Time-frequency analysis is considered for characterizing atrial fibrillation in the surface electrocardiogram (ECG). Variations in fundamental frequency of the fibrillatory waves are tracked by using different time-frequency distributions which are appropriate to short- and long-term variations. The cross Wigner-Ville distribution is found to be particularly useful for short-term analysis due to its ability to handle poor signal-to-noise ratios. In patients with chronic atrial fibrillation, substantial short-term variations exist in fibrillation frequency and variations up to 2.5 Hz can be observed within a few seconds. Although time-frequency analysis is performed independently in each lead, short-term variations in fibrillation frequency often exhibit a similar pattern in the leads V1, V2 and V3. Using different techniques for short- and long-term analysis, it is possible to reliably detect subtle long-term changes in fibrillation frequency, e.g., related to an intervention, which otherwise would have been obscured by spontaneous variations in fibrillation frequency.