Time in Music and Culture

by Ludwik Bielawski (Author)
©2020 Monographs 406 Pages
Open Access


From Aristotle to Heidegger, philosophers distinguished two orders of time, before, after and past, present, future, presenting them in a wide range of interpretations. It was only around the turn of the 1970s that two theories of time which deliberately went beyond that tradition, enhancing our notional apparatus, were produced independently of one another. The nature philosopher Julius T. Fraser, founder of the interdisciplinary International Society for the Study of Time, distinguished temporal levels in the evolution of the Cosmos and the structure of the human mind: atemporality, prototemporality, eotemporality, biotemporality and nootemporality. The author of the book distinguishes two ‘dimensions’ in time: the dimension of the sequence of time (syntagmatic) and the dimension of the sizes of duration or frequency (systemic). On the systemic scale, the author distinguishes, in human ways of existing and acting, a visual zone, zone of the psychological present, zone of works and performances, zone of the natural and cultural environment, zone of individual and social life and zone of history, myth and tradition. In this book, the author provides a synthesis of these theories.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Prologue
  • 1 Introductory questions
  • 1.1 The anthropological perspective and two hierarchies of time
  • 1.2 Time in Ajdukiewicz’s definition and in the zonal approach
  • 1.3 Zones of time: from theory to history
  • 1.4 Time and space. The ideal world and the material world
  • 2 The zonality of time
  • 2.1 The processual and qualitative aspects of time, the logarithmic law
  • 2.2 A uniform musical scale of pitch, tempo and time
  • 2.3 Natural zones of time in music
  • 2.4 Movement in music and the role of impulses of sudden change
  • 2.5 The question of racial and cultural factors conditioning musical time
  • 3 The zone of note pitches
  • 3.1 The zone of hearing and the zone of musical sounds
  • 3.2 The zone of human voices
  • 3.3 Note pitches in music and in language
  • 3.4 The zone of musical sound
  • 3.5 Perceived roughness
  • 4 The zone of the psychological present
  • 4.1 Upper regions, ‘short times’, units of movement, syllables and phonemes
  • 4.2 Central regions, ‘long times’, basic metrical units
  • 4.3 Lower regions, measures and phrases
  • 4.4 Indian rhythm theory
  • 4.5 Music and language as sound systems
  • 4.6 Music as the transformation of human movement
  • 5 The zone of works and performances
  • 5.1 The range of the zone and a synthetic table
  • 5.2 The zone of microworks
  • 5.3 The central regions of the zone of works
  • 5.4 The zone of medium and long works
  • 5.5 The multiple levels of time and the segmentation of melody
  • 6 The zone of ecological time
  • 6.1 The cycles of ecological time
  • 6.2 The temporal environment of Black Africa
  • 6.3 Sacred time and secular time
  • 6.4 The temporal environment of the Middle Ages
  • 6.5 The temporal environment and music
  • 7 The zone of individual and social life
  • 7.1 The zone of the time of human ontological development
  • 7.2 The temporality of the existential level in psychology
  • 7.3 The psychology of musical development
  • 7.4 The course of life and phases in creative work
  • 7.5 Age groups as a measure of time
  • 7.6 The period of human life and musical folklore
  • 7.7 ‘Structural time’ and tradition
  • 7.8 Shallow history, the example of Finnish folk music
  • 7.9 On happiness in life
  • 8 The zone of historical time and worldview
  • 8.1 The tempo of historical changes and the logarithmic scale
  • 8.2 The zonal character of historical time
  • 8.3 The ‘circling of times’
  • 8.4 Historical time in the Christian Middle Ages
  • 8.5 The Darwinian revolution in the understanding of history
  • 9 Time and space
  • 9.1 Le Corbusier’s modulor and music
  • 9.2 The modulor and the twelve-degree scale
  • 9.3 The sense of the discretisation of space in the modulor
  • 9.4 Neutral human size
  • 9.5 Humans in the scale of time and space
  • 9.6 Time and space and the difficulties with classifying the arts
  • 9.7 Spatial aspects in music
  • 10 Levels of time and levels of existence
  • 10.1 Levels of knowledge
  • 10.2 Anthropology of art
  • 10.3 Ethnochoreology
  • 10.3.1 Text
  • 10.3.2 Process
  • 10.3.3 Context
  • 10.4 An example of a musical form, an instrument and a work of art
  • 10.4.1 The atemporal, nominal level
  • 10.4.2 The prototemporal, ordinal level
  • 10.4.3 The eotemporal, intervallic level
  • 10.4.4 The biotemporal level; the present, past and future
  • 10.4.5 The level of artistic events, participation
  • 10.4.6 The level of the natural and cultural environments
  • 10.4.7 The level of individual and communal life
  • 10.4.8 The level of our vision of the world, time beyond time
  • Epilogue
  • List of examples
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The dispute over time has recurred in philosophy and learning for centuries. It has concerned in particular the objective and relative nature of time. Newton, for example, taught that ‘absolute, true, mathematical time flows on by virtue of its own nature, uniformly, and unrelated to any outward circumstance’.1 That view was fundamentally revised by Einstein, who showed the relativity of time and space and their dependence on matter. In Einstein’s own words, the meaning of the theory of relativity is as follows: ‘It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relativity theory, however, time and space disappear together with the things’.2 In demonstrating the relativity of time and space and their dependence on the point of reference, Einstein had in mind objective systems, independent of man. Fascinated by philosophical views and scientific advancements, art theorists sometimes forget about their own system of reference, which makes them humanists and not scientists. For humanists, that system of reference will always be humans, the way they exist in time and space, the way they observe and sense time and space, and the way they organise time and space, as documented in the products of their own activity, one of the crucial manifestations of which is artistic activity, including music.

Even if Einstein’s theory to all intents and purposes shows the relativity of time and space only at velocities close to the speed of light, which allows us to treat our terrestrial time as absolute and constant, the postulate of the human point of reference in research into musical time has remained current. Whilst emphasising the fundamental difference that arises between the scientific and humanistic approaches to aspects of time, by no means do I wish to maintain that the adoption of that human perspective necessarily leads to subjective, unverifiable statements and to abandoning at the very outset the chief postulates of a branch of learning that aspires, after all, to establishing objective results. Although we have no proof of the boundless possibilities of scientific methods in relation to the problems of humans, their awareness of their own existence, their activities, notions, convictions, motives, etc., there certainly remains plenty of scope for objective methods and scientific study. As I see it, that objectivity in relation to musical time will be ensured by two basic factors: basing our enquiry ←9 | 10→not on introspection, but on the observation of human behaviours, concretised in temporal musical and non-musical products, and comparing data with an objective scale of physical time.

The antinomy between the astronomical measure of time, from which the division of clock time derives, and the internal time of humans was already sensed by St Augustine, writing in his Confessions: ‘in te, anima mea, tempora metior’ (‘it is in you, my mind [my soul], that I measure periods of time’).3 And it will hardly be barbaric to attempt to express that measure of the human soul or mind in the form of numbers and physical quantities, since humans reveal that measure in the products of their soul, and perhaps most distinctly in music.

This book arose during my work at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where successive directors have created favourable conditions for me to develop my individual research concepts, for which I am profoundly grateful.

I thank all those people from whom I have learned; those with whom I was fated to work and those who consider themselves to be my pupils.

Thank you for the TIME we have shared.

←10 | 11→

1 Quoted in Trattner 1942, 383.

2 Quoted in Spielvogel 2008, 452.

3 Augustine 2008, 242.

1 Introductory questions

1.1 The anthropological perspective and two hierarchies of time

The anthropology of music is the study of all manifestations of music in the world, irrespective of the degree to which that music is developed and how it functions in culture. It focusses on man’s musical capabilities, exploited and developed in various ways in different cultures. Music anthropology is an emerging field of study, still seeking its own identity. Awareness of the need to establish it is quite widespread, but there is no agreement over the way that goal might be achieved. Great hopes are often invested in the experience and achievements of the most dynamic humanistic disciplines, which in recent decades have included modern linguistics and the related, but more general, field of semiology. Without negating the substantial and hitherto underexploited possibilities afforded by those disciplines, one must realise that different needs motivated their emergence and development. Consequently, when referring to music, they often impose an approach that is alien to its nature. There is also potential, of course, in interdisciplinary research into humans and human culture, including music. However, by no means do they lead in a natural way to the forming of syntheses; in practice, they increasingly expand the horizons of observation, multiply perspectives and tend to obscure the overall picture. It is my personal opinion that some positive effects may accrue from a return to the most basic categories of human thinking, action and existence in the world, which certainly include the categories of time and space. They are strongly linked to one another and interdependent. I will focus mainly on time, and more specifically on two hierarchies of time, which I believe may be of considerable service to contemporary musical knowledge. I have in mind here the concept of temporal zones, which I explored in more detail in earlier studies, and the interpretative proposition advanced by the American scholar Julius T. Fraser, presented in the natural philosophy of time, called the principle of temporal levels. These two concepts have completely different points of departure, but the same overall aims. Fraser distinguished the basic levels of nature, the temporalities of which are sustained by a given environment (Umwelts), and he stated that these natural temporal levels are also perpetuated in the structure of the human mind. Fraser passes from analysis of nature to humans and human culture, and he even touches on music. As for myself, I began with detailed analysis of time in music and arrived at the ←11 | 12→time of humans and human culture, at the most coming close to the time of nature. I realised just how complementary these concepts were thanks to the Dutch psychologist John A. Michon, who commented on Fraser’s concept in an original and creative way. Fraser’s concept of temporal levels is in principle an integral concept and much broader than my own. According to its author, all temporal phenomena can only be described in terms of the temporalities that he distinguished. I was not driven by such ambitions. On the contrary, I deliberately confined myself to the issues which seemed to me insufficiently diagnosed in the theory and philosophy of music and man.

The hierarchy of temporal levels is essentially very simple. It involves enhancing time with new temporal properties on a succession of ever higher levels or, conversely, reducing the properties of time as one descends onto increasingly lower temporal levels. Five such levels can be distinguished:

1 on the lowest level, the nominal, atemporal level, only simultaneity exists;

2 on the ordinal, prototemporal level, temporality is enhanced by the order of time, by succession;

3 on the intervallic, eotemporal level, the foregoing properties are joined by measurable sizes of time: duration and frequency;

4 not manifest until the organic, biotemporal level are the present, separating past and future, and the opposition between a living organism and its environment;

5 distinguished on the mental, nootemporal level are personal identity and an awareness of beginnings and ends. It is only here that the meaning of time for humans is fully revealed, in their individual and social life and in their worldview.

Music belongs to this last level, but is not confined to it, since the human mind has the capacity to descend onto lower temporal levels, as is reflected in our understanding of musical phenomena.

There is a general awareness of the hierarchy of temporal zones. It is manifest in the superiority and inferiority of the levels of temporal organisation. Each level employs a characteristic range of temporal sizes – a characteristic zone of time. Sounds on a higher level of organisation merge into motifs with their own temporal zone, motifs combine into phrases, also with their own temporal zone, phrases into sentences, sentences into periods and so on, until we reach a full musical utterance in the form of a work as a whole. As we pass onto a higher level of organisation, whilst gaining understanding, we lose information. We are less aware of the hierarchy of higher-order temporal zones, which is formed by the following:←12 | 13→

1 the zone of the psychological present and of musical language,

2 the zone of musical works and events,

3 the zone of ecological time and the musical environment,

4 the zone of individual and social life,

5 the zone of history, myth and tradition.

These zones illuminate the problem of music and reveal its various meanings in a specific way.

The question arises as to whether such a general approach can really be successfully applied to music. Well, it appears that it can, as I have expressed in an earlier work published under the title Strefowa teoria czasu i jej znaczenie dla antropologii muzycznej [A zonal theory of time and its significance for music anthropology].4 So can we speak of music anthropology as something existing and perpetuated in learning? I have my doubts. Admittedly, there are a number of works with such a title, including Alan P. Merriam’s The Anthropology of Music.5 Merriam combined two disciplines, cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology, to produce his anthropology of music. For him, anthropology was something obvious, and he felt no need to define it. What he saw as new and requiring definition was ethnomusicology. Compared to the rich anthropological literature, the literature covered by the name ethnomusicology seemed to him to be poor and less firmly established in theoretical terms. Merriam sought support in the established field of cultural anthropology, expanding its scope to include a subject that tended to be overlooked: music. He certainly did not argue that this was the only justified direction to research. On the contrary, he considered that the complex character of the object of study, with its dual anthropological and musicological aspects, justified approaching the problem from both angles. Traditionally, most published studies from the field of ethnomusicology were biased towards musicological issues, and that has essentially remained true to this day. Merriam consciously adopted the other perspective, approaching the subject mainly from the anthropological angle, and that was his original contribution to, and at the same time justification for, redefining the discipline as music anthropology.

Although my own thinking followed different paths, they led to a convergence in the titles of our studies. For me, the starting point was rather traditional musicological study, but combined with a certain wariness of the research methods employed in musicology and a criticism of its theoretical ←13 | 14→assumptions. The evolutionist, cultural-historical, functional and structuralist trends in ethnomusicology seemed to me to be one-sided, limited, offering too narrow a view of the task at hand, intolerant of other perspectives, too opinionated and overconfident, although by no means were they always the best grounded in theory. To me, it seemed most advisable to return to the sources and reconsider them, hence my own interest in such fundamental notions as time, space and movement in relation to music. My research into time convinced me that humans had their own perspective of time, proper to them as representatives of a particular species, setting the limits to their temporal behaviours, including their musical behaviours. For me, the most important issues were human capacities and how people realise them in different cultures, traditions, styles and individual preferences. They place people and their capacities at the centre of research, and that is the main justification for defining that research as anthropology. So music anthropology would be the study of human capacities; in this case, the capacities for musical behaviours limited in various ways and developed in different cultures and at different times. In this approach, music anthropology does not refer to a specific type of culture, such as primitive, traditional or more developed non-European cultures, as the scope of ethnomusicology was usually defined. The focus of music anthropology ought to be every kind of music. In practice, the European art music tradition is considered to a lesser extent. However, that results not from the premises of music anthropology, but from the specific situation and tradition of musicological research, which has often been confined to European art music. The need to expand the research perspective moves one to take account of those kinds of music which have often been passed over on principle by musicological research.

Yet anthropological study is distinguished not just by its different scope. Music anthropology approaches issues such as comparison in a different way. Comparative research is widely used in the human sciences. It reveals shared features and differences between the objects compared. In anthropological research, such comparisons are insufficient, and differences and common features are reduced to the common denominator that is man, to human capacities for musical behaviours manifest in various cultures and various styles, which always set constraints on human capacities.

The term ‘constraint of diversity’ perhaps requires explanation, so that it is not misunderstood. I admit to introducing it as a matter of principle, in order to oppose a practice that is quite widespread in the human sciences, involving the abuse of such generalisms as ‘richness’ and ‘diversity’ that reveals the immaturity of many research projects. For this reason, I think it will be safer to refer to music ←14 | 15→anthropology the statements on science in general contained in W. Ross Ashby’s An Introduction to Cybernetics:

So one should not seek diversity or richness and conclude one’s research by establishing their existence. Science, if it is to be science, must seek that which constrains that diversity. The more constraints there are on diversity, the greater will be the wealth of information; the more constraints there are on diversity, the more distinct tendencies will emerge. We deal with various constraints on diversity in music anthropology. The first constraint is the human perspective, human capacities for musical behaviours, which are so diverse in various cultures and yet possess a common, human denominator. From that perspective, culture is the constraint of diversity. No culture makes use of the full range of human capacities. Human capacities encompass all the cultures that exist, have existed or could come to exist in the world. Diversity is constrained by every style, every artistic trend, every fashion, every individual preference, every genre, every work, every performance, every formal property and every quality.

The term ‘music anthropology’ is justified also by the fact that such research deals not with music in general, with what music is in itself, but with what it is in relation to humans, seen from their normal perspective. Scientific methods are not excluded from research in music anthropology. On the contrary, they are put to suitable use. Yet it is important to realise that music is music only when referred to humans. Science has the capacity to alter its research perspectives. A special apparatus attuned to different parameters than those which apply to humans may show music from a different perspective. This occurs, for example, with the use of acoustic measuring devices, which are entirely different to the human perceptual apparatus. So not all music theory is covered by the anthropological perspective. Acoustics, defining musical phenomena from a different perspective than the human point of view, may facilitate our study and understanding of musical phenomena. However, its assertions do not directly concern phenomena seen from a human perspective.

←15 | 16→

Humans can be cognised partly through the products of their activities. The products of musical activities are also dealt with by music history. In historical research, facts are ordered in a particular way, in segments along the line of historical time. The primacy of that perspective is characteristic of the last centuries in our learning and culture. Its importance is unquestionable, but at the same time the limitations and one-sidedness of the historical perspective are becoming increasingly manifest, as is the possibility, and even the necessity, of complementing it with the anthropological perspective. The anthropological perspective requires that we pose different questions. For such a perspective, historical facts are merely individual examples of human capabilities. History distinguishes facts, whilst the anthropological perspective attempts to account for them conjointly and arrive at their pan-human foundations. Hence the main question concerns not what separates human behaviours, but what links them. It is not the diversity of facts itself that is essential, but what constrains that diversity, and constraints emerge from human capacities. Culture brings to them its own limitations. The anthropological perspective requires that pan-human limitations be distinguished from cultural limitations; it requires that cultural limitations be shown within the framework or against the background of pan-human limitations.

The term ‘music anthropology’ is also justified by an understanding of the object of research as not confined to musical matters as narrowly conceived, but taking account of a broad cultural context; ethnological or cultural anthropological aspects are paramount here and require theoretical generalisation. Yet there is no single theory of music. Every theory is to a considerable extent historically conditioned; it is linked to a specific development in the music that it seeks to interpret. If a uniform theory of music existed, it would be an anthropological theory. Yet it would have to be verifiable in every stylistic period and in every cultural area. It would be a very general theory, in which all previous theories would constitute specific examples of the possibility of constructing theoretical systems and would be subject to interpretation within the framework of such a metatheory.

Hitherto, theories of music have been severely limited not only in historical terms, but also with regard to the objects of study. They have dealt mainly with the relations between sounds in musical works. Such theories are only partial theories. A theory should concern everything that can be studied in music, so also man’s relationship with music, the shaping of a cultural musical environment, the influence of music, its role in the life of individuals and social groups, assessments of music, historical and cultural change, and so on. All observable phenomena linked to music require theoretical generalisation.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (November)
Zonality Temporality Space Psychological Present Time Zones Folk Music
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 406 pp., 36 fig. col., 85 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Ludwik Bielawski (Author)

Ludwik Bielawski is ethnomusicologist and music theorist. He is Professor in the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music. His works focus on the musical folk traditions of Poland and Europe, and also on theoretical aspects of time and space in music and in culture.


Title: Time in Music and Culture
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408 pages