Beginner Music Theory tutorials
9. Understanding tempo
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So I was looking in some music sheets and there were like some...Italian words there where the tempo is...and other times there were numbers...what gives?

  1. Topics of discussion
  2. Tempo notations explained

1. Topics of discussion

In this tutorial we will be discussing tempo and the two different ways in which you can post them. And after this tutorial I'm pretty sure you'll be able to know if you're rushing, dragging or on time. So, let's have some fun (no chair throwing here).

2. Tempo notations explained

In music, tempo is used to define the speed at which a piece of music is meant to be played. You have two ways of notating tempo:

  • using classical tempo marking - there are quite a few Italian words that are used to describe tempo
  • using a note duration (indicated by the time signature, more precisely the note duration considered when counting the beats in a bar) and associating a number of beats per minute to it

More often than not you'll encounter the second notation, which usually bases the tempo on the duration of a quarter note.

So what about these beats per minute? Well, as the name suggests, when you define a tempo in beats per minute, then you have to adapt your speed of playing so as to make sure that, in a minute, you have played as many beats as the tempo tells you to.

The simplest example is for songs written in 60 BPM. If we consider our time signature to be 4/4, then a quarter note will last a beat. And if the tempo states that we have to have 60 beats in a minute, then for such a song, 1 beat will last 1 second. In other words, a quarter note in such a song lasts 1 second, a whole note lasts 4 seconds, a half note lasts 2 seconds, an eighth note lasts half a second and so on.

You don't have to worry about computing these numbers in your head. You can use a metronome, be it online or physical, and it will provide you an audio aid that should allow you to play in time. And once you become a seasoned musician, these values will become embedded in your brain and you'll be able to feel the tempo without the need of a metronome.

Let's now listen to the C major scale played at different tempos, so you can get a better feel about this whole concept. Here's what we will be listening to:

Tempo Example

We're going to play this at 60 BPM, 80 BPM, 90 BPM, 110 BPM, 120 BPM, 140 BPM and 170 BPM in order for you to be able to get a good feel of a wide tempo range. You can also count these measures with the techniques presented in the previous tutorial:

60 BPM

80 BPM

90 BPM

110 BPM

120 BPM

140 BPM

170 BPM

As for the Italian (or classical, if you will) notation, a comprehensive list of all the possible tempo markings can be found here along with the corresponding BPM range.

And that about covers it for this tutorial. Next time we're going to take a look at tones and semitones. Keep up the good work and see you then. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.

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