What’s Tempo Got To Do With It?

My MetronomeMy dad used to tap his toe whenever he heard a good up-tempo beat.

As a kid, I would ask him why he had to tap his toe. He would always reply, “It’s got a good beat, I just have to!”

My dad’s experience was pretty normal. Believe me, many record producers have spent lots of time and money to find out just what the right tempo is. They have understood that each song, while somewhat unique, will have certain sweet spots that will help it to sell. And one of those keys is tempo.

Though hitting the right notes in a song is important, getting the rhythm, groove and feel of the song are even more important. You can play a wrong note or a dubious chord and the listener’s ear will forgive it quickly. But if you drop a beat, they’ve got you!

Similarly, the listener will have an unconscious expectation regarding the speed of the song. They expect it to feel right. A wrong tempo can torpedo everything else, just making it sound like junk.

Some Definitions We Can Agree On

Without getting too technical, let’s define some terms to make sure we’re speaking the same language.

Beat = a length of time, the basic unit of time measurement for each note in a song

Pulse = the beginning of each beat, the place where you want to tap your foot

Rhythm = how note lengths compare to the beat (for example, varying note lengths can create many different rhythmic patterns while the beat stays constant)

Tempo = the overall pace of the song, how fast or slow the pulse of the music goes by

The Big Deal With Tempo

In order to make the rhythms sound like they did in the composer’s mind, we need to make sure they are happening at the correct pace. Playing too fast can turn an up-tempo song into a frantic race, and playing a ballad too slowly will turn it into a funeral dirge. Most musicians have a tendency to get a little excited as they play, and when we (myself included) get excited, we tend to “rush the tempo.” We’ll speed the song up, little by little, until by the time the song is over, the groove is long gone. We’ve left our listeners in the dust. Most often this happens when we are building energy in the song, like going from a verse to a chorus, or from a chorus into a bridge. The drums are filling, keys and guitars are increasing their volume, the bass is playing a cool riff as a lead-in, and so on. We naturally are feeling the surge in intensity, so we speed up the tempo. Beethoven, the moody, master composer that he was, must have recognized this tendency. So he apparently made a suggestion to an inventor, one Johann Matzel (according to http://dictionary.onmusic.org/terms/2158-metronome), who in 1816 invented a wonderfully helpful and torturous device called a metronome. It’s sole function is to sit on your piano or the table next to you, and tick. You can set it to tick faster or slower, but once you start it, it remains a constant source of delight as the musician tries to match his or her own artistic flair with this obnoxious little machine. I knew Beethoven could be moody, and I expect his intentions were good. But personally, I hate practicing with a metronome. I do sometimes practice with it, but only because I have to. It’s not the highlight of my day! What I actually find to be the most useful aspect of a metronome is having a way to measure the actual tempo of various songs. I’ll find a song with a groove I like, and when I use a metronome to figure out how many beats-per-minute the groove is using, I can duplicate it in my own playing more accurately. If I guess, I’ll usually go too fast. But if I use the metronome as a tool, I’ll come much closer to the feel of the original song.

How the Metronome Defines Tempo

Another metronome of mine The metronome will typically divide tempos into six ranges, all given Italian names:

  • Largo (very slow): from 40 to 60 bpm
  • Adagio (slowly, at ease): from 60 to 78
  • Andante (a walking speed): from 78 to 108
  • Moderato (a moderate speed, right in the middle): from 108 to 120
  • Allegro (cheerful and quick): from 120 to 168
  • Presto (very fast): from 168 to 208

There are finer divisions and subsets of these tempos, but this list is typically how tempos are broken down.

Some Benchmark Tempos To Remember

When I’m trying to play at a certain tempo, it’s helpful to me to have some benchmarks to think about as I get started. Here are some familiar songs with easy to remember tempos, just to get you started:

  • The Stars And Stripes Forever (this is a march, for you younger musicians) and Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepson= 120 bpm
  • Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ = approx. 118 bpm
  • Pharrell Williams’ Happy = approx. 80 bpm
  • Let It Go (from Frozen, sung by Idina Menzel) = approx 69 bpm
  • Do You Want To Build A Snowman (from Frozen, sung by Kristen Bell) = starts at 148, the chorus speeds up to 160 bpm

Let me encourage you to figure out the tempos you hear, then practice them intentionally with a metronome. If you start practicing a song using the tempo from the recording, you’ll come a lot closer to giving a pleasing rendition of it. You’ve got to be deliberate with this, however. Pay attention to exactly how fast you are playing. It will make a huge difference to all who hear your songs. Tempo can be an elusive facet of the songs we play. For more practical tools and advice to improve your musical skills, let me invite you to sign up to receive my Next-Step Musicianship blog via email (top right of this page). You have my promise that we will never share your email address with anyone else.

Question: Do you find that controlling tempo is an issue for you as well? How do you practice to develop control? Please leave your comment or email me at [email protected], I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Leading Your Team Through The Critical Moments

from Scene 2Every team faces those moments when all of their labor and effort are put to the test. It might be the day of the big race or the ship date for a new product. For my team, it was now Easter weekend, and our church’s big event, our Easter production, was having a difficult week.

These productions, which we create and perform at Christmas and Easter every year, are a big deal to us. They are one of the vehicles we use to insert ourselves into our community with the message of hope in the Gospel, and we perform them at the local high school.  And they are well-received, many visitors come, they look forward to them.

And so our rehearsals for the cast and music team had been ramping up, lines and blocking were getting nailed down, lyrics and grooves were starting to gel, set pieces were being designed and built by our stage crew. And we had the foresight to ask for an additional setup day at the school this time, so when we carried everything in and set it all up on Wednesday, we were a day ahead of our normal schedule.  Felt good, we were on track.

And then it got weird.

The Other Event

Thursday morning, we got a call from the school, letting us know that somehow a performance in the high school auditorium had been overlooked when we booked it, and there would be a large group of elementary kids coming to see a stage production late morning. They needed us to remove our set pieces and sound system in a hurry.

Just what you want to hear the day before your dress rehearsal.

So three of our guys rushed over, unplugged, pushed, coiled and roped off, creating a suitable compromise that saved the day for the school. But that night, we had to redo what they had undone, and we pretty much lost the day.

But we still had dress rehearsal on Friday night, so no worries. Right?


I don’t remember the exact time I got the news on Friday, but it wasn’t much before the starting time for our dress rehearsal.  The school was dark, it had lost power, along with half of the village.  I checked the power company’s website, and we thought we’d have it back pretty soon, so we still gathered at the school, ready to dive in whenever the lights came on.

The estimates for restoring power kept getting later and later. It became obvious to us that no rehearsal was going to happen at the school for the rest of the night, so we met together in the cafeteria (the windows allowed us to see each other as the evening light dimmed outside).

Now I have to tell you, whenever I have to speak to a large group of people, I get nervous.  Even though these people are all my friends and even though I have spoken to many groups in the past, there is nothing quite like being the person everyone is looking to for a plan in the midst of unsure circumstances.  I do not revel in those moments as some leaders might.  Give me a guitar and a song, I’m good to go. But this shooting-from-the-hip sort of thing makes me a little crazy.

We looked at our options and decided to move back to the church for one more cast-only rehearsal.  But everyone understood, and I heard not a hint of complaining from our folks. If we had been a paid, professional company, I daresay that would not have been the case. Instead, we prayed together.

Facing the Heat

We arrived a bit earlier than planned on Saturday so that we could do our dress rehearsal. It was almost funny when we walked into the auditorium and found it to be 120 degrees (our best guess).  The power outage had apparently reset heating systems in every school in town. Thanks to a very helpful custodial staff, fans were brought in and they got the air circulating somewhat. By late afternoon, the AC was on and we were good to go. And we finished our rehearsing just before the doors opened. 

There were other technical complications as well. Melting gels on lights, computers winking out and back on.  What a ride! But our team stepped up, kept focused and worked together to make it happen.  I am always proud of our people for their dedication and esprit de corp. Never more so than this weekend!

The finale
The finale

Lessons for the Leader

It turned out to be a great weekend and a wonderful service.  And I have had a few lessons reinforced for me, principles that may help you as you lead your team.

  1.  Don’t procrastinate in planning or preparing. Our team had done a really good job of rehearsing, and the main things we didn’t get to were staging issues. If materials can get in the hands of the cast and music team before everything is rushed, the better prepared (and happier) they will be.
  2. Be forthcoming with your team about difficulties. We talked about the issues that could have derailed us and we formulated a plan together.  We’re much stronger as a team!
  3. Celebrate your team. When people step up, whether onstage, behind the curtain, in the sound booth or taking care of unexpected circumstances, everyone does their part to make an event like this successful. We, as leaders, cannot say “thank you” too much!
  4. Weigh your own behaviors carefully.  People are looking to you for a plan, for confidence, for an optimistic outlook that will help them exercise faith.  Giving up, losing control or being fatalistic are all options that lead to disaster.

And one final step for me – though I can’t predict a power outage, I can and will call the school early in the week next time to confirm there are no other performances!

 We have a great team.  I am honored to lead this group of artists.

 How does your team handle unhelpful surprises? Please comment below or contact me with any questions at [email protected].

 © 2014 Steve Case