key Takeaways

This article covered the ins and outs of using rubato in music production. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Rubato is a musical term that allows flexibility in the rhythm of the performance.
  • Rubato can add a unique touch to your music, enhancing its emotional impact.
  • Rubato has stirred up some controversies in the music world; it’s seen as a rebellion by some and a revolution by others.
  • In a home recording studio, Rubato can give your tracks more individuality and fresh vibes.
  • However, overuse of rubato can lead to rhythmic inconsistency and potentially dilute the composer’s intent.

Helpful Resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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