Time, Space, & Energy

By Mary Dobrea-Grindahl, Diplôme Supérieur and Lauren Hodgson, Dalcroze License

The relationships of time, space, and energy are considered a hallmark of the Dalcroze practice. These three elements are essential to our work in bringing music to life, developing body awareness and control, and understanding the physics and energy of harmony, melody, nuance, and rhythm.

Introduction: Time/Space/Energy as Principle and Strategy

Stand with your feet together and raise one arm straight to shoulder height as quickly as possible. How much time did it take? How much energy? Now, lower your arm slowly. When you changed speeds but negotiated the same amount of space, what happened to the time? The energy? Next, try the opposite, raising your arm slowly and lowering it quickly. The energy of each gesture is completely different—it changes depending on the speed with which you travel and whether you are moving with or against gravity. Finally, imagine a single melodic phrase you would improvise for each gesture. Based on the time, space, and energy, how would you perform it differently for each gesture?

The experience of the arm gesture exercise examines the relationship of time, space, and energy, one hallmark of the Dalcroze practice. These three elements are so essential to our work that Dalcroze practitioners use them both as a guiding principle (time+space+energy=movement/gesture) and a teaching strategy to bring music to life, develop body awareness and control, and to understand the physics and energy of harmony, melody, nuance, and rhythm. Students learn to embody musical ideas by experiencing the relationship between time, space, and energy. Jaques-Dalcroze wrote in Rhythm, Music & Education

Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement. It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion. To move, a body requires a quantum of space and a quantum of time. The beginning and end of the movement determine the amount of time and space involved. Each depends on the gravity, that is to say (in relation to the limbs, set in motion by the muscles), on the elasticity and muscular force of the body.

If we assign in advance the ratio between the muscular energy to be deployed and the quantum of space to be traversed, we determine thereby also the quantum of time.

If we assign in advance the ratio between the muscular force and the quantum of time, we thereby determine the quantum of space. In other words, the finished movement is the product of the combination of muscular energy and the space and time involved in its formation.” (1921, 39)

For our purposes, time is rhythm; it is the inexorable sequence of events from the past, to the present, to the future. Space is self-evident but worth defining further: positive space is the space we inhabit; negative space is all the space around us. Space has planes (coronal–-frontal, sagittal–longitudinal, and transverse–axial) and dimensions (high, medium, and low), and Dalcrozians seek to use the space around them in all those ways. Energy is force, weight, momentum, gesture, sound, and the physics of music; it includes tempo, nuance, articulation, harmony, and timbre. Energy constantly evolves in and through space.

Time-Space-Energy (T/S/E) governs our work. There’s not a single exercise or experience that doesn’t employ it in one way or another. We use time and space to understand and express energy; energy and space to understand the manifestation of time; and time and energy to understand our physical relationship to space. At any age, T/S/E teaches students to maneuver through their musical world and provides a basis for all their studies.

Time is rhythm…
Space includes positive and negative space…It has planes and dimensions…
Energy is force…the physics of music.

T/S/E and Other Dalcroze Strategies

The ubiquitous presence of T/S/E in our practice results in it being embedded in every other strategy. An exercise where students step the beat in augmentation and diminution is a reaction exercise, but maintaining a balance between time, space, and energy is essential to executing the rhythms accurately and understanding the difference in energy between the momentum of moving quickly from the control and the energy needed to move slowly. An example can be found in “A Ram Sam Sam,” a traditional Moroccan children’s song in which beats, divisions, and the multiple of the beat are demonstrated in simple quadruple time. While a mover may initially walk or march, there is a rapid shift of energy (and change in step size) when moving the eighth notes for the word “guli,” followed by another shift when moving the slow durations on the word “rafiq.”

The follow embodies T/S/E. Essentially a reaction of nuance, students are given a rhythmic phrase to move or gesture. After a short period of time given to the students to grasp the phrase, various nuances in the music are changed, which may be introduced gradually or abruptly. Changes in tempo, register, articulation, timbre, and style are examples of such modifications. A rhythm that was initially moved as a “walk-walk-slow” with a change in tempo may suddenly require the mover to move the same pattern as a “run-ning walk” and necessitates a major awareness of T/S/E and how, if one element is not quite right (e.g., steps are too big or too small), the task becomes quite challenging. In contrast, the task becomes more musically fluent when T/S/E is acknowledged as a factor. 

The “Musical Follow Exercise” below shows some possibilities of what a teacher might play during a follow, though each manifestation of the pattern would typically continue for longer than the measure or two shown here. Visualize yourself stepping this and imagine how your use of space and energy would change with each rhythmic variation—that’s the study of T/S/E at work.

Examples of T/S/E in other strategies abound. In a canon, students are constantly adjusting their weight, energy, and use of space as they step rhythms. Any exercise that uses incitation/inhibition is a study of T/S/E itself, because the flow of energy, and therefore use of space, is always changing—sometimes even stopping. If you stepped “rest-walk-walk-walk,” you’d have to monitor your energy and use of space during the walks in order to execute the silence on beat one.

In this phrase, a well-known anacrusic systemization, the buildup of energy as the anacrusis lengthens is a challenge for the mover. The undulation between incitation and inhibition of energy throughout the phrase is a pure study of the relationship of time, space, and energy—and it’s fun to step! These examples just touch the surface in showing how deeply rooted T/S/E is in each strategy and exercise we use in our practice.

T/S/E in Practice

Here’s a simple exercise that shows students immediately the importance of the relationship of T/S/E: Ask students to clap the beat (in circles). On the signal “hip,” students clap twice as fast, and the circle gets smaller; “hop,” they clap twice as slow and the circle, naturally, gets bigger. The time (the beat, augmentation and diminution) energy (the impulse used to clap) and space (size of the circle) stay in balance with each other.

Repeat the exercise, but this time, on the signal “hip,” keep the size of the circle the same—now things become ridiculous! Claps flail around, bodies tense, and the sound produced is noisy and unmusical. There’s too much space for the amount of time, and students use too much energy to perform the exercise.

Repeat, keeping the same amount of space when the beat is twice as slow; this becomes even more difficult to control. Students become tentative because they can’t feel (in space) the duration of the longer note value. Group ensemble suffers because students approximate the augmentation instead of being afforded the opportunity to use—and trust—space to allow them to manifest the augmentation of the beat accurately.

The time, space, and energy of each meter type is distinctive.

Of course, Dalcroze practitioners don’t often teach T/S/E for the sake of T/S/E—it is a strategy we use to teach music subjects. Let’s look at the study of meter and the ways it can be examined through the body. Consider how you hear and move in simple meter (with more vertical movement to demonstrate binary beats) versus moving in compound meter (more side-to-side/swaying movement to demonstrate ternary beats). The physical differences between these two families of meters are highlighted by using different spatial planes and axes. The momentum of each meter is different: in simple meter, momentum tends to build through a measure; in compound, the natural sway of each beat creates momentum to lead to the next. The time, space, and energy of each meter type is distinctive and influences our perception and the character of the meter.

“When I Was Walking Down the Street” 

“When I Was Walking Down the Street” features an intriguing juxtaposition of simple and compound meter. Students in the A section step to the beat while singing. In the B section, students find a friend, grab both hands, and joyfully chassé across the room together. Even younger or more inexperienced students can see the differences between the sections, which provides opportunities for students to describe their sensations in each section.

“Little Swallow”

Changing meter affords the opportunity for extended study of T/S/E. The mere difference in the amount of space a duple, triple, or quadruple meter occupies compels students to physically experience how an increase of time (number of beats) changes the energy in the meter. A typical changing meter exercise might involve a ball toss game. Students toss on the crusis of a measure and catch on the anacrusis. In a duple meter, it’s an easy toss-catch; in triple, the toss requires more energy and space, and in quadruple meter, even more. As the time increases, the energy and space need to change.

The African folk song “Little Swallow” provides such an opportunity. While singing, students toss a ball on beat one (allowing the crusis of the measure to lift); the ball descends on beat three. Toss on beat one of the next measure, catch on beat two. When catching, be sure to keep your arm relaxed so as to feel the lift of the crusis and falling sensation of the anacrusis. The lightness (energy) of the duple meters as opposed to the triple is immediately apparent.

The relationships between time, space, and energy can be embodied and explored through gesture, changing depending on the speed with which you travel and whether you are moving with or against gravity. Photo by Mark Horning.

Complex meter, which combines simple and compound beats in one measure, is a unique vehicle for understanding the relationship of T/S/E to performance. One or more beats are of varying lengths, representing simple and compound beat structures (which, as the discussion above notes, have different energy).

Using a meter of 7/8, imagine conducting in 3, with groupings of 2+2+3. The third beat is longer than the first two, but if we used the “correct” amount of space, it means the last beat would take up more space and the crusic plane would rise with each measure. That won’t work!

Instead, we slow down (time) the gesture of beat three, adding resistance (energy) using the same amount of space as we do in the beats with two divisions. This resistance (defined here as a manipulation of time, space, and energy) is what gives complex meters their unique and attractive quality. It’s as if the conducting gesture, instead of 1-2-3, would be 1-2-“whoa” or 1-2-“ooh.” If the group of three is shifted to the middle beat, it would be “1-whoa-3” and to the last beat, “1-2-whoa.” Fun!

Other subjects also lend themselves to the use of resistance to examine the T/S/E relationship; this is often experienced during the study of syncopation and irregular divisions. For example: To experience the sense of pull in the syncopated amphibrach (short-long-short) pattern, ask the class to stand in a circle, facing a partner. As they step the pattern, they will pass their partner on the first step, then take opposite hands and pull the next person on the long note while leaning backward (each person will put their weight on their back leg), then step forward on the short note. Leaning backward is essential to making sure students experience the sensation of resistance. (This can also be done without the circle—the circle simply helps reduce a bit of potential chaos during the exercise.)

To introduce the resistance (time and energy) of triplets in space, ask students to get in groups of three. Students hold hands and step-hop simple meter divisions in place. On the signal “hop,” they step a triplet backwards, being sure to stay completely upright. (There is a temptation to bend at the waist when stepping backwards). Performed correctly, students experience resistance—the resistance of triplets as they “fight” the natural metric impulse.

T/S/E with Children

Having a clear understanding of how T/S/E relate to one another is essential for children to learn to move with musical intention. Both cognitive and physical growth occur at every stage of a child’s development, and it takes practice to become proficient in skills like balance, coordination, fluidity, musicality, and others.

While some students may walk, run, and move slowly with ease and accuracy quite quickly, often some of the youngest students (age four or so) take most of the academic year to learn how to modify the distance between their steps, shift and balance their weight, and find the right amount of energy to continue their forward momentum, particularly in moving slowly. Many teachers use imagery or stories to embrace the various effects of moving different note durations such as contrasting the “Three Bears”—Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear (for moving the beat, multiples, and divisions, respectively)—or a king (walking), a knight on a horse (trotting), and an enchanted forest (feet rooted into the ground with the upper body and arms swaying side to side).

Another governing idea in the Dalcroze practice is taking an abstract concept and making it concrete through various experiences and experimentation. While older students and adults may be more adept at making sense of an abstract concept, young children frequently require discovery of the concept through tangible experiences. Placing students in pairs and giving them a ball to roll-catch is a classic example.

At first, the students might be only a few feet apart, and must find the right amount of energy to roll the ball given the space between them and to be in association (or “on time”) with the music they hear motivating and regulating their movements. Any change of nuance in the music would cause the students to react by rolling the ball with more or less energy while still adapting to the space between them. Then, as a next step, encourage the students to experiment with different distances between them, such as ten feet or even a foot! While the game of rolling the ball can create a joyful spirit of play, it also allows students to visually and spatially connect with the concept of the full duration of a given note. 

Example Repertoire

We could easily list any piece of music as an example of repertoire that highlights T/S/E; the list below includes some “oldies but goodies” mixed with some repertoire that may be new to you. With help from YouTube, enjoy listening, and explore ways you can use them in the classroom or for personal study.

Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo in A minor, op. 116, no. 2

This intermezzo combines T/S/E and incitation/inhibition. The surging energy of the polyrhythm on beat one resolves into a long note that feels even longer because of the energy the polyrhythm creates.

Robert Schumann, Sicilienne, op. 68, no. 11

This Sicilienne may be familiar to many; it’s a wonderful example of the juxtaposition of compound and simple meters.

Florence Price, Sonata in E Minor

Each movement of this sonata offers a study in T/S/E, from the bold opening of the first movement, the gorgeous syncopated melody of the second to the energetic third movement that uses a myriad of meter and character changes.

”Chevaliers de la table ronde”

The changing meter in this traditional French folk song is an excellent opportunity for students to experience the difference in energy and space in triple and quadruple meters.

Cécile Chaminade, Album des enfants book 1, no. 11

This set has several wonderful teaching examples, but no. 11, “Air de Ballet,” is especially intriguing. It is in a meter of three with a two eighth-note anacrusis that leads to a half note at the beginning of the next measure; this pattern is pervasive throughout the piece. It’s a fine example of the ebb and flow of energy in music.

Takashi Yoshimatsu, “Blue Myths: Fantastic Waltz”

This restless, high-energy waltz uses a thin two-voice texture with syncopation in the measures, but also requires lightness to bring the vivace marking to life. This contrast makes this piece an interesting study of energy.

From Practice to Theory

A quick word about the method’s “theory follows practice” component. While the exercises outlined above focus on experiencing the T/S/E relationship, it is critical to guide students in discovering the meaning behind their experience in order to connect theory to practice. This can happen in a variety of ways, including a discussion after an exercise or guiding questions that bring students closer to understanding the musical concept in the lesson. What is most important is to draw the students’ attention to what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why it matters.

One of the goals of our practice is to provide students with a deep, lasting experience that allows them to transfer the knowledge gained in eurhythmics to their study of an instrument. Just as drawing awareness of T/S/E issues solves problems in movement, so can it solve technical—or even musical—issues at an instrument.

Imagine a violinist using too much bow to perform a fast passage—their T/S/E is out of whack and a reminder of how one might move that same rhythm will often lead to a physical adjustment.

Similarly, a pianist might use too much muscle and tension, rather than weight, when trying to produce a forte sound. Once again, referencing energy and gravity can help the student forge a technical change to produce a beautiful, rounded sound. When recollecting the sense of resistance, a pianist can recall the experience and sound of the teacher’s improvisation, then work to reproduce it at their instrument by manipulating time (rubato), changing use of pedal, and harnessing arm weight. Can you imagine other possibilities for your instrument?


Time. Space. Energy. These three elements exist in all art forms—theatre, dance, visual arts, and music, and, as we’ve seen in this article, are pervasive and essential to the Dalcroze world. Yet there is something deeply personal about its study as well; we all feel music differently, our temperaments influence our perception of energy, our bodies use space in unique ways, and we bring our own experience to the Dalcroze practice. Jaques-Dalcroze reminds us of the personal nature of our work in Rhythm, Music & Education: “Rhythm is a force analogous to electricity and the great chemical and physical elements—an energy, an agent—….conducing to self-knowledge and to a consciousness not only of our own powers, but those of others, of humanity” (1921, 63).

This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 8 No. 1.

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