On Pacing, Saying Something, And Music

I’ve been thinking about pacing. In running, pacing is a matter of speed: take the wrong pace–a pace that’s too fast or too slow–and you’ll soon be in trouble. Good pacing is a matter of listening to your energy level and adjusting accordingly. As you warm up, your pace can increase considerably, as if in tune with the exuberance of swift motion itself.


In blogging, tweeting, and with social media in general, pacing is a matter of interval–how often one speaks and broadcasts to others. Talk too often and you can become annoying; talk not often enough and your activity loses its presence. These two poles of pacing inform sharing content via the web. What’s the optimal pace?


In music, pacing is not the same as the tempo or speed of the piece. Nor is it a matter of density–how beats are subdivided into say, eighth- or sixteenth-note slices. As I’m thinking of it, pacing in music is more amorphous–it has to do with saying something and also the rate at which this saying changes over time. Pacing, in other words, is the speed and quality of growth as measured by our sense that something has been stated.

What exactly is this something stated? It can be a melody, a rhythmic insistence, a harmonic tension, a set of proportions or relations, a timbre. Or–even more interestingly–it can be a general feeling that is conveyed: a sensation felt and remembered even after the music has stopped sounding. The important thing is that whatever seems to have been said makes perfect sense in the context of the sounding music. Put another way, the music’s content and form are in synergetic balance.

Here’s a piece I’ve been enjoying lately. It’s “OH” by the electronic duo Plaid. The piece throws out a few perceptual curve balls, beginning as it does in what feels like an unstable 4/4 meter at 98 bpm, which then reveals itself to be a 6/8 meter at 144 bpm. Soon the numerous oscillating layers of the music are revealing their relationships, and the piece settles into saying its own something:

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