Sunday, October 1st, 2023

Tempo – Speed in Music


Tempo – Speed in Music

speed in music - tempoI was driving to the airport to catch a plane and there were surface streets in the city involved as were county two-lane roads and a 6-lane highway in between my home and my destination. The total distance was about 90 miles and all of the different roads were clearly marked with speed limit signs telling me to travel at this rate or that rate. The police have a nice way to remind you if you forget or if you do not follow the limits set by these road signs.

The city surface streets were marked at 30 miles per hour, the county roads at 55 miles per hour and the 6-lane highway was marked at 65 miles per hour. Now this is nothing special or unique but what is special about the metaphor is that this same idea is an excellent example for understanding that music also has a speed limit or recommended rate for performing the music  as notated or designated by the composer of the work.

Tempo –vs. – Time Signature

I feel it is necessary to explain the differences between a time signature and a tempo to better understand the  differences between them but further to understand each so you will be able to use either when notating your own music.

In music, tempo means the rate at which the music is flowing or moving forward throughout the piece. This is quite different than the time signature of the music where the music staff shows a symbol that tells you how many beats per measure and what note value gets one beat. Some people get tempo and time signature mixed up or they do not understand the difference, especially those just starting out learning to read music.

For example, it is easy to think of the time signature of 4/4 as representing speed however, it designates two very important things both of which are different than tempo, the time signature of 4/4 is very much different than a tempo rate of 120 beats per minute as you will see.

The intention of this article is to provide a very basic overview of time signature only. A more in depth article series will be presented in the future on this site.

In a  time signature, the bottom number represents what specific note value gets one beat.  Note values are designations used by a composer to signify the length of  a note. They are represented by the shape of the note. Note lengths or note values are referred to in this manner; a whole note, a half note, a quarter note, a sixteenth note, etc. For those who have the question – yes rests are treated and designated the same way as notes are, as regards to their value, although their shapes are considerably different.

The top number in a time signature represents how many beats in a single bar or measure in this case 4 beats in one measure of music. In the 4/4 time signature the bottom 4 represents that a quarter note gets one beat in a measure of music. The marking for a time signature such as  the 4/4 is placed just to the right of the G-Clef symbol on the far left and immediately to the left of the first quarter note in our example below.

There are many different time signatures used in music and here is another example using a different one, 2/4. Slightly different graphically but aurally it is significantly different. In a 2/4 time signature, the bottom number  (4) says a quarter note gets one beat and the top number (2) directs you to play two beats in each measure of music.

The staff below shows the placement of the quarter notes in 2/4 meter or time signature. We are placing the same four notes, a quarter note, on the staff. The difference is in where they can be placed to be correctly notated. Since this is a 2/4 time signature we can only place two quarter notes in any one measure. The vertical line in between measures separates the two measures. Also notice that the rests have changed to be in alignment with the 2/4 time signature. The squiggly lines are quarter rests. The result when notating the music then is changed as shown below.

This next photo shows a few of the commonly used time signatures used in music notation; 2/4, 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8. FYI – there are others besides the ones shown below.

This is all well and good but in any moment in time there is no way to determine  how many notes are played in a specific amount of clock  time, it does not represent the rate at which the music is being played in each of the above examples at all. You can play them fast or slow at your own discretion. Yes, we can tell the two main features of a time signature, the note value and the number of beats per measure but what is missing is the clock time designated by the composer to play one minute of music.

Tempo is directly related to the convention of time and more specifically to the speed at which a performer plays the music. Tempo is generally measured in beats per minute not in note values and beat counts per measure.

This is an important distinction to make in understanding the difference between a tempo and a time signature. The photo below shows a way in which a composer will make the distinction of tempo in the music score. Take note, no pun intended here, that the time signature is present but it is the tempo marking above the staff that tells a performer how fast to play the notes on the staff.

The word Adagio in the above example says to the performer to play a quarter note at the tempo of Adagio. The quarter note = 60 symbol directs you to play at 60 beats per minute or one beat per second.

Depending upon the performers skill and knowledge with the concept of tempo, will determine whether they can play with or without a metronome* to provide the clicks at precisely 60 beats per minute, otherwise, a conductor will provide the tempo through hand movements, the movement of the baton or through a verbal count setting up the rate of 60 beats per minute for the performer to follow.

Tempo = the rate at which the music is playing.

Time signature = describes what note value gets one beat and how many beats per measure.

In this way we determine that the tempo is tied directly to time, a unit of measure we are all familiar with. If there are four beats per measure and the per beat rate is set at 200 beats per minute we know that this is played at a relatively quick pace or rate. A song played at 200 beats per minute (Presto) is considerably faster than one played at 60 beats per minute (Adagio). The chart below shows that there is no other difference made in the notation between the two tempos other than the marking made above the staff.

In the next example we are going to mix it up a little.  There are many tempos available to a composer for directing the performers and/or the conductors reading the score.  By listening while looking at the notation and markings below you can hear the difference in the speed of the movement through the four notes being played at different tempos. You might want to play the sound file a few times if needed, just to get a bit more comfortable with this idea.

Tempo – Variable

Different Methods to Determine Tempo – Speed in Music

Generally, there are only a few select ways to determine the tempo of a song or of an instrumental work. We can use the dance forms of today to determine tempo however it is more commonplace to make this type of observation by the markings made on the score by a Composer when notating music. Words or terms representing different tempo instructions for the performer or conductor can be used to provide direction for them. Let’s take a closer look at these.

Tempo – vs. – Dance Forms

Centuries ago and within the structure of the music, the type or style of dance was more commonly used to represent or determine tempo than we use today in popular music where an actual tempo marking is used instead of dance style. There is a segment of the general population that aware of the variety of dance styles available now, fewer for the dance styles used in the past.  For the most part tempo is less understood or at least less thought of by the type of dance being played than by other means.

Years ago, especially in classical music for example, one could know the different dances that were composed by using a term for each.  For example, a courante, was considered a bright and lively dance in the 16th century. A pavanne was considered to be a grave, somber and a rather slow dance in comparison. Other examples would be a galliard, played at a slow tempo, a bouree considered to be a light and merry piece, a sarabande where the tempo is slow, typical of work originating from composers Handel and Bach.

It should be stated that in different centuries and in different locations throughout the world there is a reference to the rate of the music using a recognized dance form of music to describe a particular dance. There is nothing to say at least definitively that the tempo for a dance form was the same in one geographic area to another or as previously mentioned in one time era to another. Some generalizations can be made using dance forms to designate tempos, however effective that may be for you, but in communicating an actual tempo, it is far better to designate a tempo in other ways.

Tempo – vs. – Tempo Marks

In music notation, a composer uses a collection of tools to designate the specific tempo he or she has selected for the work. The first group of tools would be the tempo markings found in music that are most commonly written in Italian, however, English, German and French are also commonplace as used in other parts of the world. Below is a chart showing the most frequently used Italian term and its equivalent in the generally accepted range of metronome* rates. Again, this unit of measure is in beats per minute (bpm).

  • Grave – <40 bpm – Extremely Slow
  • Largo – 42 – 66 bpm – Very Slow
  • Adagio – 58-97 bpm – Very Slow
  • Larghetto – 60-66 bpm – Rather Slow
  • Andante –76-108 bpm – Moderately Slow
  • Moderato –66-126 bpm – Moderately
  • Allegro –120-168 bpm – Rather Fast to Fast
  • Presto – 168-208 bpm – Quite Fast
  • Prestissimo – 184-240 bpm – Very Fast

*Metronome – a device used primarily in music that makes either ticks or flashes in designated intervals of time.

*A metronome provides a precise and consistent rate of speed. As a result they are used a lot when training instrumentalists in preparation for performances. There are many manufacturers of metronomes however they mostly only use a three primary means to demonstrate the tempo in beats per minute. Some use a blinking light, others a pendulum lever swinging from left to right or a clicking sound on each beat. Personal choice or direction from a teacher or music instructor can help you to select which model would work best for you.

Regulating the Tempo

In future posts we will be discussing many of these markings in more complete detail including audio examples to demonstrate aurally what these markings mean to aid in your understanding of them. Please feel free to visit as we intend to be making posts available in the near future.

To continue our discussion here, another set of tools a composer can use are words or terms that represent a speeding up or slowing down of the performance rate in music. These terms are more related to regulating the tempo than in setting the tempo for the entire piece or a section of a composition with a designated metronome mark.

ritardando – Means to slow down gradually. It is usually marked as rit. or ritard. It is commonly used at the end of a section of music or at the end of a song.

accelerando – Means to speed up slowly or gradually, written as accel. This is used to create excitement or to assist in building a crescendo.

There are other terms to represent different speeds used for differentiating the difference by using other markings. Words that take their lead from either previous or following sections of music. They usually are used to reference back to a previous section of music and to set the stage for an upcoming section or phrase within the composition.

veloce – means to take the next section slightly faster than the previous section.

ritenuto – means to take the next section slower than the previous section

There are other words used to not only alter the tempo and to notify the performers and the conductors on where to find the tempo being recommended. Sometimes it’s necessary to revert back to a previously designated tempo such as that which was notated at the beginning of a song as these do.

a tempo means to return to the previous tempo.

tempo primo means to return to the tempo as that marked at the beginning of work.

As you can see there are many road signs used in music by a composer just as there are speed limit signs on our streets and highways. Yes, this is a different language but the principal of using words or terms to regulate the speed at which music is played or in controlling the rate in which the music is performed are additional tools to use when composing music and to perform the music in accordance with their meaning.

In conclusion, although this post does not cover all possible speeds or speed variation symbols available to a composer it does provide an overview in such a way as to more clearly understand that there are a lot of differences between tempo and time signature. By lightly touching upon other methods of  marking a score to convey the speed a composer wishes his/her music to be performed it broadens your capability to read and to more fully understand music notation.

As shown above, a composer has many tools that can direct or designate the desired speed of a composition. Generally the performer and the conductor of musical work plays it at the designated rate intended, however, experienced instrumentalists may be permitted to perform the work with permission from the composer, in an interpretive manner, in which case the markings provide a basis or guideline for the performer and/or for a specific performance. By becoming familiar with the markings and the words used to convey the composers instructions you can easily learn to differentiate the speed of a passage, a phrase or a complete work with all of its variations of speed enhancing your understanding of the music as written.

Tempo – Speed in Music


2 Responses to “Tempo – Speed in Music”
  1. Laura Sheman says:

    Wow, what a wonderful explanation of the various definitions of music. This is an area that I don’t know a lot about. For me it is very helpful to relate it to other things (like a speed limit) in life.

    I wonder what other metaphors you can use. Water running through a pipe seems to be another example. You can have different sizes of pipes (which might relate to time signature) vs flow rate, which would be tempo.

    I also love your discussion of Tempo marks! One hears these terms a lot, without understanding them fully.

    Thank you!

    • Don Rath Jr says:

      Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your comment! Metaphors are an excellent way to learn especially new concepts or those that are confusing when taught in other ways. Your example is a good one too and this lets me know you understand. Wonderful!
      Thanks again! 🙂