There’s a pulse that connects all music. This universal communication tool is more than just rhythm, harmony and melody—in fact, none of these matter without a tempo.

Tempo is one the simplest concepts to grasp in music theory, but it’s one of the most difficult to actually play.

Musicians will spend their entire lives trying to play and find the tempo.

In this article let’s explore all the different ways of approaching tempo so you can master the concept in your own music.

What is tempo?

In music, tempo refers to a specific number of beats that occur within a minute. This measure of time states the speed at which music is played in beats per minute or BPM. A tempo of 120 BPM will have exactly beats per minute.

Tempo vs. Time Signature

Since it refers to the number of beats per minute and not the number of beats per measure of music, tempo is very different from time signature.

Tempo and rhythm are intertwined and rely on each other very closely, but tempo should be thought of as the canvas or structure upon which rhythms exist.

You can imagine time signature as interacting with the tempo in the sense that the bottom number in the time signature determines the pulse and how the pulse is subdivided.

Time signatures, rhythms and syncopation are how artists take a factual, measurable number like BPM and sculpt it into musical information—essentially creating art with the fabric of time!

Tempos are kind of psychedelic when you think about it!

Artists take a factual, measurable number like BPM and sculpt it into musical information

How to find the tempo?

Space and time aside, finding the tempo is much more difficult—and it’s definitely the most important part of understanding and using tempo.

Tempo and rhythm are intertwined and rely on each other very closely

Keeping up and playing around with that rigid, unforgiving, deterministic measure of time takes a lifetime of skill and practice.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when approaching tempo in your music.

 1. Find a metronome

The metronome was invented in the 1800s and has been used as a way to help musicians keep on beat ever since.

Today metronomes are very easy to find compared to the classic wind-up metronomes of days past.

Your best bet is to get an app, Google it or use the metronome in your DAW—which is clocked to MIDI and glues everything together.

2. Practice to a metronome

Practicing to a metronome is the equivalent of eating your vegetables, taking vitamins and lifting weights.

It’s difficult, it takes discipline, it’s not super fun—but it will make you a much, much better musician.

Practicing to a metronome is the equivalent of eating your vegetables, taking vitamins and lifting weights.

Even the most seasoned professionals will turn the metronome on during their private practice sessions.

The metronome is like a mirror, it shows where all your imperfections lie and it gives you a reference point for where you can get to.

Playing to the metronome is so important, if you want to be a serious musician you must practice to one.

When you practice with a metronome you’ll discover how difficult it is to play at slower speeds.

A slower tempo is often very difficult for musicians to internalize because the space between beats is more pronounced.

Hot tip: If you play with a group, learn to play your songs to a metronome at various tempos. Doing this will give you a greater level of control when playing live and without a metronome,

3. Look at your watch

Looking at your watch is a great way to identify a tempo if you’re curious what the tempo of a song is, or want to find the tempo before kicking off a song.

Just look at the clock and count the number of beats during a specific interval.

For example, if you count 40 beats during a 30-second interval the song is played at 80 BPM.

4. Memorize a few songs

In the movie Whiplash, the conductor asks the drummer to play a specific tempo, with the expectation that the drummer should know exactly how to kick off a song at 130 BPM.

In reality, this is not an expectation that any band leader should place on any musician.

Humans are not robots and you can’t expect anyone to play a specific BPM on command.

But, with practice, humans are great at approximating a tempo on command.

Humans are great at approximating a tempo on command.

One great way to master this skill is by memorizing the tempo and beat of a handful of memorable songs that are well-known for following a certain tempo.

Here’s a few that come to mind.

Stayin’ Alive – The Bee Gees

Stayin’ Alive was popularized for its use in CPR training because its tempo is around 100 BPM, 104 BPM to be exact.

And while this is the optimal tempo to conduct chest compressions, its also a good one to remember next time you play a slower jam around 100 BPM.

The Washington Post – John Philip Souza

This march by John Philip Souza is played at 120 BPM, one of the most common BPMs.

In fact, most marches are played around this tempo marking.

So memorizing the melody from this march, or any march, is a great idea for pin-pointing that 120 BPM tempo.

Hey Ya! – OutKast

Hey Ya! is played at a pretty quick pace, in fact it sits right around the 160 BPM mark.

So to recall the tempo for a quick song, Hey Ya! is definitely one to keep in mind.

5. Think about half-speed

What’s the difference between 60 BPM and 120 BPM? It depends on your perception.

What’s the difference between 60 BPM and 120 BPM? It depends on your perception.

At 120BPM, a backbeat on the two and four over quarter notes could be easily perceived as either.

Because tempo is a relative measure of time, it can be subdivided into equal parts and maintain the same pace.

So if you can approximately feel a specific tempo, then you should be able to easily approximate multiples of that tempo.

Common tempo markings and their meanings

Tempo is best described within specific ranges of tempo.

Humans can’t distinguish between incremental changes, but ranges are very much perceptible to anyone.

Here’s the most common tempo markings you’ll see referred to in sheet music.

Grave (20–40 BPM)

Grave means slow and solemn in Italian, it ranges from 20 to 40 BPM.

Eric Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 3 is a good example of grave tempo.

Lento (40–45 BPM)

Lento means slowly in Italian.

Lento is incrementally faster than grave and ranges up to 45 BPM.

Peace Piece by Bill Evans is a good example of a lento song.

Largo (45–50 BPM)

Largo means broadly in Italian, it ranges from 45 to 50 BPM.

My Man by Barbara Streisand is a good example of a largo song.

Adagio (55–65 BPM)

Adagio means at ease in Italian, it ranges around 55 to 65 BPM.

Inside out by Britney Spears is a good example of an adagio song

Adagietto (65–70 BPM)

Adagietto means rather slow in Italian, it ranges from 65 to 70 BPM

Crank That by Soulja Boy is a good example of an adagietto song.

Andante (73–77 BPM)

Andante means at a walking pace in Italian, it ranges from 73 to 77 BPM.

Lean on Me by Bill Withers is a good example of an andante song.

Moderato (86–97 BPM)

Moderato means moderately in Italian, it usually ranges from 86 to 97 BPM.

Yer So Bad by Tom Petty is a good example of a moderato song.

Allegretto (98–109 BPM)

Allegretto means moderately fast in Italian, it ranges from 98 to 109 BPM.

Crazy in Love by Beyonce is a good example of an allegretto song.

Allegro (109–132 BPM)

Allegro means fast and bright in Italian, it ranges from 109 to 132 BPM.

Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is a good example of an allegro song.

Vivace (132–140 BPM)

Vivace means lively and fast in Italian, it usually ranges from 132 to 140 BPM.

Viva la Vida by Coldplay is a good example of a vivace song.

Presto (168–177 BPM)

Presto means extremely fast in Italian, it ranges from 168 to 177 BPM.

Paper Planes by M.I.A. is a good example of a presto song.

Prestissimo (178 BPM and over)

Prestissimo is even faster than presto at 178 BPM and over.

Only One by DJ Rashad is an example of a Prestissimo song.

That’s not my tempo

The most important takeaway when learning about tempo is music is mostly that you need to train to a metronome to develop a good sense of time.

Musicians sound best when they play in time and tune—but learning to do that takes a lifetime of practice.

Now that you know everything there’s to know about tempo, practice to a metronome and try writing tracks at different tempos.

That’s the best way to learn how to feel music at different speeds and know what speeds are best for certain situations.

Audio LANDR Uncategorized