What Does Rubato Mean in Music?

what-is-rubato-tempo-in-musicRubato is a musical term deriving from the Italian word for “stolen,” fully known as “tempo rubato,” meaning “stolen time.” It refers to the expressive and rhythmic freedom by slightly speeding up or slowing down the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist or conductor, without altering the overall pace.

Rubato allows performers to add a personal touch to the music, emphasizing emotional expression and phrasing. This technique is especially prevalent in Romantic music and solo instrumental performances, where subtle fluctuations in tempo can enhance the music’s expressiveness, depth, and natural flow.

By carefully bending the tempo, performers can convey a range of emotions, making rubato a powerful tool for musical expression.

What is Rubato Tempo in Music?

Rubato, derived from the Italian term “rubare,” meaning “to steal,” is a nuanced musical technique that embodies the art of expressive timing. Often referred to as “tempo rubato,” it invites performers to take liberties with the tempo, subtly speeding up or slowing down, without losing the piece’s overall rhythmic integrity.

This expressive freedom allows for a more personal interpretation of music, emphasizing emotional depth and phrasing. Rubato is a testament to the dynamic relationship between structure and flexibility in musical expression, offering a window into the composer’s intent and the performer’s sensitivity. This complete guide delves into the essence, history, application, and significance of rubato in music.

The Essence of Rubato Definition

At its core, rubato is the practice of deviating from strict tempo to enhance musical expression. It involves a delicate balance, a give-and-take where time “stolen” by slowing down is “given back” by speeding up.

The result is a performance that breathes, moving fluidly with the emotional contours of the piece. Rubato is not a free-for-all alteration of tempo but a carefully measured modulation that respects the composition’s harmonic and rhythmic structure.

Historical Context

The concept of rubato has evolved significantly over time. While the idea of expressive timing exists in music as early as the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was during the Romantic era that rubato found its full expression.

Composers like Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms, among others, wrote music that not only allowed but demanded such expressive freedom. The Romantic emphasis on individual expression and emotional depth made rubato an indispensable tool for performers to convey the nuances of the music authentically.

Application of Rubato

The application of rubato varies across instruments and musical genres. In solo piano works, particularly those of Chopin, rubato is used to create a sense of spaciousness and to highlight melodic lines against a steady accompaniment.

String players might use rubato to emphasize the lyrical quality of a phrase, while vocalists can employ it to bring out the text’s meaning and emotion. Conductors, too, use rubato to shape the phrasing and dynamics of an orchestral performance, guiding the ensemble through collective expressive timing.

Techniques and Considerations

Melodic Emphasis: Rubato often focuses on melodic lines, allowing them to stand out by slightly stretching the tempo.

Harmonic Tension and Release: Changes in harmony can guide the use of rubato, with tension warranting a holding back and release encouraging a move forward.

Collaborative Performance: In ensemble settings, rubato requires keen listening and flexibility among musicians to maintain cohesion.

Respect for Composition: Effective rubato respects the composition’s structure, enhancing rather than obscuring the musical narrative.

The Significance of Rubato

Rubato goes beyond mere tempo manipulation; it’s a reflection of the music’s emotional landscape and a communication bridge between the performer and the audience.

By introducing subtle fluctuations in tempo, performers can mirror the ebb and flow of emotions within a piece, creating a more immersive and moving experience. Rubato also underscores the importance of interpretation in music performance, highlighting the performer’s role as both a technician and an emotive storyteller.

Rubato Across Genres

While most associated with the Romantic era’s classical music, the principles of rubato find echoes in jazz, where timing and rhythm are fluid, and expression is paramount. Even in genres as diverse as folk and contemporary pop, performers may employ rubato-like techniques to lend expressiveness and depth to their interpretations.

Mastering Rubato

Mastering the use of rubato requires a deep understanding of the music, including its harmonic structure, melodic lines, and emotional trajectory. It also demands a high level of technical proficiency and control, as altering the tempo while maintaining musical coherence is no small feat.

Perhaps most importantly, it requires sensitivity and intuition—qualities that allow a performer to connect deeply with the music and convey its essence to the listener.

Challenges and Misconceptions

One of the primary challenges in applying rubato is avoiding excessive or inappropriate use, which can disrupt the music’s flow and coherence.

Misconceptions about rubato, such as viewing it as an excuse for poor timing or as applicable only to certain composers, can also hinder its effective application.

Understanding rubato as an expressive tool, guided by the music’s structure and emotional content, is crucial for its successful integration into performance.


Rubato, with its rich history and expressive potential, remains a vital aspect of musical interpretation. It embodies the delicate dance between the written score and the performer’s emotional insight, offering a means to bring the music to life in a deeply personal way.

Whether through the lingering over a tender melody or the gentle hastening of a joyful passage, rubato allows music to breathe, to speak, and to touch the hearts of listeners.

As both a technical skill and an art form, mastering rubato opens up new dimensions of musical expression, inviting performers and audiences alike into a more nuanced and emotionally resonant musical experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do musicians decide when to use rubato in a piece of music?

Musicians decide to use rubato based on several factors, including the emotional content of the piece, the stylistic conventions of the era or genre, and the individual interpretation of the performer. Rubato is often employed to enhance the expressive quality of music that contains significant emotional depth or lyrical beauty.

The decision to use rubato also involves a deep understanding of the composition’s structure and an intuitive sense of timing and flow, allowing the performer to seamlessly integrate tempo variations without disrupting the overall coherence of the piece.

Can rubato be applied to any musical genre, or is it specific to classical music?

While rubato is most closely associated with classical music, particularly within the Romantic era, its principles can be applied across a wide range of musical genres.

Jazz musicians frequently use rubato for expressive phrasing and timing flexibility. Similarly, performers of folk, pop, and other styles may employ rubato-like techniques to convey emotion and add nuance to their performances. The key is the artful manipulation of tempo to enhance the music’s expressive impact, regardless of genre.

Does the use of rubato require a solo performance, or can it be used in ensemble settings?

Rubato can be effectively used in both solo and ensemble settings. In solo performances, the musician has complete control over the tempo, making it easier to incorporate rubato intuitively.

In ensemble settings, using rubato requires a high level of communication and coordination among the musicians, as they must collectively sense and respond to the tempo changes to maintain unity. Conductors often play a crucial role in guiding orchestras or ensembles through passages where rubato is used, ensuring that all members adjust their timing together.

What are some common misconceptions about rubato?

One common misconception about rubato is that it allows performers to disregard the tempo markings completely, using it as an excuse for inconsistent timing. However, effective rubato requires careful control and a deep understanding of the piece, enhancing rather than detracting from the musical structure.

Another misconception is that rubato is only appropriate for slow, emotional passages. In reality, rubato can be applied to music of any tempo or character, as long as it serves the expressive needs of the piece and is executed with sensitivity and skill.

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