Suomeksi | In English


Tempo (it. = time) is the speed at which a piece or passage of music is meant to be played. Composers first started to indicate precise tempo recommendations in the 19th century. The German inventor and clocksmith Diederich Nicolaus Winkel (1777-1826) is known to have built the first metronome in 1814. He showed it to his friend J.N. Mälzel, who patented it the following year.

A tempo marking indicates the actual duration of the time values. One rhythm structure can be written in various ways, for example:

The numbers indicate the number of beats per minute, often abbreviated as MM (as in 'Metronom Mälzel') or the somewhat vague BPM (as in beats per minute or bars per minute). The metronome marking is written at the beginning of the work above the time signature and usually has the same note value as the bottom number of the time signature.

The metronome marking can be converted into duration by dividing the number 60 with the metronome marking; this gives us the duration of the note value in seconds. In the example, the tempo is 90 MM, which gives us the duration of 1.5 seconds for each bar (the duration of the beat unit is 60/90=2/3 seconds). The bars are equal in duration as they all include two note values, and when these are divided in two, the duration of note values is divided in two as well.

It would be easy to think that short note values are short in duration and slow note values long. The Romantic era, however, favoured writing slow tempo movements in fast note values and uptempo movements with, for example, the alla breve sign (for example, The Pathetique Piano Sonata Opus 13 by Beethoven).

It would be possible to write most music using only a few different note values with irregular subdivisions. The existence of myriad note values (from longa to the 1/256th note) is based on several factors. It could be said that Western art music has continuously moved towards shorter note values. In Renaissance music, the crotchet was a fast note value; in the late 20th century art music it is sometimes the longest note value in a composition. In popular and African-American music, the crotchet is the most typical beat unit.

Traditionally, tempo indications are also given in Italian. Some of the most familiar terms are shown below attached with a rough estimate for a metronome marking (not directive). The translation of the indication is often more informative than the number. For example, the tempos Grave and Largo are equally slow, but "very slow and solemn" and "very slow and stately" can be performed differently.

Ever since the metronome was invented, it has been criticized. Beethoven said, "The metronome is a silly gadget: you must know the tempi!"

Grave very slow and solemn 40-50
Largo very slow and stately 40-50
Lento extremely slow 50-60
Adagio slow and leisurely 60-72
Maestoso majestic, stately 72-84
Andante at an easy walking pace 80-100
Moderato moderate 100-120
Allegro fairly quick speed 120-160
Vivace lively, brisk 144-160
Presto very fast 160-200
Prestissimo extremely fast 168-208

Digital metronomes and sequencers allow for almost an unlimited choice of tempos (for example, between 10 and 500). The tempo marking can even include decimals. Different types of traditional metronomes often share the numeric values (40-208). These values, close to the extreme values of the human heart rate, seem to indicate that the concept of tempo is closely linked to human physiology.

At first, the values grow by twos: 40, 42, 44 and so on. In higher numbers, they grow by threes, fours, and finally, eights; the ratio between successive numbers remains approximately the same. The growth from one tempo to the next is about 3.4-5%, which leads us to assume that tempo changes smaller than 3.4% are not easily perceptible.

With the fivefold ratio between the slowest and the fastest metronome marking, a piece of music can be recognized in several different tempos. For example, in fast (seaman's) waltzes, the tempo for a crotchet is typically 180 beats per minute. This gives the bar a tempo of 60 MM, and it can be perceived as a beat unit. Music with a perfect time signature can be perceived in several ways: for example, cha-cha is perceptible in tempos 240, 120, or 60, depending on the choice of beat unit (bar or one of the note values). It is not always possible to define a "correct" way of perception in music; a piece of music can be interpreted in different tempos. It is, however, worth noting that the perception of tempo is linked to performance practices: cutting the tempo by half (for example, from 4/4 to alla breve) makes the mood of the piece more legato and serene.

Jazz traditionally applies the following tempo markings:

slow 48 -60 bpm
medium slow 60-90
medium 90-140
medium fast 140-180
fast 180-240
up-tempo 240 - 340

The list below contains dance rhythms and other tempos. While the chart shows a typical ¼ tempo, the fastest of the rhythms are often written alla breve, which cuts the implemented tempo by half. Some dance rhythm tempos show a lot of variation: for example, the bossa nova tempo can vary between 100 and 180.

Merengue 248
Quickstep 240
Polka 240
Mambo 232
Salsa 210
Dixieland 200
Samba 200
French waltz 192
Schottische 180
Viennese waltz 180
Seaman's waltz 180
Tijuana 172
Reggae 172
Two-step foxtrot 170
Twist 170
Baion (baiao) 168
Rumba (guaguanco) 162
Mazurka 162
Finnish waltz 150
German tango 132
Conga 128
Cha-cha 120
Finnish tango 120
March 120
Argentinian tango 108
Beguine 108
Calypso 104
Slow waltz 90
Foxtrot 80
Bolero 80

Tempo and tuplet mathematics

The chart below shows a few typical tuplets and tempo markings. It helps us to define the tempo of the triplet parts in relation to the original tempo.

In the tempo marking 60 MM, the quadruple tempo is 80 and the triplet tempo is 90, which leads us to the conclusion that the triplet is faster than the quadruple in a 9:8 ratio.

In a score, the tempo can change several times, and the conductor prepares for the changes several bars ahead. When the tempo changes from MM 96 to MM 144, the new tempo can be thought of as triplets of the original tempo.

tuplet 5:4 4:3 3:2 5:3
tempo = 1.25 (0.8) = 1,33 (0,75) = 1,5 (0,67) = 1,67 (0,6)
60 75 80 90 100
72 90 96 108 120
84 105 112 126 140
96 120 128 144 160
108 135 144 162 180
120 150 160 180 200

Tempos can be prepared for by thinking of a lengthened beat unit. If the ¼ beat unit tempo is 120, the 1/16 beat unit tempo is 480. This gives us the following tempos:

¼ or 4/16 3/16 5/16 6/16
120 160 (= quadruple) 96 (480/5) 80 (480/6) and so on.

Some people recall tempos accurately. This capacity is denoted as an (even "absolute") ear for tempo, and this especially benefits conductors and percussionists. People with an ear for tempo also tend to keep the tempo even (if it is a characteristic of the composition in question). Tempos are more likely to speed up than to slow down if the ensemble does not include musicians with an ear for tempo. A good ear for music is probably part of a musical memory and, like an absolute ear for music, an ambiguous concept. When observing a metronome marking, professional musicians often recall a familiar tune with the same tempo: the tempo for the Finnish tango, for example, is tempo Allegro (MM=120-132).