Timing is an important element in music as well as comedy. A great comedian knows how to build up to the punch line of a joke . Similarly, great composers have an intuitive understanding of proportion in music. They know how long to repeat an idea before moving on. They allow the music to unfold organically in a way that seems “right”, as if the piece is composing itself.
As musicians, we also have to consider timing. How are the notes working together to create a phrase, or musical sentence? How long should a note be stretched? Should the music sit back on the beat or have a sense of being right on top of the beat? How do we group notes to create a sense of flow? James Morgan Thurmond wrote an interesting book on this subject called Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance.
Top instrumentalists and pop artists alike have mastered the art of timing. Listen to the way the young Michael Jackson shapes each syllable in a flowing and expressive way in the The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit, “I’ll Be There.” His performance coveys a natural and powerful sense of timing, right down to the release of each “there” in the repetitions of the chorus at the end of the song. Or listen to Broadway legend Barbara Cook shape the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”
Violinist Isaac Stern summed up the importance of timing the following way in an interview: “Music in essence is what is happening between the printed notes, not on the notes themselves. How in that milli-milli-millisecond of time in going from one note to another note do you do what you do? Instinctively, thoughtfully, with head, heart, taste, and talent.”
Watch Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Think about how it may be similar to the flow, development and timing of a musical performance. The routine centers around the confusion which ensues when players on a baseball team happen to have unusual last names such as “Who”, “What”, and so on…