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What Is Tempo? How Is It Used In Music?

Many of the terms used in music theory come from the Italian language because musicians from various regions in Italy were among the first to confer an academic approach to music education; this is similar to the reason why so many culinary terms come from the French language. Tempo should literally translate to “timing” in English, but musicians know that this term refers to the notation that indicates the speed at which pieces should be played. In essence, tempo is a measurement of beats that can be associated to various standards developed over many centuries; these days, it is more likely to be referred to as beats-per-minute (BPM) thanks to the flourish of electronic music composition in recent decades.

Even though tempo has always been measured in beats, which means that it can be numerically expressed, composers and performers used to describe it through the feelings it could evoke in certain pieces. Let’s look as some tempo markings typically found in chamber music:

  • Grave is for dirges and funeral marches.
  • Adagio is slow but with a certain emphasis, thus making it ideal for instrumental poems.
  • Andante denotes a strolling or moderate gallop.
  • Marcia moderato is faster and more resolute than andante, thus ideal for military and patriotic pieces.

Tempos can be mixed in order to tell stories, which is why operas and opus pieces such as Symphony Number 6 by Gustav Mahler feature plenty of tempo changes and variations. When Mahler composed his magnus opus during a particularly tragic period of his life, and this explains why the symphony jumps from allegro to scherzo to andante before culminating in a complex instrumentation that starts with allegro moderato and finishes with a glorious allegro filled with energy.

By the time the metronome was introduced in the 19th century, the BPM concept had already taken hold, and music theory began to turn slightly mathematical. Beethoven was interested in technology, and he made very good use of metronomes, thus becoming an unintentional endorser of Johann Nepomuk Maelze, a German inventor who had a flair for dramatic flimflam.

Tempo in Early Music Education

Music can be explained in mathematical terms; this is something that legendary jazz musician John Coltrane was particularly interested in. Coltrane applied a geometrical interpretation to his compositions and performance, which explains why his music often sounds like it makes perfect sense even when he went on lengthy saxophone jams. If we were to make analogies to math in music theory, we could safely say that tempo combines counting with basic spatial reasoning of speed.

We can’t expect babies listen to understand tempo when they listen to music, but they can certainly hear it and recognize it. From the ages between two and 24 months, children can be taught to interpret beats as units. As we all know, units can be counted, and this is the pillar of tempo: The sum of beats generated in a minute at a steady interval. Toddlers can understand units; for example, they know that one toy is one unit and a couple of toys is more than one unit. Parents naturally teach their children to count from early ages, so there is a natural cognitive progression we can take advantage of.

In the Prodigies Music program for very young learners, tempo is taught by means of clapping, tapping, and signing games such as Sweet Beets and Patty Cakes. Instruments such as color-coded desk bells are also pretty effective in terms of teaching the concept of beats per minute. It does not take long for children to understand beats as units and intervals as the silence between the two. As for speed, BPM replaces distance in the formula of dividing distance by time.

Most toddlers will have developed rudimentary counting skills along with some abstract reasoning that will enable them to time their claps, taps, signs, and utterances. This is a sign that they can get the gist of tempo.

Tempos and Time Signatures

The reason BPM is more commonly discussed instead of tempo these days is that its numeric character is easier to assign to modern music, which happens to be more complex than most people realize. Time signature is a concept that describes beats per measure, also known as the number of beats per bar. With time signature notation, we can assign note values and keys, thus making it more informational than BPM on its own.

The time signature of Michael Jackson’s classic dance hit “Billie Jean” is 116 BPM, 29 bars per minute, and a 4/4 meter set to the key of F minor. The 4/4 meter of this song is very popular in Western rock, blues, and pop genres. Here are a few characteristics of modern time signatures that are useful to know about:

  • Some of the most popular time signatures in modern music are of the “four on the bottom” variety, which means that it will take four beats before you can hear a full measure.
  • The 4/4 time signature feels natural to perform because it sounds groovy and easy to listen to. Along with 2/4, drummers can get very comfortable and proficient with 4/4; this is why many percussion students are thrown off by odd time signatures such as 5/4 when they begin practicing.
  • In case you are interested in arranging “Billie Jean” for a symphonic performance, its tempo is allegro moderato.
  • “Billie Jean” features a “boom bap” rhythm that comes from a popular style of hip-hop beat production; it consists of a stripped-down bass drum strike followed by a tight snare. Producer Quincy Jones added more speed to the traditional 80-90 BPM used by rappers in the 1980s, and when the bass melody was added, he ended up with a radio-friendly rhythm that could also be played at dance clubs with just a couple of more BPM added to the turntable mixer.

The designation of tempo serves purposes other than writing instructions on musical scores and sheet music. We will discuss how tempo can be used next.

Tempo is Always Used for Effect

A time signature is almost like a tiny composition that includes BPM as a variable. By playing with the tempo, composers and performers can impact the mood of listeners; in other words, they can set the mood of the musical piece.

Getting back to “Billie Jean,” when it was released in 1982, DJs at dance clubs found that a slight spike in the BPM was needed for people to enjoy it on the dance floor. Countless jazz covers of “Billie Jean” have been recorded with both faster and slower tempo, and one of most interesting covers is Shinehead’s “Mama Used to Say” version, which was recorded in a Jamaican dub reggae style of production.

When you have a song that seems perfect in terms of structure and pop sensibility, you can rise or lower the tempo and come up with a great musical piece just about every time. One example in this regard is Jamie Cullum’s torch version of Rihanna’s “Please Don’s Stop the Music,” which clearly borrows the production values of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Cullum brought the BPM way down for his version, which is performed with a lot of feeling, and he ended up with a pop gem that would not be out of place in a blues club.

Musicologists and behavioral researchers from the Chongqing Southwest University in China have determined that tempo generates clearly defined affectations in the superior temporal gyrus of our brains; furthermore, they have conducted studies that show musical pieces with faster tempos evoke positive feelings almost as triggers. As for intellectual stimulation, medium tempo generates the most, but when combined with changes, which in electronic dance music are known as “beat drops,” there is a boost of awareness that can favor intellectual challenges such as solving puzzles.

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