Music Theory: How to Take the Tempo of Music

By Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day

In music theory speak, tempo means “time,” and when you hear people talk about the tempo of a musical piece, they’re referring to the speed at which the music progresses. The point of tempo isn’t necessarily how quickly or slowly you can play a musical piece, however. Tempo sets 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 music was to accompany people 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, 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 creator. It was only in the 1600s that composers started using tempo markings in sheet music.

Establishing a universal tempo: The minim

The first person to write a serious book about tempo and timing in music was the French philosopher and mathematician Marin Mersenne. From an early age, Mersenne was obsessed with the mathematics and rhythms that governed daily life — such as the heartbeats of mammals, the hoof beats of horses, and the wing flaps of various species of birds. This obsession led to his interest in the field of music theory, which was still in its infancy at the time.

With the 1636 release of his book, Harmonie universelle, Mersenne introduced the concept of a universal music tempo, called the minim (named after his religious order), which was equal to the beat of the human heart, around 70 to 75 beats per minute (bpm). Furthermore, Mersenne introduced the idea of splitting his minim into smaller units so that composers could begin adding more detail to their written music.

Mersenne’s minim was greeted with open arms by the musical community. Since the introduction of written music a few hundred years before, composers had been trying to find some way to accurately reproduce the timing needed for other musicians to properly perform their written works. Musicians loved the concept because having a common beat unit to practice with made it easier for individual musicians to play the growing canon of musical standards with complete strangers.

Keeping steady time with a metronome

That pyramid‐shaped ticking box does have a purpose besides turning human beings into mindless zombies.

Practicing with a metronome is the best possible way to learn how to keep a steady pace throughout a song, and it’s one of the easiest ways to match the tempo of the piece you’re playing to the tempo conceived by the person who wrote the piece.

The metronome was first invented in 1696 by the French musician and inventor Étienne Loulié. His first prototype consisted of a simple weighted pendulum and was called a cronométre. The problem with Loulié’s invention, though, was that in order to work with beats as slow as 40 to 60 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’s the basis for analog (non‐electronic) 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 tempo sign, MM=120. MM is short for Maelzel’s metronome, and the 120 means that 120 bpm, or 120 quarter notes, should be played in the piece.

Like the concept of the minim, both musicians and composers warmly received the metronome. From then on, when ­composers wrote a piece of music, they could give musicians an exact number of beats per minute to be played.

Translating tempo notation

Although the metronome was the perfect invention for control freaks like Beethoven, most composers were happy to instead use the growing vocabulary of tempo notation to generally describe the pace of a song. Even today, composers still use the same Italian words to describe tempo and pace in music.

Here 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.

Notation Description
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; close to the original minim
Andantino Slightly faster than andante; think Patsy Cline’s
“Walking After Midnight,” or any other lonely cowboy
ballad you can think of
Moderato Right smack in the middle; not fast or slow, just moderate
Allegretto Moderately fast
Allegro Quick, brisk, merry
Vivace Lively, fast
Presto Very fast
Prestissimo Maniacally fast; think “Flight of the Bumblebee”

Allegro means the music would be played at a brisk pace.

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Just to make things a little more precise, modifying adverbs such as molto (very), meno (less), poco (a little), and non troppo (not too much) are sometimes used in conjunction with the tempo notation terms.

Listen to hear examples of 80 (slow), 100 (moderate), and 120 (fast) beats per minute.

Speeding up and slowing down: Changing the tempo

Sometimes a different tempo is attached to a specific musical phrase within a song to set it apart from the rest. The following are a few tempo changes you’re likely to encounter in written music:

  • Accelerando (accel.): Gradually play faster and faster.

  • Stringendo: Quickly play faster.

  • Doppio movimento: Play phrase twice as fast.

  • Ritardando (rit., ritard., rallentando, or rall.): Gradually play slower and slower.

  • Calando: Play slower and softer.

At the end of musical phrases in which the tempo has been changed, you may see a tempo, which indicates a return to the original tempo of the piece.