Timing and rhythm are vital to all forms of music. Without them the sound becomes unformulated and the musicians cannot play in unison.
The pulse is the beat in a piece of music.
The tempo of a piece of music is the speed of the underlying beat.
The choice of tempo (speed) of a piece of music has a crucial bearing on its feel and the genre it sits in.
There are some styles of music which have specific tempos — e.g. romantic ballads tend to have a fairly slow tempo, whilst disco music tends to have a fast tempo.
When you’re learning how to read sheet music there are 2 main things you need to look out for at the start of the piece:
The speed of a piece in traditional notation is given with an Italian word as shown below:
- Adagio means Slow
- Andante means Walking Pace
- Moderato means Quite Quickly
- Allegro means Fast
- Presto means Very Fast
These are written above the stave and are called tempo markings.
For example, the following music should be played fast….
However, in recent years the tempo of a piece has more commonly been given through an indication of the BPM. You may see something like this….
This would mean that the crotchet pulse of the piece is 120 beats per minute. In other words, there are 120 crotchet beats in a minute. This is called a metronome marking. (The same could be written using a quaver, semiquaver, etc..)
Slowing Down/Speeding Up
Subtle changes in tempo help inject life into a piece. These are shown by the word accelerando (accel.) for speeding up or rallentando (rall.) or ritardando (rit.) for slowing down. After one of these markings, the phrase a tempo is written to tell the performer to return to the original tempo.