Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is Tempo? How Is Tempo Used in Music?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 5 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Hans Zimmer Teaches Film Scoring

When Adele decided to cover The Cure’s 1989 hit “Lovesong,” she figured out a way to make it her own: slowing it down. When Earl Hines adapted the Fats Waller standard “Honeysuckle Rose,” he did what many jazz musicians do: he sped it up. Both these artists took ownership of their respective cover songs with a specific technique: they changed the tempo.

Close

What Is Tempo?

Tempo is the speed at which a piece of music is played. There are three primary ways that tempo is communicated to players: BPM, Italian terminology, and modern language.

What Is Beats Per Minute (BPM)?

This method involves assigning a numerical value to a tempo. “Beats per minute” (or BPM) is self-explanatory: it indicates the number of beats in one minute. For instance, a tempo notated as 60 BPM would mean that a beat sounds exactly once per second. A 120 BPM tempo would be twice as fast, with two beats per second.

In terms of musical notation, a beat almost always corresponds with the piece’s time signature.

  • In a time signature with a 4 on the bottom (such as 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc.), a beat will correspond with quarter notes. So in a 4/4 time, every four beats will take you through a full measure. In 5/4 time, every five beats will take you through a measure.
  • In a time signature with an 8 on the bottom (such as 3/8, 6/8, or 9/8), a tempo beat typically corresponds with an eighth note.
  • Sometimes tempo beats correspond with other durations. For instance, if you want to count your way through a measure of 12/8, you could choose a tempo that represents eighth notes (where 12 tempo beats get you through one measure) or a tempo that represents dotted eighth notes (where 4 tempo beats would get you through the measure).

BPM is the most precise way of indicating fast tempo or slow tempo. It’s used in applications where musical durations must be completely precise, such as film scoring. It’s also used to set metronomes that are used on the highest level professional recordings. In fact, some people use the term “metronome marking” to describe beats per minute.

What Is Italian Music Terminology?

For centuries, Italian has been the language of music. On a musical score, particularly in classical music, musicians are given instructions in Italian. When it comes to tempo, certain Italian words convey tempo change through specific information about the speed of the music.

Some Italian tempos are used more than others (particularly popular are largo, andante, allegro, and presto), but classical musicians are typically familiar with at least a dozen Italian tempo indications. (Note that ancient musical scores and liturgical texts may also include tempo instructions in Latin.)

What Is Casual Musical Language?

Jazz and rock musicians tend to not use the Italian tempo lexicon. Rather, they use terms from casual English, such as “fast,” “slow,” “lazily,” “relaxed,” and “moderate.” In these ensembles, a drummer may establish the tempo by clicking her sticks, or a band member may play a solo introduction that establishes a tempo for the other players.

What Are the Basic Tempo Markings?

Italian musical terminology makes regular use of the following tempo markings:

  • Larghissimo—very, very slow, almost droning (20 BPM and below)
  • Grave—slow and solemn (20–40 BPM)
  • Lento—slowly (40–60 BPM)
  • Largo—the most commonly indicated “slow” tempo (40–60 BPM)
  • Larghetto—rather broadly, and still quite slow (60–66 BPM)
  • Adagio—another popular slow tempo, which translates to mean "at ease" (66–76 BPM)
  • Adagietto—rather slow (70–80 BPM)
  • Andante moderato—a bit slower than andante
  • Andante—a popular tempo that translates as “at a walking pace” (76–108 BPM)
  • Andantino—slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato—moderately (108–120 BPM)
  • Allegretto—moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato—moderately quick (112–124 BPM)
  • Allegro—perhaps the most frequently used tempo marking (120–168 BPM, which includes the “heartbeat tempo” sweet spot)
  • Vivace—lively and fast (typically around 168-176 BPM)
  • Vivacissimo—very fast and lively, even faster than vivace
  • Allegrissimo—very fast
  • Presto—the most popular way to write “very fast” and a common tempo in fast movements of symphonies (ranges from 168–200 BPM)
  • Prestissimo—extremely fast (more than 200 BPM)

How Is Tempo Used in Music?

Tempo is a key element of a musical performance. Within a piece of music, tempo can be just as important as melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, and dynamics. Classical conductors use different tempos to help distinguish their orchestra’s rendition of a classic piece from renditions by other ensembles. However, most composers, all the way from Mozart to Pierre Boulez, provide plenty of tempo instructions in their musical scores. And when it comes to film underscore, certain tempos are essential when setting certain moods.

One particularly notable tempo is the “heart rate tempo,” which is a musical speed that roughly aligns with the beating pulse of a human heart. Although heart rates vary from person to person, most fall in the range of 120 to 130 BPM. Analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of hit singles have been written within this tempo range.

What Is Tempo Rubato?

In music theory, the Italian term rubato tells a player that there isn’t a set tempo. The player is encouraged to set her own tempo and (in many cases) to find places to vary the tempo, rather than sound locked in like a human drum machine.

Hans Zimmer on couch

Close

Tempo Tip From Hans Zimmer: Write With a Metronome

Film composer Hans Zimmer, who has created music for over 150 films, considers tempo to be an essential tool as he works with visual imagery. His main tip is to utilize technology—both new and old. This includes amazing software suites, but it also includes ancient inventions such as a metronome.

Zimmer will start composing by setting a metronome. The click is steady, reliable, and serves as a grid as the composer maps out the pace of the drama. He used to watch a scene, then turn the picture off to write, and turn it back on to see if his composition and the scene matched up. Now, he’s able to identify common tempos: 80 BPM is a great starting point for film because it is seductive but easily syncs with faster-paced scenes. 60 BPM is a bit slower and somehow sounds “profound,” while 140 BPM is a bit more energetic and dance-like.

Learn more about musical tempos and composition from Hans Zimmer here.