Pretty much every song is meant to be played at a certain speed – go too fast or too slow and the song loses its meaning.
Can you imagine a song that’s supposed to be lively and upbeat being played at the pace of a funeral march? The whole style of the song would be ruined.
To prevent this from happening producers, songwriters, and composers will set a tempo that matches the speed of the song with the desired style. They will do this in one of two ways:
1. By utilizing a stylistic term, or
2. More commonly, by setting a specific number of beats to be played per minute
Beats Per Minute (BPM) Explained
BPM is a very precise way of writing tempo that describes the number of times a beat will occur within a one minute interval.
This is easiest to understand with an example: Let’s say a song is to be played at 60 BPM. This means that one beat will occur every second (since there are 60 seconds in a minute and the song is to be played at 60 BPM, one beat will be played per second).
What Determines The Beat?
BPM will always be associated to a type of note, which tends to vary based on the time signature. In 4/4 time it’s most common that the quarter note will mark the tempo (production software tends to default to 4/4 time and also uses the quarter note as the BPM determinant). In 6/8 time it’s more common that the dotted quarter note will determine the speed of the song.
When BPM is written on sheet music it is called a tempo marking and looks like this:
Here we see that the quarter note should be played at 80 BPM.
If you were to sit down and play you might be uncertain of how fast the song should go – how do you know how fast 80 BPM is? Musicians use a metronome to determine tempo with precision. To use such a device simply input your BPM and a series of beeps will indicate how fast you should play.
Understanding Stylistic Tempo Terms
Used most commonly in classical compositions, there are a variety of terms that describe how fast a song should be played.
From slow to fast, here are many of the more common musical tempo terms and what they mean:
Grave – Extremely slow and solemn sounding
Largo – Slow and stately
Lento – Slowly
Adagio – Slowly and leisurely
Andante – “At a walking pace”
Moderato – Moderate speed
Allegro – Fairly quickly
Vivace – Lively and brisk
Presto – Very fast
Prestissimo – Extremely fast
A Note On Style
These terms are meant to be stylistic guidelines and do not indicate a precise speed at which the song should be played.
If you’re to play prestissimo, which is done extremely quickly, just play what you regard to be at that speed and don’t worry about a specific BPM.
You might be tempted to think, “Well in 4/4 time prestissimo that would be about 200 BPM so I’ll set the metronome and play that speed.” Not only does this strip a sense of style out of the song, it might drastically change how it’s supposed to sound.
If the song is filled with whole notes and half notes then playing at 200 BPM won’t be a problem, but if it’s filled with thirty second notes playing at that speed is going to be physically impossible.
Always use your best judgement as to how fast the song should go.
When Tempo Changes
Composers use a variety of terms to describe when the speed of a song should change:
Ritenuto – Immediately slow down
Veloce – Immediately speed up
Accelerando – Gradually speed up
Additional Tempo Terms
Here are some additional terms you may see in a piece of music:
A Tempo – Return to the previous tempo
Tempo Primo – Return to the tempo at the beginning (the original tempo)