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what does rubato mean in music? Everything You Need to Know

metronome with sheet music

Sheet music is filled with symbols and terms of many kinds. Rubato is one of those terms that is important to learn. It is easy to understand, but a bit harder to implement in your piano playing. Nevertheless, you have to start somewhere! In this article, I will teach you everything you need to know about rubato (as well as show you examples of it!)

Meaning of Rubato

Rubato is an italian term that refers to changing the rhythm of a piece to enhance the emotion. Brittanica’s definition sums it up well: “a subtle rhythmic manipulation and nuance in performance.” When utilizing rubato, a performer may do a variety of things like slow down and stretch the rhythm out out to dramatize the piece.

Rubato is generally used in Romantic Music. During the classical music time period, pianists were expected to adhere to strict rhythmic guidelines and structure. But in the romantic period, all of that changed.

Romantic music is more expressive, emotional, and dramatic than the previous musical periods—and rubato is a huge part of that.

Rubato is something that is best implemented when you are really “getting into” a piece. You don’t play rubato simply by slowing down or speeding up rhythm. This can easily be done robotically—and that is not rubato at all.

True rubato is when you do these same things but in a dramatic way that conveys the emotion of the piece. We’ll get into this more when I show you examples, so stay tuned!

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What is Rubato in Music?

Rubato Symbol

There is NOT a specific musical symbol to indicate rubato. Instead, composers will indicate rubato on a piece of music by writing “tempo rubato” or simply “rubato”. This will usually be written at the beginning of a piece. If you are wondering how to notate rubato, this is the way to do it!

However…there is a caveat here. The truth is, not all composers notate rubato.

In fact, there is quite a lot of debate about rubato in the musical world. For example, should a performer use rubato if it is not notated originally?

Before going on, I think it is important to address some things you should consider before adding rubato to a piece that does NOT have it notated on the original music.

notating sheet music on the piano

1. What would the composer do?

The first thing to consider before adding rubato to a piece is whether the composer would’ve done it. Do your research on the composer you are playing. Are there any notes about the way they played their pieces? Were they often dramatic in the their performances?

If you can’t find any information, consider the mood of the piece. Does it lend itself to flexible rhythm and emotional expression? This will be more likely for pieces with a moody, slow feel.

2. Does it fit the style of music?

Next, it is important to consider the style of the piece of music you’re playing. Like I mentioned earlier, music from the romantic period most often uses rubato. A Chopin Nocturne or a Schubert Sonata are great choices to use rubato.

Likewise, music from the Impressionist period is another great option for using rubato. Debussy is an example of a composer from this period. I’ve played many of his pieces, and they lend themselves greatly to rubato.

On the other hand, Baroque & Classical pieces are more strict and do not usually use rubato. It would not be considered “okay” to use rubato in a Bach Fugue, for example.

3. How do “great” pianists play the piece?

It is always a good idea to take a listen to professional performers to see how THEY interpret a piece of music. A lot of rubato does come down to interpretation of a piece.

And yes, this can vary depending on the person. But if you’re a beginner, you can learn a lot from watching great performers like Horowitz or Glenn Gould, for example.

4. What does your teacher say?

Lastly, it is important to consider what your teacher is telling you. This may sound like a given, but let me tell you—it is all too common for students to think they know more than their teacher. (Yes, I know from experience).

If your teacher tells you you are using too much rubato, listen to them! If they are saying you need to use more rubato and get more into the emotions of a piece, listen to them! Teachers usually know what they’re talking about. 😉

More Music Theory to Learn

Examples of Rubato

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for: examples of rubato! It can be hard to understand what rubato is without actually hearing it. Listen closely in the following pieces of music, and read my notes on where the rubato is below.

Chopin Nocturne in C# Minor

First of all, take a listen to this melancholy Nocturne by Chopin. There is a great deal of rubato utilized in this recording. If you listen closely, you will hear that the tempo is not consistent throughout the whole piece. Some portions are faster than others. There is also a lot of rubato used at the beginning and end of phrases to make them more dramatic.

Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque

Suite Bergamasque, written by Debussy, is another great example of Rubato. There are 4 pieces in the suite, and lots of examples of rubato throughout it.

I personally love the first piece (the Prelude). Listen for the tempo changes throughout it! There is also Claire de Lune, a wildly popular piece. Both have lots of rubato.

How to Pronounce Rubato

If you’re unsure how to pronounce this word, check out the video below:

How to Start Utilizing Rubato

So are you ready to start trying to play with rubato? This is something that takes getting used to—especially if you are not used to expressing yourself through music.

I think a lot of times people laugh and giggle at musicians on stage because they look so “silly” with how much they get into the piece.

But the truth is, that is how you make beautiful music! It is tough to express yourself like this in front of a crowd, even if it is just a small piano recital.

I highly recommend first practicing rubato in a room with the door closed. Just you and your intrument. Get into the piece. Don’t be afraid to express yourself through the melodies and show the emotion of the piece in your body.

This is where rubato starts. It is not a robtic thing but a “free” thing.

Once you get used to expressing yourself when you’re alone, then you can open yourself up to doing it in front of people. It is a process. But you’ll get there!

Conclusion

Rubato is one of my favorite musical terms. It is open to a LOT of interpretation, but to me that is the beauty of it. Rubato refers to freedom in music. Don’t be afraid to try it for yourself. Start practicing and you will get it in time!