What is Tempo?

Tempo is the pace or speed of the music. Higher tempo means a faster song, whereas a lower tempo means a slower song.

Tempo is flexible in classical music — many pieces have parts that speed up or slow down expressively, which is known as rubato. This is much less common in popular music, which usually has a “fundamental pulse” that stays at the same tempo throughout the song. Some parts of the song may sound more energetic than others, but that’s because the musicians are packing more notes into the same tempo. In other words, you could keep a metronome going at the same setting throughout these songs, and it would never lose the beat, even during the parts that sound slower or faster.

Types of Tempo

Tempo can be described with numbers or with words. With numbers, it’s described in BPM or “beats per minute,” which is a setting you can find on any digital metronome. 120 BPM is a fairly standard setting, and many popular songs fall roughly within the range of 100-120 BPM.

In classical music, tempo is usually described with words rather than numbers. There’s a standard set of Italian terms used in classical music.

Presto~170 BPMFast, often used in dances
Allegro~130 BPMBrisk, but not strenuously fast
Moderato~95 BPMModerate pace
Andante~75 BPMWalking pace, relaxed
Adagio~60 BPMSlow

Tempo vs. Beat vs. Rhythm

These three terms are often confused, but they mean slightly different things. “Beat” and “tempo” are very closely related: beat describes the fundamental pulse of a song, or what you would tap your foot to while listening. Tempo describes the speed of that pulse, so it’s one of the most important characteristics of a beat.

Rhythm, on the other hand, is more complicated, and describes the specific way that musicians layer notes on top of the beat.

Here’s a simple example of how the terms are related:

Beat: The count of 1-2-3-4

Tempo: The speed of counting

Rhythm: clapping your hands on 2 and 4, but not 1 or 3

Changing Tempo

In most songs (especially popular music), the basic tempo doesn’t change throughout the song. However, there are musical concepts that involve speeding up or slowing down the tempo. One of these we’ve already seen: rubato, or slight expressive changes in tempo. Check out example #1 below if you want to hear rubato in action.

For larger or more permanent changes, classical music has another pair of concepts: accelerando (“accelerate”) and ritardando (“slow down”). Accelerando and ritardando refer to a gradual but sustained change in the tempo. You’ll sometimes see these terms written above a line of music, indicating that the composer wants you to change the tempo at this point.



“Prelude in E-Minor” by Chopin

Frédéric ChopinPrelude in E-Minor (op.28 no. 4)

March 1, 1810 -- October 17, 1849) was a Polish virtuoso pianist and piano composer of the Romantic period. He is widely regarded as the greatest Polish composer, and one of the most influential composers for piano in the 19th century. Chopin was a genius of universal appeal. His music conquers the most diverse audiences. When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sigh of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. Yet it is not "Romantic music" in the Byronic sense. It does not tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive and personal, but still a pure art. Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people! Chopin's music for the piano combined a unique rhythmic sense (particularly his use of rubato), frequent use of chromaticism, and counterpoint. This mixture produces a particularly fragile sound in the melody and the harmony, which are nonetheless underpinned by solid and interesting harmonic techniques. He took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by Irish composer John Field, to a deeper level of sophistication. Three of his twenty-one nocturnes were only published after his death in 1849, contrary to his wishes.He also endowed popular dance forms, such as the Polish mazurka and the waltz, Viennese Waltz, with a greater range of melody and expression. Chopin was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual pieces. Chopin also took the example of Bach's preludes and fugues, transforming the genre in his own preludes. Chopin was born in the village of Żelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw, to a Polish mother and French-expatriate father and came to be regarded as a child-prodigy pianist. In November 1830, at the age of twenty, Chopin went abroad. After the suppression of the Polish 1830--31 Uprising, he became one of the many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration. In Paris he made a comfortable living as composer and piano teacher, while giving few public performances. A great Polish patriot, in France he used the French version of his given name and, to avoid having to rely on Imperial Russian documents, eventually became a French citizen.After some ill-fated romantic involvements with Polish ladies, from 1837 to 1847 he conducted a turbulent relationship with the French writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant). Always in frail health, at 39 in Paris he succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis. Chopin's extant compositions all include the piano, predominantly alone or as a solo instrument among others. Though his music is technically demanding, its style emphasizes nuance and expressive depth rather than technical virtuosity. Chopin invented new musical forms such as the ballade,and made major innovations to existing forms such as the piano sonata, waltz, nocturne, étude, impromptu, and prelude. His works are mainstays of Romanticism in 19th-century classical music. His mazurkas and polonaises remain the cornerstone of Polish national classical music. [from Wikipedia]">

This is one of Chopin’s most popular pieces, and a good example of music played in “moderato” (the BPM in this performance is roughly 85). However, if you count along with the beat, you’ll find that it speeds up and slows down significantly. This is called rubato, or a performer’s subtle changing of the tempo for expressive purposes.

“Sing Sing Sing” by Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman Orchestra "Sing, Sing, Sing" Gene Krupa – Drums, from "Hollywood Hotel" film (1937)

This is a classic of swing jazz, played at a blistering 255 BPM. In classical music, this tempo would be called prestissimo, or “extremely fast.” Notice the lack of rubato — Benny’s drummer keeps a constant, steady pulse throughout the song and never speeds up or slows down even as the song shifts around him.


Why is Tempo Important?

Tempo is one of the most basic characteristics of music. Dance music tends to be uptempo, while ballads are usually much slower, and this helps listeners relate to the music and respond to it emotionally. If you want a hands-on demonstration of the importance of tempo, find a sped-up or slowed-down version of some of your favorite music (it’s all over YouTube), and notice how much of an impact this has on the sound.


How to Identify Tempo

When Reading

In sheet music, you can usually find the tempo on the top right of the page, just below the title. It’s almost always written in Italian rather than BPM, but most metronomes will have a setting that allows you to translate.

When Listening

It’s very easy to hear the tempo of a song — just clap or tap your feet, and notice how fast you’re going. To translate that into BPM, you can easily find metronome apps or websites with a “tap” feature; this will provide you with a button that you can tap in time to the music, and the computer will translate that into a BPM number.