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How to Keep the Beat in Music

1 of 9 in Series: The Essentials of Reading Piano Music

The beat is what you tap your foot to; it’s the steady pulse that keeps your piano playing on track. In fact, to understand musical beats and how they’re measured, look at a clock and tap your foot once every second. You’re tapping beats.

How fast or how slow you tap these beats is called tempo. For example, when you tap a slow, steady tempo of one beat for every second, the tempo is 60 beats per minute. When you tap your foot two times per second, you’re tapping a moderately fast march tempo at the rate of 120 beats per minute.

Composers use a tempo indication and sometimes a metronome marking that tells you the exact rate of the beat, as measured in beats per minute to tell you how fast or slow the beat is. The tempo indication, shown above the treble staff at the beginning of the music, is a word or two that describes the beat in a simple way: fast, slow, moderately fast, and so on.

Tempos and Their Approximate Beats Per Minute
Tempo Indication Translation General Parameters of Number of Beats Per Minute
Largo Very slowly (broad) 40–60
Adagio Slowly 60–72
Andante Moderately (walking tempo) 72–96
Allegro Fast, lively 96–132
Vivace Lively, brisk (faster than allegro) 132–168
Presto Very fast 168–208

Keep in mind that tempo indications leave a good amount of discretion to the performer and can be followed in ways not limited to the exact rate of the beat.

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