4.1.1 Time Beaters

Time Beaters

We may not be able to understand fully the gestures shown in medieval art, but we also have written evidence in early theoretical sources which indicate that time-beaters were common.

Theoretical Description

(Allow around 5 minutes for this activity)

Read these descriptions of the beat or tactus and evaluate what they have in common.

The beat (battuta) is ‘a sign formed in imitation of the motion of the healthy pulse by whoever leads raising and lowering his hand’ (Giovanni Maria Lanfranco Scintille di musica Brescia: 1533)

The tactus is ‘a steady and even motion of the singer’s hand … by means of which the notes of the song are led and measured. All the parts must follow it if the song is to sound good’ (Martin Agricola, 1532)

‘Wherefore Tact is a successive motion in singing, directing the equality of the measure: or it is a certain motion made by the hand of the chief singer, according to the nature of the marks which directs a song according to Measure.’ (Ornithoparcus translated by Dowland London: 1609 online)


All of these extracts describe beat in terms of movement of the hand and indicate that musical co-ordination was done by a time-beater moving his hand up and down.

The time-beater was not a conductor in the modern sense of one who directs and makes decisions, but simply someone who indicated the beat or tactus for a group or groups of musicians. An even down-up movement of the hand was enough to indicate a duple time and an uneven down-up (semibreve-minim) to indicate triple time.  The use of lateral movement of the hand to indicate subdivision of triple and quadruple time is not described until late in the seventeenth century. This explains why musicians today often use the term ‘time-beater’ in a derogatory sense to describe a conductor who they feel doesn’t have much to offer beyond just showing the beats.

As large-scale performances became more common in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries with the development of polychoral church music, the co-ordination of performances presented new challenges. In the preface to his 1612 Salmi a quattro cori, Viadana describes how the maestro should stand with the first choir, watching the organ part too control the performance, but one person in each of the choirs should be designated to watch the maestro as when he raised both hands both choirs should sing. André Maugars who visited Rome in the 1630s noted that ‘the master gives the main beat in the first choir’ but that others are designated in each group solely to watch the masters beat and to imitate it. (Maugars 1639) Some illustrations of the period show the maestro using a rolled-up piece of paper or scroll to mark the beat more clearly.  

 A Thought Experiment

(Allow around 5 minutes for this activity)

Try this ‘thought experiment’. You have to direct three separate groups of singers or instrumentalists that are spread around a large performance space. One group is in a gallery high to your left, the second high to your right and another is 20 metres behind you. Without any modern audio-visual aids, how would you deal with the situation?

Singers working in early modern cathedrals and churches had to make their music work inside vast architectural spaces where the distances between performers, the reverberation times and the complexity of the music, all had the potential for making the music sound ugly. Researchers today are investigating how musical performances might have sounded and how musicians might have worked in such spaces, but one thing we do know is that they did it without a conductor in the modern sense of the term.  (Howard and Moretti, 2012) They also did it without a score in the modern sense, as the most common form of publication was sets of part-books, that is separate booklets for each voice. The time-beater would only have been able to see one line of music.

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