Keeping the Tempo of Music

Tempo means, quite basically, "time," and when you hear people talk about the tempo of a musical piece, they are referring to the speed at which the music progresses. The point of tempo isn't necessarily how fast or slowly you can play a musical piece, however. What tempo really does is set the basic mood of a piece of music.

The importance of tempo can truly be appreciated when you consider that the original purpose of much popular music was to accompany people who were dancing. Often the movement of the dancers' feet and body positions worked to set the tempo of the music, and the musicians followed the dancers.

Prior to the 17th century, though, composers had no real control over how their transcribed music would be performed by others, especially by those who had never heard the pieces performed by their creators. It was only in the 1600s that the concept of using tempo and dynamic markings in sheet music began to be employed.

The metronome: Not just for hypnotists anymore

Despite what you may have gathered from horror movies and Alfred Hitchcock films, that pyramid-shaped ticking box, the metronome, does have a purpose besides turning human beings into mindless zombies.

The metronome was first invented in 1696 by the French inventor Étienne Loulié. Loulié's first prototype consisted of a very simple weighted pendulum. The problem with his invention, though, was that in order to work with beats as slow as 40 to 60 beats per minutes (bpm), the device had to be at least 6 feet tall!

It wasn't until more than 100 years later that two German tinkerers, Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel and Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, worked independently to produce the spring-loaded design that is the basis for analog (non-electric) metronomes today. Maelzel was the first to slap a patent on the finished product, and as a result, his initial is attached to the standard 4:4 beat tempo sign, MM=120. MM is short for Maelzel's metronome, and the 120 means there will be 120 bpm in the piece played.

Musicians and composers alike embraced the metronome. From then on, when composers wrote a piece of music, they could give musicians an exact numeric speed at which to play the piece.

Tempo notation

Although the metronome was the perfect invention for control freaks, such as Beethoven and Mozart, most composers were happy instead to use the growing vocabulary of tempo notation to generally describe the pace of a song. Even today, the same words used to describe tempo and pace in music are used. They are Italian words, simply because when these phrases came into use (1600–1750), the bulk of European music came from Italian composers.

Following are some of the most standard tempo notations in Western music, usually found written above the time signature at the beginning of a piece of music:

  • Grave:The slowest pace. Very formal, and very, very slow.
  • Largo: Funeral march slow. Very serious and somber.
  • Larghetto: Slow, but not as slow as Largo.
  • Lento: Slow.
  • Adagio: Leisurely. Think graduation and wedding marches.
  • Andante: Walking pace.
  • Moderato: Right smack in the middle. Not fast or slow, just moderate.
  • Allegretto: Moderately fast.
  • Vivace: Lively, fast.
  • Presto: Very fast.
  • Prestissimo: Think Presto after a few too many espressos.
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