Piano Q&A: All about tempo markings in music

In today’s video, we’re going to answer a question about tempo markings in music. It’s a pretty straightforward answer so this won’t be a hugely long video, but it’s an important topic that I’ve yet to discuss on this channel.

If you’ve ever been confused by random Italian in your music like allegro, or aren’t sure what the quarter notes, half notes and so on before the number means, then keep watching! 😊

Tempo markings in music

Just to clarify, a crotchet is a quarter note, and a minim is a half note – the words we use for these notes depend on region. Here in North America, we use the words “quarter note” and “half note”, but in Britain and elsewhere, they use “crotchet” and “minim”.

Metronome number markings

Let’s start by talking about what the number means. This is really simple – Justin B correctly assumed it’s the metronome number.

This number tells you how many beats per minute a piece is. So if a piece is marked “60 BPM”, it means it’s as fast as a clock ticks (60 beats per minute).

The quarter note in front of it is simply saying that there are 60 quarter-note beats per minute in this particular piece.

Here’s what 60 BPM sounds like. Each of these ticks represents a quarter note beat. So if I were to play quarter notes with this beat, the keys I press would match the ticking, like so.

If I were to play eighth notes along with this quarter note beat, there would be two notes for every tick – like this.

Various tempos

That’s pretty simple so far, right? Where it can get a little confusing is when the note in front of the number isn’t a quarter beat.

Here we have the same tempo number – 60 beats per minute – except this time there’s an eighth note in front of the number.

This is telling us that there are 60 eighth beats per minute. When you set the metronome to 60 with this example, 1 eighth note equals 1 tick.

Take a look at this left hand sixteenth note pattern – this means we would play two sixteenth notes per tick. Let’s hop to the keyboard and try it out.

Our metronome is set to 60 still, but this time, instead of ticking quarter notes, it’s ticking eighth notes. Here’s the sixteenth note pattern we were just looking at.

Make sense?

Tempo markings in music: Dotted notes

Dotted notes present us a different challenge. We still have our number marking as 60 BPM, but this time we have a dotted half note in front of it.

How many beats does a dotted half note receive?

3 beats.

That means that, with each tick of the metronome, three quarter beats will pass by. Each tick of the metronome represents one dotted half note.

Here’s our 60 BPM metronome ticking away again. In the example we were just looking at, we have left hand quarter notes. 3 of these quarter notes fit inside each tick, like so.

For this example (and others like it), I like to get a three-count in my head before starting to play. With each tick of the metronome, I think “1-2-3, 1-2-3,” and count until I feel comfortable with the rhythm.

Cut time

Finally, another common tempo is the half note beat in cut time. This means the metronome should be set to 120 beats, and each of those ticks equals 1 half note.

So if you’re playing a bunch of quarter notes, you’ll be able to fit two quarter notes inside of each half beat.

Here’s an example of that – this time we’re switching it up and changing the tempo to 120. Each of these ticks is a half note beat, which means you’d play two quarter notes to a beat like this.

If you want to get technical, that means I’m playing quarter notes at a rate of 240 beats per minute.

Italian tempo markings

Finally, let’s talk briefly about the random Italian words you’ll see in your music. Sometimes words like allegro come with a tempo number; sometimes they don’t.

These are the speeds you’re most likely to come across, and the ones I teach first:

 

But how do you know what speeds each of these are, exactly? How slow is slow? How fast is fast?

There are general ranges for each of these tempos, but you generally have some wiggle room. Allegro, for example, could be anywhere from 120-170, depending on your abilities and the piece.

It also depends on the notes involved in the piece. If it’s marked allegro and the entire piece is full of 16th notes, you’re probably not going to play it the same BPM as an allegro piece comprised of mostly quarter notes.

This is why, to some extent, choosing a tempo is a judgement call. What I usually do when learning a new piece is listen to several performer examples to get a feel for it at various speeds.

Say I was learning Bach’s Allegro. I’ll listen to a few recordings, and there’s a good chance these recordings will be at different tempos – because Allegro is a loosely-defined term.

Conclusion

Hopefully that gets you started with tempo markings in music, and gives you a greater understanding of them. I didn’t want to get really deep into it today – I wanted to share the basics of tempo markings in music without making it confusing.

Hope this was helpful and I’ll catch you in the next video!

xo,

Allysia

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