Accounting for the offbeat

One reason I gave up the piano after a couple of years is that I could never get the notes on paper to sound correctly inside my head: they were all there, but they fell all over each other, as though they’d just been shoveled in with no regard to tempo. Actual musicians, however, can keep track of these things:

If musicians always played the music in front of them exactly as scored, it could be dull. And, they aren’t automatons — they hear a piece in their own particular way and want to express what it means to them and they have plenty of freedom to do this, within limits. We, the audience, give them that freedom, and also adjust whatever internal metronomes we listen to music with (even those of us who failed 4th grade music have developed a sense of timing) to go with the flow of the music we’re listening to — within limits. This is the rubato. But there are limits, and apparently they are internalized.

According to Wing et al., musicians use linear phase correction to regain synchronicity with either other musicians or with the tick of a metronome. That is, they know when their count is off, because it has been set previously, by the relationship between note values and time between notes, and they are able to tell when they’re off, and adjust to get back into the beat. Musicians learn their skill by spending tens of thousands of hours counting notes; that they can internalize it quickly, and correct it when it’s off is no surprise.

Music is a fundamentally mathematical enterprise, so it should be no surprise that non-musical endeavors based on numbers produce similar phenomena. For instance:

Just last night I was casting on stitches to make a scarf. The pattern called for 85 stitches. There are too many distractions for me to be able to count stitches as I cast on, so I just take time out to count them a few times as I go along. Remarkably — at least I think so — last night when I stopped to count I had cast on exactly 85 stitches. But I’ve had this happen when the pattern called for 285 stitches too. No phase correcting there, do I have an internal counter that turns itself on as I start to cast on, and then alerts me when I’ve met the target number? If so, it seems like a rather frivolous way to spend brain cells though, even if useful.

This variant, however, I have experienced:

And then there’s the internal alarm clock that always goes off 2 minutes before the alarm we’d set. I don’t remember the last time I’ve heard an alarm — except when I couldn’t figure out how to turn the bloody thing off on my phone.

If the alarm is set for six, I almost always find myself sleepily staring at the clock at 5:58. The sense is weekday-sensitive: I don’t stir at anywhere near that time on a Saturday. And I think it’s confined to one particular alarm clock: I tend to sleep through hotel alarms, though I must concede the possibility that I had no idea how to set the darned thing in the first place.


  1. McGehee »

    31 January 2014 · 7:06 am

    Oh yes, the alarm clock thing. When I was using a wind-up clock I rationalized that it made some noise just before it was supposed to go off and that’s what woke me.

    Then it started happening with my later digital alarm clock.

  2. fillyjonk »

    31 January 2014 · 7:14 am

    Would that my internal alarm clock went off only 2 minutes early. Usually, I’m awake a solid 15-20 minutes before the alarm, and am faced with the dilemma of, is it worth trying to get back to sleep for that short a period of time, or do I just get up.

    I’m also generally not that great at playing music along with other people – I get too tense about keeping up – and I also always have to count how many stitches I’ve cast on (and sometimes stop mid pattern, and go, “Wait, I have to count again.”) Maybe my internal metronome is broken.

  3. Tatyana »

    31 January 2014 · 8:19 am

    “2 minutes before wake-up ring” happens to me when I cast stitches, too. I mean: when I need 68, I stop casting and count right at 65 or 66 (not intentionally).

    actually, for the last 10+ years I don’t use an alarm, I have an internal clock. Unless something threw me off routine the night before, I usually wake up at my habitual 6:30am, all by myself. And that includes the weekends.

  4. Charles Pergiel »

    31 January 2014 · 2:43 pm

    If you don’t set your alarm clock, do you still wake up early / on-time?

  5. CGHill »

    31 January 2014 · 2:54 pm

    Generally, though I am unwilling to test this premise extensively.

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