There are some pieces of music that work very well when played without keeping a consistent tempo, in popular music I'm thinking of songs such as Colorblind by Counting Crows or the intro to Shanghai by Andy McKee. These are songs that speed up and slow in a sort of rhythm, almost like drawing breath.

Is there a name for this in music? The closest I could find was A piacere, but as far as I could tell that really means that the musician picks a tempo when they start to play, not that the tempo should regularly change throughout the piece. Perhaps I'm wrong here


2 Answers 2


Rubato is a good term for the sort of micro-speedups and slowdowns that you're talking about, but it isn't a word for songs that sound good when performed that way, it's a term for the performance style. Some composers will explicitly write rubato or "Tempo rubato" in a score, but there are plenty of times when it's appropriate performance technique even when not actually specified.

Technically, rubato means "stolen time", and, at least theoretically, any accelerations the performer introduces should be balanced out by ritardandos elsewhere. In the most extreme interpretation, the song should take exactly as long to play as it would if played in strict time, because every deviation from strict tempo is erased by a counter-deviation elsewhere. The necessity for this practice varies along a continuum from relatively important to completely unimportant depending on genre and time period.

Admittedly, it sounds a little weird to apply such a classical term to rock songs, but I can't think of a better one.

  • Rubato HAS a beat, but it stretches. It isn't the right term for music completely free from a beat.
    – Laurence
    Jan 5, 2019 at 15:15
  • I'm not sure if there is such a thing as "music completely free from a beat", and that doesn't seem to be what OP is talking about anyway. Jan 5, 2019 at 17:26

I've just listened on YouTube to the two songs you mention. If notating the intro to "Shanghai" I might write "Freely". Any time signature I chose would be arbitrary, there is no real beat or pulse to the music.

"Colorblind" has a beat, but it slows down at the end of each phrase. There are occasional half-hearted attempts to "pay back" the time by speeding up again, but they don't add up to true Rubato (though many musicians might use that term loosely about it).

There are many ways and many degrees of not following a strict beat. I can't think of a useful general description other than "not strictly in tempo".

Rubato HAS a beat, but it stretches. It isn't the right term for music completely free from a beat.

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