Music is essentially about time, about the way a note or a beat picks up on those that went before and sets up those that will come after.
A metronome responds to this essential temporality. It produces a rigid beat to which a musician can refer in order to hold firmly to the temporal “skeleton” of the piece being played: the metronome defines the core temporal flow that organizes the timing of the notes and the beats in the tune.
The metronome marks out the “time” of the piece, but it does it very abstractly and rigidly, very “mathematically.” There is also another time of the piece, a concrete time.
When one is truly playing (or listening) to a piece of music, one does not count “1, 2, 3, 4” in one’s head to know where the beats fall. Instead, one feels the beats: the rhythm is in the music, not imposed upon it, and one feels the time by getting into the music, not by going outside it to an independently defined number line.
And what happens when one plays “by feel” rather than by listening to the metronome? Sometimes the music speeds up; sometimes it slows down. The time, that is, is wrong from the point of view of the metronome, but the time is right from the point of view of the living experience of the music itself. The music “breathes” with its own internal pulse, more like a living being than like a machine.
There is counting in music, and so there is math in music–indeed, it is hard to imagine music without number. Music, however, offers something more than mathematics: in many respects, it is the ways in which it is not math that are what most make music valuable.
First, music is responding to the living pulse of the piece. To respond to something living is much more demanding than counting. It requires flexibility and openness, and the resourcefulness to pull together a unique and unanticipated “answer” to the question posed by the musical situation.
Mathematics and music, in additional to their intrinsic worth, are also both important educationally. Education in mathematics, in addition to offering valuable practical skills, also opens us to the world of the “intelligible”–the structures that lie behind what is immediately perceptible: mathematical education shows us the permanent structures, the “rules,” to which all things answer. Musical education, on the other hand, offers almost the opposite. It educates us into creativity and imagination: into responding precisely in the absence of fixed rule.
Music also introduces us to beauty, the experience of an irreducible worth of a non-replaceable, non-universalizable, particular, concrete thing. It alerts us to the singular worth of the irreducible specificities of our living reality.