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#153: Tempo Is Not a Number: Finding the Right One for You and Your Piece

Today’s podcast is all about tempo, and I have to start by saying that tempo is a funny thing. We define it with numbers or with the familiar Italian words, or less familiar French or German ones, and it still seems elusive.

Much of the time we try to pin a piece of music down to a number, a mathematically precise ratio of beats per minute. Perhaps the composer put it there as a guide for the performer. Perhaps it was added by an editor, an arranger, or a teacher. But it still doesn’t necessarily satisfy us. In fact, everything about this feels wrong. How is it possible to limit a piece of music, a creation that lives in a single moment, to one number? 

I remember reading the liner notes to a CD recording by legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein. This recording was made toward the end of his life. He was already in his 90’s, but the producers of this recording wanted to preserve Rubinstein’s interpretations of piano masterworks for generations to come who would not have heard him. The producer writes in the liner notes how he was moved to tears by Rubinstein’s performance in the recording studio of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He felt he had witnessed a definitive performance. 

The next morning, however, Rubinstein returned to the studio for that day’s recording session and asked to re-record the Beethoven, saying it was too slow. The change in tempo was apparently barely discernible, if at all, to a listener, but it made a difference to Rubinstein. 

What made the tempo difference important to Rubinstein? Clearly it wasn’t the metronome mark. Beethoven didn’t include one; the movement is only marked “Adagio sostenuto” and so a range of speeds would seem to be allowable. So from this we can conclude that tempo is more than a metronome marking. But what is it and how do we know what tempo is right or wrong? 

Do we have to play a piece at the metronome marking, particularly if we can’t play it at that speed or we don’t think it sounds right at that speed? What do we do if there is no metronome marking? How do we know how fast or slow the piece should go? With so many recordings available to us, it is clear that harpists can play the same piece at very different speeds. Does that make some of the performances correct and the others not correct? 

Okay, I just threw a bunch of difficult questions at you, but you don’t have to come up with the answers; that’s my job. I think it’s important, though, that you have a clear idea of what the parameters are for finding your tempo for a piece, a tempo that you can play that sounds appropriate for the piece. In fact, that’s the secret right there. But I have lots more ideas and practical advice for you on this topic so don’t go anywhere.

Links to things I think you might be interested in that were mentioned in the podcast episode: 

Get involved in the show! Send your questions and suggestions for future podcast episodes to me at [email protected]


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