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Best Strategies for Teaching Tempo

Tempo is one of music’s basic building blocks, but what is it exactly?

By definition, the tempo of a piece is the speed at which it is meant to be played. Classical music pieces usually have a tempo indicated at the beginning of the sheet music. Traditionally, tempo is measured in beats per minute.

If you are a music teacher, then your challenge is to get kids to not only understand this but also to internalize it. In other words, tempo is something that the listener can actually feel and experience.

Bear in mind that both tempo and rhythm are a part of timing in music. However, while the rhythm must remain the same, the tempo can be changed. Certain measures or phrases in a given piece of music may be played at a variety of tempos. Accordingly, it is valuable for young musicians to learn to identify these notations in sheet music.

Let’s take a closer look at tempo and how its concepts can be introduced to young learners.

Tempo as a Concept

The tempo of a piece of music refers to how fast or slow it should be played. A composer may indicate the tempo on any music that they create.

If you were explaining the concept of tempo to children, you might distinguish it by pointing out that a song’s time signature tells musicians where sounds are placed in the piece while the tempo refers to how those sounds are placed in relation to real time. As an example, you could sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at a super-fast tempo that could finish the piece in about 30 seconds. Alternatively, you could slow the tempo way down and take 10 minutes to finish it.

The markings on a metronome correspond to tempo, and the tempo also may be indicated via the use of certain words placed below or above the staff. Sheet music for most songs has metronome markings included at the beginning. These markings may be similar to the top number on the time signature for the song. However, the metronome markings do not indicate beats per measure, but beats per minute.

This notation is written like an equation that is relative to the time signature. For example, when a song uses common time, the metronome mark may be indicated as a quarter note that equals a certain number. That number tells the musician how many quarter notes are played in one minute. It is possible to estimate the tempo by using a clock, but a metronome remains the most reliable way to ensure that the tempo for a piece is accurate.

Introducing Tempo to Kids

It is possible for even the youngest music student to notice differences in tempo just by listening. Of course, it’s more fun to do some activities that are a little more engaging.

The most basic of these activities is to incorporate some stationary movements into the learning. These movements may include clapping, tapping feet, patting, waving or even marching in place. All of these activities can be done on the spot so you could potentially have little space and a lot of kids and still make this activity a success.

If you have more space, then you may want to encourage your students to dance to the music. This is a fantastic way for students to experience tempo with their whole bodies. Let students come up with their own choreography or teach them a folk dance or another dance that they can all do together. This can be an especially valuable activity if you are working on changing speeds with a particular piece of music.

Another fun activity is to create a “train” around the classroom with your students. If you have a song about a train to work with, that makes the experience even better. Lead the students around the room in a circle or a line, demonstrating how you can speed up or slow down the tempo. Once kids are “on board” with this activity, have them take turns leading the train.

Kids love a chance to conduct a piece of music. You can have all of the kids do this at once with a recorded piece. Alternatively, you can select one of the kids to be the conductor for the class. He will have the other musicians play a piece at a tempo of his choosing.

If music composition is a part of your lessons, then this is another valuable opportunity to play with tempo. Ask your students to choose a tempo for their personal compositions. This works not only for older students, who are more likely to be writing longer compositions, but also for younger students who are making brief rhythmic patterns. They like deciding whether their rhythmic pattern should be fast or slow.

Teach Tempo Vocabulary

One of the things that is fun about learning music is the vocabulary. Most of it is in Italian, and kids love hearing the foreign but beautiful sounds.

When you are introducing tempo to students, you will want to help them familiarize themselves with tempo terms. These might include:

  • Presto, or very fast;
  • Allegro, meaning fast;
  • Moderato, referring to a medium tempo;
  • Andante, or a walking pace;
  • Largo, meaning a slow, broad tempo; and
  • Grave, referring to a solemn and sedate pace.

As you and your students dive deeper into tempo, you may want to introduce different vocabulary. This may include terms like meno, meaning “less,” and molto, meaning “a lot.”

Tempo Changes

This exercise may help students to identify gradual changes in tempo that are used in a piece. Explain to students that each of these tempo changes has a specific name. Some of the tempo changes that you might highlight for students include:

  • Ritenuto, or slower;
  • Ritardando, which means that the tempo is slowing;
  • Accelerando, or a tempo that is getting faster; and
  • Tempo I, which means returning to the song’s original tempo.

Play Musical Chairs

Here is a fun activity that little kids want to do again and again. Your students probably already are familiar with musical chairs. In this version, the goal is to sing and sit faster and faster. All the while, the kids are learning four of the basic tempos.

All you need are a music player, like an MP3 device, a playlist of four songs with differing tempos and a chair for each student minus one.

Let the students know that the activity will help them explore four tempos: adagio, moderato, allegro and presto.

Once you have introduced the concept of tempos and how fast or slow each of these words indicates a piece should go, you’re ready to begin.

For the first round, play one of your pre-selected songs. You’ll play a different song for each round, and accordingly, the kids will experience a different tempo in each round. Ask the students to move in time with the music. In other words, they will move slower during the adagio piece and as fast as they can during the presto piece.

When the music stops, all the kids scramble for a chair. The one who doesn’t claim a seat is out.

Look to Prodigies for More Ideas

At Prodigies, we believe that learning about music is fun. Each of our educational programs is designed to both delight and inform. Kids are introduced to basic concepts like beat, tempo, pitch and many others while having a fantastic time. The result is students who are highly engaged, energized and have a firm grasp on all the fundamentals of music.

Music instructors frequently use the programs at Prodigies to enhance their curriculum. If you are looking for fresh and innovative ideas to spark the imaginations of your students, then start browsing our website today. With our many video lessons and supporting materials, we probably have exactly what you need to help your students begin a lifelong passion for music.

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