What is Tempo in Music?
Tempo describes the speed of the pulse/beat of a piece of music.
Be careful not to confuse it with the number of beats in a bar – this is described by the time signature. Also, be careful not to think that it is a description of how “busy” or short the rhythms are. Have a listen to the following example of 3 different short pieces of music. They sound different, but the tempo of each piece is the same:
So, remember, the tempo in music simply describes the speed of the pulse/beat.
Different Musical Tempos
The choice of tempo (speed) of a piece of music has a crucial bearing on its feel and the genre it sits in.
There are some styles of music which have specific tempos – e.g. romantic ballads tend to have a fairly slow tempo, whilst disco music tends to have a fast tempo.
When you’re learning how to read sheet music there are 2 main things you need to look out for at the start of the piece:
The speed/tempo of a piece in traditional music notation is given with an Italian word called a tempo marking. Here are some examples of tempo markings that you will commonly find in sheet music:
- Adagio means Slow
- Andante means Walking Pace
- Moderato means Quite Quickly
- Allegro means Fast
- Presto means Very Fast
These are written above the stave and are called tempo markings. For example, the following music should be played fast because it has the word allegro (meaning fast) written above the stave at the start of the music:
However, in recent years the tempo of a piece has more commonly been given through an indication of the beats per minute (BPM). You may see something like this….
This would mean that the quarter note (crotchet) pulse of the piece is 120 beats per minute. In other words, there are 120 quarter note (crotchet) beats in a minute. This is called a metronome marking. (The same could be written using an eighth note (quaver), sixteenth note (semiquaver), etc..)
Changing Tempo in Music
Sudden Tempo Changes
If a composer wants a piece of music to change immediately to a new tempo then they will insert a new tempo marking or metronome marking at the relevant point. Have a look at this example:
At the beginning of this example the composer has written Adagio (meaning slowly). Therefore, the piece should be played slowly. However, at the beginning of the new line they have written Allegro (meaning fast). This means that they want you to play the next 4 bars fast.
Slowing Down/Speeding Up
Alternatively, a composer may want to introduce subtle changes in the tempo to help inject life into a piece. These are shown by the word accelerando (accel.) for speeding up or rallentando (rall.) or ritardando (rit.) for slowing down. After one of these markings, the phrase a tempo is written to tell the performer to return to the original tempo.
Have a look at/listen to the example below. Can you see how the tempo of the music is Andante (walking pace) at the start of the piece. The piece then slows down during the 4th bar with the tempo marking rall. (which means slow down). The tempo marking a tempo at the start of the new line tells us to return to the original tempo (andante) at this point. The slowing down is quite subtle in the 4th bar, but it adds some life to the performance.
If you see the tempo marking Rubato at the start of a piece this means that the composer is encouraging you to vary the tempo as you play it. This is a great technique for bringing more expression into the piece particularly by slowing dow the ends of phrases. However, be careful that you don’t over do this – less is often more!!