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The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of music, and in modern Western music is usually indicated in beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note or crotchet) is specified as the beat, and that the amount of time between successive beats is a specified fraction of a minute. The greater the number of beats per minute, the smaller the amount of time between successive beats, and thus faster a piece must be played. For example, a tempo of 60 beats per minute signifies one beat per second, while a tempo of 120 beats per minute is twice as rapid, signifying one beat every 0.5 seconds. Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, although early metronomes were somewhat inconsistent. Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome; in 1817 he published metronomic indications for the eight symphonies he had composed up to that time.
With the advent of modern electronics, BPM became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the BPM system to denote tempo.
As an alternative to metronome markings, some 20th-century composers (such as Béla Bartók and John Cage) would give the total execution time of a piece, from which the proper tempo can be roughly derived.
Some musical pieces do not have a mathematical time indication. In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively and codified.
Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. Yet after the metronome's invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece, thus blurring the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, indicates speed as such.
Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication ("agitated").
In some cases (quite often up to the end of the Baroque period), conventions governing musical composition were so strong that no tempo had to be indicated. For example, the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. To provide movement names, publishers of recordings resort to ad hoc measures, for instance marking the Brandenburg movement "Allegro", "(Allegro)", "(Without indication)", and so on.
In Renaissance music most music was understood to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus (roughly the rate of the human heartbeat). Which note value corresponded to the tactus was indicated by the mensural time signature.
Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so no further explanation is placed in the score. Thus musicians expect a minuet to be performed at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a perpetuum mobile to be quite fast, and so on. Genres can be used to imply tempos; thus Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, although that movement is not a minuet. Popular music charts use terms such as "bossa nova", "ballad", and "Latin rock" in much the same way.
It is important to remember when interpreting these words that not only have tempos changed over historical time, and even in different places, but sometimes even the ordering of terms has changed. Thus a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster.
Beats per minute (BPM) is a unit typically used as a measure of tempo in music and heart rate.
The BPM tempo of a piece of music is conventionally shown in its score as a metronome mark, as illustrated to the right. This indicates that there should be 120 crotchet beats (quarter notes) per minute. In simple time signatures it is conventional to show the tempo in terms of the note duration on the bottom. So a 4/4 would show a crotchet (or quarter note), as shown to the right, while a 2/2 would show a minim (or half note).
In compound time signatures the beat consists of three note durations (so there are 3 quavers (eighth notes) per beat in a 6/8 time signature), so a dotted form of the next note duration up is used. The most common compound signatures: 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8, therefore use a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) to indicate their BPM.
Exotic time and particularly slow time signatures may indicate their BPM tempo using other note durations. BPM became common terminology in disco because of its usefulness to DJs, and remain important in the same genre and other dance music.
Example of a basic 4/4, 120 BPM tempo
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In this context the beats measured are either crotchets (quarter notes) in the time signature (sometimes ambiguously called down-beats), or drum beats (typically bass-drum or another functionally similar synthesized sound), whichever is more frequent. Higher BPM values are therefore achievable by increasing the number of drum beats, without increasing the tempo of the music. House music is faster around 120–128 BPM (from regular house music to UK garage), trance music ranges from 125 to 150 BPM, and drum and bass generally ranges between 150–180 BPM. Psytrance is almost exclusively produced at 145 BPM, whereas speedcore and gabber music can exceed 180–184 BPM.
More extreme tempos are achievable at the same underlying tempo with very fast drum patterns, often expressed as drum rolls. Such compositions often exhibit a much slower underlying tempo, but may increase the tempo by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempos. The use of extreme tempo was very common in the fast bebop jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. A common jazz tune such as "Cherokee" was often performed at quarter note equal to or sometimes exceeding 368 BPM. Some of Charlie Parker's famous tunes ("Bebop", "Shaw Nuff") have been performed at 380 BPM plus. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was performed at 374 BPM.
Beatmatching is a tool used by DJs that involves speeding up or slowing down a record in order to match the tempo of a previous track so both can be seamlessly mixed.
DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict BPM value suggested by the kick drum, particularly when dealing with high tempo tracks. A 240 BPM track, for example, will match the beat of a 120 BPM track without slowing down or speeding up, because both will have an underlying tempo of 120 crotchets (quarter notes) per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75–90 BPM) can be mixed well with a drum and bass beat (from 150–185 BPM).
When speeding up or slowing down a record on a turntable, the pitch and tempo of a track are linked: spin a disc 10% faster and both pitch and tempo will be 10% higher. Software processing to change the pitch without changing the tempo, or vice-versa, is called time-stretching or pitch-shifting. While it works fairly well for small adjustments (± 20%), the result can be noisy and unmusical for larger changes.
The definitions of the Italian tempo markings mentioned in this section can be found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music and/or the online Italian-English dictionary, both of which are listed in Sources.
By adding an -issimo ending the word is amplified/made louder, by adding an -ino or -etto ending the word is diminished/made softer. The metronome marks are broad approximations. Note: Metronome markings are a guide only and depending on the time signature and the piece itself, these figures may not be appropriate in every circumstance. Also, in longer pieces such as symphony movements, the tempo marking used by the composer for the movement does not have to be adhered to strictly throughout the movement; individual interpreters may vary the tempo at times, at their discretion.
Some definitions of tempo markings are specific to certain periods, certain composers, even certain compositions. Performers do well to learn about the range of definition of a term as it appears in the repertoire. "Moderato," for example, has been described by Albert Einstein as "with a lyrical quality," in the works of Schubert, i.e., not so much metered as free. Similarly, I, as a pianist, discern Beethoven's use of Presto and Prestissimo to apply not so much to the speed of the quarter note, as to imparting to the smallest note value of the movement the energy of a beat. Thus the Prestissimo fourth movement of Op. 2, No. 1, in cut time becomes a meter with 12 beats to the bar which, if distinctly articulated as three groups of four or six groups of two, will inevitably feel faster than simple quarter-note beats no matter how fast they are played. To stimulate the performer's perspective on these complex notions consult: "What Might It Mean? An Uncommon Glossary of Musical Terms and Concepts for the Stuck, Bored, and Curious" by Nancy Garniez (contributor of this paragraph), published by Tonal Refraction (New York, 1999).
From slowest to fastest:
Terms for tempo change:
Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:
Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:
While the base tempo indication (such as allegro) appears in large type above the staff, these adjustments typically appear below the staff or (in the case of keyboard instruments) in the middle of the grand staff.
They generally designate a gradual change in tempo; for immediate tempo shifts, composers normally just provide the designation for the new tempo. (Note, however, that when Più Mosso or Meno Mosso appears in large type above the staff, it functions as a new tempo, and thus implies an immediate change.) Several terms, e.g., assai, molto, poco, subito, control how large and how gradual a change should be (see common qualifiers).
After a tempo change, a composer may return to a previous tempo in two different ways:
These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers typically use them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.
Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have written tempo indications in their own language. The definitions of the tempo markings mentioned in this section can be found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music and/or the online foreign language dictionaries which are listed in Sources.
Several composers have written markings in French, among them baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel and Alexander Scriabin. Common tempo markings in French are:
Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:
One of the first German composers to use tempo markings in his native language was Ludwig van Beethoven. The one using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his sixth symphony, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig (Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous).
English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, among many others. In jazz and popular music charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", "brisk", "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear.
In Tom Lehrer's anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, fake English tempo markings are used to humorous effect. For example, the song "National Brotherhood Week" is to be played "fraternally", "We Will All Go Together" should be performed "eschatologically", and "Masochism Tango" should be played "painstakingly".
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Often, composers (or music publishers) will name movements of compositions after their tempo (and/or mood) marking. For instance the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an "Adagio".
Some such movements may start to lead a life of their own, and become known with the tempo/mood marker name, for instance the string orchestra version of the second movement of Barber's first string quartet became known as Adagio for Strings. A similar example is the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Sometimes the link between a musical composition with a "tempo" name and a separate movement of a composition is less clear. For instance, Albinoni's Adagio is a 20th-century creative "reconstruction" based on an incomplete manuscript.
Books on tempo in music: