A lot of people are under the impression that a wine should be allowed to breathe. As the author of a best-selling book on wine (and two others, equally awesome), I can say with some authority that this is a myth, an obsolete concept passed down through the centuries.
There are a lot of musicians who believe that music, too, should be allowed to breathe, that the flow of time will sound stifled and un-natural if it is too accurate. Interestingly, most of the music created in the past 20 to 30 years was recorded with a ’click track’. In order to help the musicians play steady time, recording studios often play a metronome click in the players’ headphones, and the musicians play to this click.
Hmmm ... that also means that most of what we've been listening to -- for quite some time -- must lack this element of breathing. And yet no one seems to have noticed. I've never seen a dance floor suddenly empty when the DJ put on some techno loop, which sure as heck doesn't breathe.
I've ranted about keeping good time before, so let me see if I can keep it light. In the real world, people have varying aptitude for keeping a steady beat. A few are lucky enough to have the rhythmic equivalent of perfect pitch. But most of us have to work at it, which means spending a lot of time with a metronome and remaining vigilant when playing.
A wee bit of flux in the time can be quite acceptable. It's easy, even desirable, to get enthusiastic when the music gets cooking, and just as normal to lay back when the music cools down. But I would offer that only a very small amount of variation in tempo is acceptable. Nor would I say that such variation is necessary. We've all heard -- and grooved to -- many click-track regulated recordings and never twigged to the fact that the time was rock steady. I've even found myself admiring the steadiness of the time on certain recordings. Even before click tracks, there were recordings that had awesome time, and no one complained about it.
Many bands these days are starting to use a click track during live performances. Given the high playing level of some of these musicians, I doubt they’d use a click track if it detracted from their music.
So go ahead and play great, steady time. I’m sure no one will mind.