Ah, the age old question for any musician writing original music or interpreting existing music. What is tempo? Is tempo a feeling? Is it speed? Is it a consideration of how one measure links to the other? Or is it how much time we take in between phrases, and how much space we are able to allow between rushing off to a new idea? These are all things we musicians think about a lot, but how is tempo actually used in music? Let’s consider a couple of applications of this curious musical characteristic.
1. TEMPO IS SPEED
Compositions can be ballads, fast paced dances, rhapsodies or anything else. These forms all have a significant underlying assumption of what they should sound like. For example, a ballad is rarely played with haste, and a gigue is rarely played slowly. Making a decision on how fast we need to play a certain piece of music supports how accurately we transmit its character. For this we need to consider an actual BPM (beats per minute). Now, a long time ago, there was no BPM, but there was an assumption that the median beat is that of a beating heart of a healthy man walking. In other words, this was considered to be 60 beats per minute. Most tempi were decided based on that. Today, we have a metronome. Be sure to think deeply of what is that ideal click to support the speed of the composition, while still having things under control.
2. TEMPO IS FEEL
There was once an instance where two players played the same composition at a music competition. One played super fast, while the other one took his time, and both ended up playing the piece of music in the same time span. How is that possible? If we assume that tempo is not just speed, but it has to do with feel, we can asses that while the audience perceived one’s performance faster than the other, it was exactly the opposite: one was rushed, and the other one well-paced. The player who was well paced, actually played faster, but delivered the music more graciously, while the other player sped through the phrases and did not give the proper attention to the feel. When choosing a tempo, think about elegance and poise, be it at slower or faster pace–it ends up feeling better.
In a situation where we have passages that are difficult, and virtuosic, thinking of the concept of a ‘larger beat’ actually helps keep things under control.
3. TEMPO IS GROOVE
We all heard the term ‘groovy’ before. When virtuosos play a million notes, and they groove, we tend to bob our heads with their beat. In a situation where we have passages that are difficult, and virtuosic, thinking of the concept of a ‘larger beat’ actually helps keep things under control. Groove is an understanding of those larger beats, whereby even when playing fast paced music, we can still lean back and enjoy the larger metric construct and not feel rushed or under pressure to focus on each single note. To achieve a level of an active observer when playing, one must take a step away from the notes and feel this structure. It’s also a healthier way of enjoying playing and listening.
4. TEMPO IS BREATHING
Breathing is breathing for a reason. We need breathing in music as vitally as we need it in our daily lives. When music doesn’t breathe, it feels constrained, tight, uncomfortable, rushed and not well paced. A phrase in a music is like a logical breath, and typically a phrase supports tempo. In a faster piece of music the phrase may be slightly longer, so that the notes feel quicker, but the breath still comes placed at the right moment. In a slow composition, the breath will happen after fewer notes, but will still support the natural feel of tempo in music. So, don’t forget to breathe!
There are many applications of tempo in music, but in the end it must be what feels most natural. Tempo is also our common sense and instinct to do what’s right by the music we play. So, observe the above points but also trust your gut when you think things feel out of place. This may likely be of ill-assumed tempo. When tempo is right, it feels good!