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Tempo: Definition and Uses in Musical Forms

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  • 0:05 Tempo and Beats per Minute
  • 1:12 Tempo Markings - Speed
  • 4:37 Tempo Markings - Character
  • 5:01 Tempo as a Title and…
  • 6:20 Tempo and Expression
  • 7:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

How does the speed of a song affect our emotions? How can we determine the speed of a song just by looking at it? By learning about tempo, we can find out!

Tempo and Beats per Minute

Imagine you are walking your dog. You are walking at a slow, steady pace, enjoying the sunshine. Then, suddenly, your dog begins chasing a squirrel and pulls you along at breakneck speed; your heart is racing, and your legs are scrambling so fast they feel as if they're barely touching the ground. In this, your dog has just taught you the concept of tempo.

Tempo can be defined as the pace or speed at which a section of music is played. Tempos, or tempi, help the composer to convey a feeling of either intensity or relaxation. We can think of the tempo as the speedometer of the music. Typically, the speed of the music is measured in beats per minute, or BPM. For example, if you listen to the second hand on a clock, you will hear 60 ticks - or in musical terms, 60 beats - in one minute.

The tempo can have virtually any amount of beats per minute. The lower the number of beats per minute, the slower the tempo will feel. Inversely, the higher the number of beats per minute, the faster the tempo will be. You can think of it like a speed limit. The higher the number of the speed limit, the faster you are allowed to drive.

Tempo Markings - Speed

While car speeds are dictated with street signs, tempos are often indicated with an Italian word. These words, called tempo markings, can appear anywhere in a piece of music, but most often, they are seen either at the beginning of a piece of music or at the beginning of a section within a piece of music. The tempo markings represent a spectrum of tempi. Let's look at some of the most common tempi and their place within the spectrum of 20 beats per minute to 208 beats per minute.

Starting with one of the slowest tempos, grave is extremely slow and solemn at 20 to 40 beats per minute. Playing or listening to a song at this pace can be difficult, as the pulse of the song is literally about every two seconds. This does make its name easy to remember, though, as you'd basically have to have recently risen from the grave to move that slowly.

Largo is the next bump up the speedometer with a pace of 40 to 50 beats per minute. At around the same tempo, we also have lento, which falls between 40 to 60 beats per minute. The difference between the two is that lento is generally slow, and largo is reserved for more broadly-played music. Largo is usually reserved for thick, bold or even majestic sounds, like the feeling you might get when approaching a king's castle. Lento, on the other hand, is used to denote slow music in general and tends not to be so thick or emotional.

One more notch up the tempo ladder is adagio. Adagio checks in at 51 to 60 beats per minute and literally means 'at ease.' A very common tempo is andante. Andante is meant to be at walking pace and generally registers from 60 to 80 beats per minute. Remember that these tempi were determined before stressed-out Wall Street bigwigs and corporate movers and shakers were moving so quickly. Andante can also be remembered as near one's resting heart rate.

At the middle of the spectrum is moderato. Moderato, as you can probably guess, is at a moderate pace and is played at 81 to 90 beats per minute. From here, we start moving into faster tempi. Allegretto is moderately quick at 91 to 104 beats per minute. Its slightly quicker brother, allegro, is a very commonly-used tempo, partly because of its happy, quick pace and partly because the range of BPM is so large: its range is from 105 to 132 beats per minute. Many commercials will use this tempo because it is slightly higher than the average heart rate and therefore gives a sense of excitement.

Vivace livens the pace at 132 beats per minute and above, while presto imitates a sprinter's heart at a quick 168 to 177 beats per minute. Finally, prestissimo is the territory of the cheetah at an extremely fast 178 to 208 BPM. For those of you keeping track, that's a little more than three beats per second!

A good way to remember the order of these tempos is with a mnemonic device. The best way is to come up with your own, but here's one to get you started: 'Gracious Llamas Love Autumn Apples, Mostly After A Vivacious Picking Party.' That would be representing grave, lento, largo, adagio, andante, moderato, allegretto, allegro, vivace, presto and prestissimo.

Tempo Markings - Character

Some tempo markings show more of a character, which have implied tempi rather than a strict amount of beats per minute. Though they're Italian, a little common sense is usually enough to guess a proper interpretation. For example, animato is animated and gives a different feeling than that of tranquillamente (tranquil) or even furioso (furiously).

Tempo as a Title and Implied Tempi

Occasionally, tempo markings are part of a song's title, which acts as an obvious indicator of the type of piece it is. Barber's Adagio for Strings is so deeply distraught in sound that it has often played as a background in everything from the announcement of John F. Kennedy's assassination to the satirical accompaniment of South Park and the dramatics of The Simpsons.

Some types of songs imply a tempo, even without being marked. This was often before the Baroque period - the time period when tempo markings began being used. The tempi of these songs were typically based on their purpose. For example, waltzes or pavanes, both of which were used to accompany dances, would need to be played at a slow to moderate speed that one could dance to. You know, because no one wants a broken ankle when they're trying to flaunt their moves on the ballroom dance floor.

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