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For some reason (probably read something like this a long time ago), I have it in my head that there was some sort of physiological basis for some note durations. This may have been something like, a whole note (or a breve) is what a singer could be expected to sing with one breath, or a quarter note is related normal breathing/pulse rate etc, or something similar.

The Wikipedia article on tempo indicates

In Renaissance music most music was understood to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus, roughly the rate of the human heartbeat. Which note value corresponded to the tactus was indicated by the mensural time signature.

but I'm suspicious of this (unreferenced) description; my read of it indicates that all Renaissance music would be at (about) 60BPM.

What connections between note durations and physiological features exist in the available historical documentation?

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This question is more about the language/notation/concepts used to refer to music, rather than actual performance. – Dave Aug 1 '12 at 13:38
In today's parlance; consider the range of durations that a quarter note can represent over the range of pieces in 4/4 time: anywhere from close to 2 seconds (or more) to much much less than 1 second. The way in which we "make a song go fast" is viewed as shortening all of the notes. An alternate "conception" would be that instead of shortening all of the notes, instead we making new notes by further dividing of given notes of fixed duration. – Dave Aug 1 '12 at 13:42
This is all pretty conceptual and some artists and composers may take both of these views over time, but it can be kept objective if the focus is on writings that address this kind of concept. – Dave Aug 1 '12 at 13:44
I'm also interested if the idea of fixed note durations has cropped up in non-Western musical traditions. – Dave Aug 1 '12 at 13:47
up vote 1 down vote accepted

It seems that this is a topic that has been debated for some time, since at least the 18th century. Mattheson (quoted in Anthony Newman) suggests that tactus is indeed related to heartbeat. He further says that systolic and diastolic 'beats' can be thought of as up and down beats, as in a 2/2 time signature or similar.

This might have some truth in it, but there are other possible explanations:

The natural inclination to have strong and weak beats originated in poetry and the tendency for language to have stresses on particular syllables.

Perhaps the most interesting idea, again from Newman, referencing an organist called Alden Gilchrist:

It is of interest to note that in elaborate Renaissance vocal music the tactus must be either 60, for duple meter, or 80, for triple meter. The reason we can know this with such certainty is that there is a certain laryngeal technique for producing a rapid series of notes which will only work at one speed, with only the slightest variation for individual differences. This is sometimes called the "trillo technique", or the "chuckle technique". The intrinsic value of the notes produces in this way is always the same. When they fall into groups of eight, the tactus is 60, and when they fall into groups of six, the tactus is 80.

So the rate at which singers can do a "trillo" or "Monteverdi Trill" governed tempi for different meters: a physiological constraint on tempo.

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The basis for note duration is strictly in the context of the piece regardless of any other influences. The time a note is played is relative to the notes preceding it and following it, and if the note is a part of chord etc. The context will determine the physiological influences. There are no rules regarding how long or short a note is to be played other than physical restrictions.

As far as historic documentation, the best source has been Carl Seashore's "Psychology of Music."

This may appear to be a bit dogmatic and I should make some wiggle room here. I think your question is interesting and so are the questions you added in the comments. I am coming at this one as a composer. The main thing I want to convey here is that everything you hear in a piece is relative not absolute. This case of note durations is not so far away from the concept of proportions of shapes in paintings or sculptures or how a director of photography arranges objects in a frame. If we were to attach some psychological basis to note durations we would also have to tweak to include how changes of tempo, change of pitch, texture, and dynamics play a role in this as well and to me that is just something I don't want to think about when composing. What I want to do is get my idea into a sonic form. Perhaps when in the revision stages of writing I might think, geez that note is way too long or not long enough to convey my idea properly, vs my saying to myself, hey that note is way too long or not long enough as it does not meet some psychological criteria.

I think others should offer their opinion on this as well for mine is only one view. Here's something that might offer some more clues?

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I think the OP means during the Renaissance, not during modern times. – American Luke Jul 31 '12 at 20:27
@filzilla I suspect my question didn't convey my intent very well, but I'll look into the "Psychology of Music". – Dave Aug 1 '12 at 13:46

I'm not a huge classical music fan, but I think your suspicion is probably unfounded: Average resting heart rate is in the mid 70s for most people, which is not outside the range of classical music (Adagio - Adagietto).

Heart rate can go up just as a psychological response (excitement, nervousness), emotions which many pieces of music are designed to inspire. Plenty of rousing military-themed pieces have sections where the temp speeds up as the excitement builds, which may be (intentionally or unintentionally) related to heart beat.

Heart rate can also go up quickly with any moderate activity, for example dancing. A reasonably fit person might have a heartbeat between 90 and 110 bpm when dancing a waltz, which is close to the tempo of the music (waltzes are often around 100bpm).

Another physiological reason for a specific beat rate might be that music is related to the speed at which people dance - some speeds are more comfortable than others, depending on your mass/inertia, agility and strength. If the music is too slow, you might have balance problems (need to put your feet down too soon). Too fast, and you just can't keep up (although some people seem to manage). A fast Lindy hop (ok, this isn't classical, but the principles will still apply) might be 150bpm. That's really fast, for even a really fit, agile human. If you go to a Drum and Bass gig (~160bpm), you'll notice that everyone is actually dancing pretty slowly - at half time, 80bpm - because it's basically impossible to dance at 160 for more than a few seconds in any enjoyable way (unless you're jacked up on something, perhaps).

It's also worth noting that your breathing rate is affected by your pace - when walking you usually breath once per step, when jogging or running, this might go up to 2 or 4 times per step, depending on how fit you are. The same happens while dancing, and that will affect what tempos are comfortable for dancing.

Not that not all of this is necessarily conscious design on the part of the composer - there's an evolutionary process at work in music. If a song is enjoyable (for what ever reason, many of which will be physiological), it will be more popular, and more composers will be inclined to emulate it. That's a major part of the reason that most pop music doesn't go much outside the range of 80-110bpm.

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Before voting on this answer (which is largely unreferenced opinion), check out some of the answers on…, which argue that mostly it's not physiological. – naught101 Sep 16 '12 at 5:48

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