How to add rubato to your piece

By Melanie Spanswick


Rubato means ‘robbed’ time or taking time for expressive purposes. Some refer to it as ‘bending time’; it is essentially creating moments of rhythmic flexibility. Unlike a ritenuto which is used to indicate a slowing down at the end of a phrase, rubato is used as an expressive ‘shaping’ which forms part of a musical phrase. It usually signifies a minuscule speeding up followed by a slowing down of the tempo of a piece. Rubato is used liberally by most musicians, particularly singers, and pianists. However, we need to use it with care because excessive tempo changes tend to render a piece unrhythmical. 


Here are a few ideas to consider when adding rubato to your piece. 


  1. Start by playing your piece rhythmically, devoid of any tempo changes. To ensure a strict pulse, employ your metronome and aim to play through from the beginning to the end of the piece, noting how it feels to play precisely to the beat or ‘tick’. You’ll probably notice that your performance sounds robotic without any tempo changes at all. 
  2. Now identify a passage in the piece that you wish to shape by taking time; the frequency of such passages will depend on the style or genre of your piece. If you’re playing a work by J S Bach or W A Mozart, you will need minimal rubato, as Baroque and Classical works generally require a firmer tempo. However, if you are playing a Romantic piece, for example, those by Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Brahms, tasteful rubato will be necessary to ensure an elegant, stylistic interpretation. 
  3. Once you’ve selected your passage/s, decide which type of rubato you need; if you are playing a Chopin Nocturne, you may want the accompaniment to keep a regular pulse whilst the melody assumes some flexibility. Or you may prefer to allow both the melody and accompaniment to momentarily stray from the rhythmic pulse – this approach offers the music time to ‘breathe’ and is a popular choice in Romantic music, where emotional expression is paramount. 
  4. Begin with the melody; to ‘feel’ the phrase and understand exactly where you need to take time, try to sing it. You might notice, when singing, that you want to take time over a particular note or small group of notes, creating a ‘nuance’ or a momentary breathing space within the phrase. Another helpful method is to ‘speak’ a sentence and note your vocal inflections depending on your ‘feeling’ behind the words; sometimes you’ll take time over a certain word in your sentence, whilst other words will be spoken more swiftly and with relatively little consideration. Now translate such nuances to your melody. 
  5. The left-hand accompaniment (if there is one in your piece) can follow by ‘breathing’ at the same moment, slowing the phrase for just a millisecond or two. Now try the same passage again and this time aim to keep the left-hand accompaniment in time, whilst encouraging a little flexibility in the right-hand melody.

Tenuto marks, agogic accents (accentuation by lengthening a note), accelerando, and rallentando are all synonymous with incremental time changes associated with rubato. They are also worth exploring, if appropriate in your chosen piece. 


Melanie Spanswick