The Concept of Duration

Duration is the concept that refers to tempo, rhythm, beat and meter. The word duration actually means the length of time that something lasts, so in music this refers to the length of sounds and of silences. Duration is shown clearly in modern musical notation as various types of notes and rests that appear on a staff (5 parallel lines) to indicate how long these events last.

  • Tempo – the speed in beats per second that measures the music’s progress. Important Italian terms used are

  • Accelerando - the music is gradually speeding up

  • Ritardando – the music is gradually slowing

  • Rubato – the speed fluctuates on a micro level but remains constant to the overall tempo

  • There are specific words that describe speed, from slow to fast e.g. Lento, Adagio, Andante, Moderato, Allegro, Presto.

  • Rhythm – the length of musical sounds and silences, the resulting patterns of short and long phrases, and the arrangement of these patterns within a piece of music.

  • Beat – The underlying pulse that relates to where the recurring strong beats fall. These beats may not be sounded but implied by the motion of the rhythm. The beat may be syncopated resulting in accents, or strong beats, falling on the offbeats within a measure.

  • Meter – The groupings of notes into patterns of accented and unaccented beats. The meter is displayed using the time signature. The top number tells us how many beats, the bottom the type of beats. Bar lines are used to divide written music into bars (or measures) so that each contain the same number and quality of beats as stated in the time signature. Common time (4/4) is the most popular meter. Other meters include ¾, 6/8, 12/8. There are a number of complex meters that are commonly used by North African, Eastern European and Asian cultures. Some types of music have an absence of meter.

When you are asked a question concerning the concept of duration use the following points to focus your discussion.


  • Measure the tempo by counting how many beats fall in a 10 second period, then multiply this by 6 to give the beats per minute or bpm.

  • Check to see that the tempo remains at the same speed throughout, if it doesn’t observe where in the structure of the piece that the changes occur and describe them.

  • Is the beat strongly defined, can you hear clearly where it falls. Notice if it is constant or fluctuates throughout the piece.

  • Notice where the accents fall and deduce what the time signature is. Certain styles have tendencies towards particular meters so you can often cut down the number of alternatives e.g. rock and pop usually use 4 crotchet beats to the bar (4/4).

  • Analyze the piece from start to finish using the structure as a template to discuss duration. Within each of these sections notice and notate the following:

    • The number of bars.

    • The feel of the rhythm (use adjectives).

    • Name the rhythmical instruments and their level of activity.

    • Do the rhythms of one instrument have a relationship with other rhythms? Do they form polyrhythms, do they imitate each other, do they call and answer each other.

    • Discuss the rhythm in terms of note values and phrase lengths, if possible notate examples, notice and mention if there are ostinati.