The Divine Fermata: Cream, “White Room” (1968)


One tasty time effect is a “pause” prolonging your wait till the next event—even tastier with its traditional Italian name, fermata.  According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music article on the “pause” directive:   “As a rule, a duration approximately (but not exactly) twice the normal value will prove appropriate.”[1]  Cream’s “White Room” has a divine fermata that lets us wheel in the sunlight above the clouds forever, seemingly, yet brings us down to earth perfectly in stride.  The fermata prolongs a measure that goes between Instrumental Theme A—the falsetto-voiced theme with the tympani—and the beginning of the verse.  When we heard this measure twice before at the same turnaround point in the song, we could feel its fermata potential, but each time the snare drum called us to order on beat 3 and whipped us forward to the verse.

“White Room” 1

Third time’s the charm:  now we’re finally allowed to fermate.  Given that the “normal value” established for this measure is a tight-feeling 4 beats, how many beats would you guess are in the fermata?[2]

“White Room” 2


[1] Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 375.

[2] 10.  I admit that counting 10 beats in the fermata is contradictory:  now I’m treating it as a measured duration instead of as a free pause.  But this is really a combination, not a contradiction.   We’re getting the best of both experiences.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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