Speed in Music, Brain and Body

Date and time: 1 December 2017. 15:30-17:00

Location: 1.01A Universiteitstheater. Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16.

Speaker: Ned McGowan (Pursuing artistic research PhD at Leiden University; Professor of composition, ensembles and advanced rhythm and pulse at Utrecht Conservatory )

Piano demonstration by Laurens de Boer

Speed in Music, Brain and Body

Ned McGowan

Leiden University

In this presentation, the physical and cognitive experience of speed in music is explored. Organic to all cultures, music is not only an emergent property of the timing mechanisms of the brain (Craig, 2009) but also a manifestation of who we are, how we think and how we feel. The engagement of brain and body with sound reflects the temporal functions of physical, cultural and personal identities. Thus, much can be learned about another by simply listening to their music.

Organic to music is time; without time, there is no music. Nonetheless, the phenomenon of time with its broad implications in the sciences tells little about our experiences. The concept of speed, though, is full of enlightening character. Take some common terms to describe tempo in music: largo (broadly), adagio (slow and stately), allegro (fast, quickly and bright), vivacissimo (very fast and lively). Speed is relational and reveals aspects of how we think and feel. It is innately human.

Short musical recordings explore the full range of musical speed, from sounds placed into stasis to entire symphonies repeated at a frequency beyond the range of human detection, demonstrating how the identity of music undergoes various metamorphoses as the temporal scale is altered. Additional examples demonstrate the direct expressivity of speed in relation to temporal resolution, reflecting one of Olivier Messiaen’s three laws of experienced duration:

“… the more events in the present, the shorter our experience of duration for that moment in the present; the fewer events, the longer our experience of duration.” (Delaere, 2009)

Based on artistic and pedagogic experience, the arguments consider the embodiment of rhythm and duration as experienced by practicing musicians. Questions such as how cognition and kinesthesia cooperate to measure time, and the relationship between emotions and speed are discussed from the musical perspective.

This presentation will also include a performance on piano by Laurens de Boer.

Keywords: speed, music, resolution, neuropsychology, embodiment


Craig, A. (2009). Emotional moments across time: a possible neural basis for time perception in the anterior insula. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,364(1525), 1933-1942. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0008

Delaere, M. (2009). Tempo, Metre, Rhythm. Time in Twentieth-Century Music. Unfolding time: studies in temporality in twentieth-century music, 31 (D. Crispin, Ed.). Leuven: Leuven Univ. Press.

Roads, C. (2004). Microsound. MIT Press.

Ned McGowan (1970) is a flutist and contemporary classical music composer, born in the
United States, living in the Netherlands. Known for rhythmical vitality and technical
virtuosity, his music has won awards and been performed at Carnegie Hall, the
Concertgebouw and other halls and festivals around the world by many orchestras, ensembles
and soloists. As a flutist he plays classical, contemporary and improvisation concerts
internationally and he has a special love for the contrabass flute, in 2016 releasing the
album: The Art of the Contrabass Flute.

Ned is a professor of composition, ensembles and Advanced Rhythm and Pulse at the Utrecht
Conservatory. He holds degrees in composition from the Royal Conservatory Den Haag and
in flute from the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Ned is currently pursuing an artistic research PhD about speed, frame and time in music at
the Leiden University and the DocARTES program in Ghent.