Sunday, October 1st, 2023

Time Signatures and Tempo


A Tonal System

Scales in Music – A Tonal System

Music Theory – Level 2

Time Signatures and Tempo – Part 22g

Welcome to the final part of our mini-series on Time Signatures. We hope you have been enjoying the series and have gained from your time investment to read and study the materials presented in the various articles.

Overview: Tempo and its Impact on Time Signatures

In this article we are going to present information which will provide a clear understanding of Tempo and its impact on time signatures. Our aim is to present three examples using music notation as well as audio clips which will support your study. The Conclusion for the Time Signature Mini-Series is also part of this article.

Prerequisite Articles

All of the preceding articles presented in the Time Signature mini series should have been read through at least once in preparation for this article. Many of the concepts and ideas within them will be presented without further explanation, so it is incumbent upon you to have done at least a minimal review to prepare yourself for what is included here. If you have felt comfortable with the information presented thus far then please feel free to continue with your review of Time Signatures and Tempo – Part 22g, Tempo – Its Impact on Time Signatures.


Before we begin, it is necessary to establish a baseline to refer back to as we proceed through the examples. In this way a comparison can be made between any two examples, the baseline and each additional example. This will enable you to make clear and precise distinctions between them as well as to deeply establish the learning we are attempting to impart through this article.

With that said it is important to carefully review the baseline before proceeding onto the next example. It is best to study the baseline music including; the tempo, time signature, notes and rest as well as how they are used, and the playing back of the sound clip often enough and for as many times as you need to be able to mentally recall the tempo and the music within the baseline music.

Our Baseline Music Example

We chose a well known theme by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, K525, for our baseline music example. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik means “a little night music” and was written in the eighteenth century at a time when composers wrote hundreds of works of this nature.

The chart below demonstrates the opening theme and our baseline tempo with a metronome marking of (Allegro) 140 bpm, meaning, a quarter note is repeatedly played at a rate of 140 times per minute. The theme is performed by a string quartet. Also, the time signature is set at 4/4 simple time.

Mozart - A Little Night Music

Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – 140 bpm

At 140 bpm (beats per minute) the total duration of the baseline theme in clock time is approximately 7 seconds long. An audio clip is provided to playback the music as shown in the chart. As a reminder, it is recommended to play the mp3 clip several times before moving on to the second example. With the exception of the opening dotted quarter note and the third voice in the first and second violin, the remainder of the music demonstrates that all instruments were basically playing the same arrangement of notes in each measure. Although this appears to be considerably more complicated music than presented in this series of articles, it is actually a very simple arrangement if taken one measure at a time one instrument at a time and making comparisons as you progress through the four measures.

The 4/4 time signature designates 4 beats per measure where a quarter note gets one beat.

Example 2 – Tempo 60 bpm

Our first tempo comparison is based upon a much slower tempo of Largo 60 bpm which is considerably slower than Mozart intended when he composed this work. The theme is still recognizable however the over all feeling leaves one restless and expecting more.

No other changes were made in the music other than the playback for example 2 where the tempo was adjusted to represent 60bpm rather than the baseline tempo of 140 bpm. Also, an observation I want to point out is that the clock time duration has also changed. Now rather than taking 7 seconds to play back these measures of music, the performance now has a clock time which is extended to 18 seconds.

Mozart - A Little Night Music - 60

Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – 60 bpm

After playing the second example several times go back and play our baseline example switching back and forth between the two. While doing this pay close attention to how the music makes you feel and/or what mental pictures are conjured up for each example. You may notice there is more tension in our baseline example than in the second example simply due to the rate in which the music flows. What other differences can you observe when comparing these two examples? May I suggest writing them down as we are going to now listen to example number three where we will be speeding up the music to a rate which is quicker than in our baseline example.

Example 3 – Tempo 200 bpm

By altering the tempo alone, we as listeners receive the music differently when making this kind of comparison. The greater the difference in tempo the greater the variation is as to what we experience when listening to the music. Now, let us listen to the same musical theme but at a tempo of Presto – 200 bpm. At this tempo the clock time duration has reduced down to just under 5 seconds.

Mozart - A Little Night Music - 200

Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – 200 bpm

Again pay close attention to how you react to the change in tempo as compared to our baseline tempo of 140 bpm and also the tempo in example 2, at 60 bpm. Each produces a different “feel” and each causes a physical reaction quite different than the others in comparison.

Mozart had something in mind when he chose to compose this work at 140 bpm. What was selected was a tempo, a dynamic and a time signature which represented the emotional, psychological and physical reaction he was seeking. In the eighteenth century, a piece such as this would be fitting for a garden party gathering or a banquet rather than having the work performed in a palace or in a concert hall. Obviously the results of his choices are excellent and even through time the familiar impact is known by the vast population including those who are not all that familiar with this work.

Tempo and Time Signature Variation – In Musical Styles

For the most part, Rock-n-Roll music makes many people want to get up and dance. The reaction is grand and is somewhat less emotional and more physical than other styles of music. Adult contemporary can make us want to dance too however the movements we make with our bodies are different than those made when listening to Rock-n-Roll music and the emotional impact is somewhat greater. Likewise, when listening to various styles of music such as Jazz we respond differently than when listening to New Age music, etc. This is an example of how certain time signatures and tempos are used in specific types or styles of music as commented on in other articles in this series. Again, it is personal and it is subjective in various ways including our life’s experience.

So yes, this is a subjective exercise, where you must involve yourself in it in order to gain the most from this article. I will add that if you do take the time to observe the differences in how you react or respond to the differences in tempo alone you will have gained considerably as a composer of new music. Further, if you also study the impact of time signatures and human reactions to them you will find that not only are there many time signatures and many tempos but there are also many ways a person is impacted by the various and possible arrangements made possible by using them. We are dealing with human reactions to sound, specifically, musical sound. So it is in that way that we must consider what we are creating musically and its potential impact on our listeners. In the article, Messages, this is what I was trying to explain.

Tempo and Time Signature Variation – Its Usefulness in Film

At the risk of sounding redundant, from this rather easy exercise one can tell that various tempos create different feelings and/or reactions to the music. By expanding this exercise to include various time signatures and various tempos the composer has a variety of choices in which to create or cause to create within the listener various and specific emotional responses. This is crucial to understand and not simply in the basic sense when writing for film. Human behavior is quite complicated and so the choices a composer makes when syncing music to film must be understood to cause the effect the Film Producer is looking for in any given scene.

For example, if you are writing music for a film there is a great need to alter not only the notes and rests being played but also the tempo and in many case the time signature as well. There are many scenes in a movie and they are connected visually with an intention to create different reactions within those watching. As each scene changes so does the music. It is the composer’s job to compose music which fully supports the specific scene in the film while maintaining some continuity and musicality within the context of the film.

As an aside, the dynamics and the range of dynamics employed in the composition proportionally support the individual effects of tempo and time signature resulting in a dynamic sound field. This trilogy of components; tempo, time signature and dynamics, play a crucial role in the physical, emotional and psychic reaction to music.

What is important to learn is that both the tempo and the time signature are related to time it self. The visual themes of the various scenes within a movie are also tied to time since one event is related to another in a linear fashion creating the “feel” of movement throughout the movie.

Also, each scene requires different music than the previous or the next scene and so it goes throughout the entire film. The composer must know and understand how the musical choices can support the changing scenes within the film and select those most fitting to it, again, while at the same time keeping continuity and musicality from the beginning to the end of the film.

It is very common for the composer to watch the film without music as one would guess. This act greatly assists the composer in making the choices we are discussing here. Which tempo and which time signature fits the specific scene? How is this scene related to the previous or next scene? Must the current scene have music related to the main theme of the film? These questions and many others help the composer in the design of the music being applied to the film.

For example; a chase scene followed immediately by a scene in a hospital emergency room requires very different music to “fit”  each of these two scenes. The chase scene is most likely to be written at a much faster tempo and at a different time signature than the scene in the hospital emergency room where the doctors are discussing a plan to help the victim. The scene may evolve to where a loved one comes into the room who feels great concern over the victim’s condition. This requires yet another change in the music and/or tempo, time signature, dynamics, etc.  As each scene unfolds the music must fully support the visual movement within the film, otherwise the Music Director will find another Composer.

The idea is that through the use of the various tools a composer has at his or her disposal the more likely the composer can select the proper music which will “fit” the scene and cause the intended and related emotion within the psyche of the viewer. These two very important tools, tempo and time signature when properly used to support the desired intention within the scene can make or break the continuity of the visual part of the film. Consequently, this point alone will cause you to understand the importance of the concepts under discussion.

A Recommended Test and Study

You may want to take this little test to “seat” the information in this article. Turn on your television, put in a movie or play a movie from one of your favorite Internet based providers of films. Hit the play button and turn away from watching the film, listening with your eyes closed to the music which underscores the movie. See if you can count out how many changes within the music occur in five minutes, 10 minutes or all the way through the film. Notice how your feelings change as you do simply listen to the music.

Now go back and watch the same five minutes, 10 minutes or entirety of the film. Does the music support the scenes as the film unfolds from one scene to the next? When does the music change? Does it change before the scene begins in an attempt to cause and to build a new reaction in the viewer? Does the music change after the new scene has begun or exactly when the scene visually changes?  Can you tell what tempo or time signature the music is in from scene to scene? Yes, you can use a metronome and if available the score of the film you have chosen for the exercise.

You may only have time to study only five or ten minutes of the film, but, please listen then watch and listen at a minimum, until you can answer these questions. Then you will gain an entirely new understanding of the importance of tempo and time signatures written to underscore a film. Remember, this is only one application of the tools presented throughout the Time Signature Article Series. Just think about it for a second. It is only a five or ten minute piece of the film and it is only one movie. Just imagine if you will all of the visual and audio variations in the collective body of film content. Amazing isn’t it?

Time Signatures – Series Conclusion

Throughout this series we have attempted to present the various ideas and concepts involved in Time Signatures. Although many have been presented within the mini-series there is much more to learn about them. We are planning more information about Time Signatures later on in the overall Music Theory Section of the Scales in Music – A Tonal System, which will provide more advanced ideas and concepts about time signatures.

For now, what is important to remember is that there are many time signatures to choose from as a composer. There is even more when you consider the three concepts talked about in this article, time signature changes, tempo changes and dynamics changes.

Below is a listing of the concepts we have tried to convey throughout this article mini series.

Time Signatures – Key Points

1)      Time signatures are directly tied to the concept of time or the linear and sequential series of events, notes and rests, within the composition.

2)      Time signatures are made up of the nominator or top number representing the number of beats per minute and the denominator the bottom number which represents the note or rest value which gets one beat. In this way each designates a specific aspect of the music being written.

3)      Any combination of note and rest values can be used in a musical composition however, within each measure of music the time signature designations must be fulfilled for each measure.

4)      Meter is broken into Perfect, Imperfect, Simple and Compound classifications based upon whether or not the time signature’s numerator is divisible by 2 or 3. This is relevant when considering which time signature you wish to use.

5)      Changing time signatures is relatively easy however there are specific guidelines for doing so. The guidelines are provided and will help you compose musically with continuity in your music.

6)      Applications for time signatures are reviewed using themes from the classical music era. These examples are useful to gain an understanding of their use and the differences between them. Measure by measure analysis demonstrates the importance of the selection, placement and conditions for notes and rests within a single measure.

7)      Tempo has an emotional effect on time signatures and the message the composer wishes to convey. This is an important aspect of selecting which time signature and which tempo to use to get your message across to the listener. Writing for film is a broad application of these principals.

Just as important as the more simple concepts and ideas in music, the more advanced concepts and principals in music composition as well as the tools or symbols being used, all become increasingly more important in order to maintain musicality and continuity in your compositions.

Thorough knowledge of Time Signatures and their related concepts including their use will greatly assist you in the quality of your newly created music. By taking the time to understand the collective principals within music theory you will enhance your ability to compose and to create music that is more broadly accepted and enjoyed.

This article concludes our presentation in Music Theory – Section 2, Time Signatures in the overall article series Scales in Music – a Tonal System.

Up Next

To enhance the character and the overall emotional impact of music, composers utilize another set of tools called Expressions which we will be presenting next. This is again a short mini-series presenting the symbols, tools and ideas behind the creation of expressive music. The principals, concepts and ideas included in this new series takes us beyond those found when discovering the ideas behind the use of Dynamics and into areas dealing with humanizing the playback of music using notation symbols and words which direct the performers to play in certain ways.

The Expressions are not the Techniques the performers use when playing their instruments, although they are words and symbols that affect the performance of the music.

We will be looking at these tools with an eye on how to direct the performers to add depth, warmth and more emotion to the music all of which enhance the listener’s experience of the music as well as their internal reactions to it.

With that said, please proceed to the lead article titled Expressions in Music – Part 23a.

Mini Series Links

To return to the Music Theory – Level 1 directory for the article listings within the series, please proceed to Music Theory Section – Level 1 – Series Introduction – Part 10.

To continue onto Music Theory – Level 2 directory for the article listings within the series, please proceed to Music Theory Section – Level 2 – Series Introduction – Part 20

To proceed to Acoustics of Music directory for the articles within the mini-series, please proceed to Acoustics of Music – Part 1 – Series Introduction.

Note: All graphics used in this article were created using Sibelius Music Software by Avid Technologies. Playback is made possible by Wavelab a product of Steinberg which was used to produce the mp3 clips used in the article.

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