The Tempo of a piece of music determines the speed at which it is played, and is measured in beats per minute (BPM). The 'beat' is determined by the time signature of the piece, so 100 BPM in 4/4 equates to 100 quarter notes in one minute.
Developing a solid appreciation of tempo is essential for the performing musician - after all we can't always rely on a conductor or a metronome to keep us on track!
Tempo markings in music can do more than tell the performer the rate at which to play. The Italian words used in classical scores prior to the invention of the metronome such as "Allegro" not only indicate the speed at which the piece should be played but also provide a clue to the musical feel the composer intended.
Tempo is so critical to the mood of a piece that many genres (especially within electronic and dance music) are actually defined by their signature tempo. It simply wouldn't be possible to have a 160 BPM Power Ballad or a 80 BPM Drum'n'Bass track!
The ability to launch into a piece at the correct tempo and maintain it throughout a performance without a metronome is a valuable skill for all musicians and is particularly essential for drummers. Poor tempo judgement can often be the tell-tale sign of an inexperienced musician, for example by slowing down when approaching a difficult passage and then speeding up again in easier sections.
Many rock musicians discover their weak grasp of tempo the first time they get into the recording studio, finding they are unable to play accurately to the click track. The dreaded "Red light fever" results!
Ear training can improve your ability to appreciate and reproduce tempos consistency allowing you to:
- Start a piece at the correct tempo
- Maintain a consistent tempo throughout a performance
- Prevent yourself speeding up due to nerves
- Accurately identify BPM by ear
- Beat-match records when remixing or performing as a DJ
- Play accurately to a click track in a recording studio
- Gain appreciation of how tempo relates to mood
Watch a short video introducing the music theory behind tempo:
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