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