The Elements of Music: 3 of 7, Tempo

Allegro, andantino, allegretto – all are titles of songs by Dr. Suzuki from Book 1.  All are also tempo markers.  Of the elements of music I’ve written up to date, tempo is easily the most straightforward.  How fast or slow is the music?  Convention dictates the tempo be expressed with an Italian word.  Sometimes, composers attach numeric values to the tempo –  in those cases the number refers to the number of beats per minute.

The beat note is set by the time signature – in 3/4 time the quarter note gets the beat, so the tempo marker refers to the rate of the quarter notes in a piece if they were played in succession.  There are many Italian words deployed as tempo markers in music.  Wikipedia lists 20, from larghissimo (slower than 20 beats per minute) to prestissimo (200 BPM+).

Many modifiers also exist to allow composers to adjust the tempo and/or mood of a piece in the middle, for example, in Gavotte¸ my current piece in Suzuki, toward the end, there’s an indicator piu cantabile, which I’m to understand means “more in a singing, or lyrical style,” as a mood alteration for the base tempo marker, which is allegretto.

It seems composers use wide discretion in offering guidance to players on tempo.  Wikipedia reports some composers on some pieces specify a total duration of a piece of music, which would provide broad guidance as to how quickly or slowly it would have to be played, versus a rate of play like beats per minute.

I have tried to play some of my songs with a metronome a few times, and it can add a bit to my understanding of the feel of a piece of music.  The speed with which a piece is played has a major impact on the moods it evokes – it showed me that, should I be able to play some of my songs as quickly as they are supposed to be played, they would feel quite a bit more jaunty than they do.

The first song I turned the metronome on for was Minuet One.  I think I’ll try it again today and see if I can get it up to speed.

Thanks for reading.


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