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Tempo Is Not a Number

musicianship Mar 11, 2018

“Tempo is not a number,” I said to my student.

My student was trying hard to work his piece up to speed, one metronome notch at a time, and was still some distance from the metronome mark printed on the page. I thought his current tempo was actually fine and told him so.

“But it’s not the right speed,” he said.

“It’s a good speed,” I countered. “You play it smoothly and musically.”

“But it’s too slow!”

“Why do think so?”

“Because it’s the wrong number!” He was a little exasperated now, and I knew he needed a new perspective.

“Tempo is not a number,” was all I said.

It was not what he wanted to hear, and what’s more, he didn’t believe me. After all, the number was printed right there on the page. And so I began to explain…

Fundamentally, tempo is an expressive element that supports the musical construct of the piece. It combines with dynamics, articulation musical texture and other elements to create the “story” or the mood of a piece. At its heart, tempo is not a concrete number as much as it is the pulse of a piece of music, and we must look to the music to find the “right” tempo.

Finding a suitable tempo for a piece begins with noticing the indications given to us by the composer about his or her intentions for the piece. Those indications might include the title, the tempo terms like Allegro or Adagio and yes, the metronome marking. We take all those elements as clues to a performance tempo, weighing them to see how they contribute to our understanding of the piece. Often the simplest idea is best at this point: is this piece, fast, slow or medium and why?

If there is a metronome setting indicated, it may or may not be the composer’s mark. Consider that Beethoven was among the first notable composers to use metronome indications in his music, and even many composers since then don’t notate tempo with a metronome mark. If you see these notations in older music, they are almost certainly additions by an editor rather than the composer. Also, editors commonly add metronome marks where composers have not indicated them. Whether the metronome marks are the composer’s original or an editor’s preference, there is nearly always wiggle room in the tempo – if it is musically justifiable.

And there’s the essential question – how much wiggle room do you have? What makes a tempo musically suitable or just plain wrong?

Your personal tempo for any piece is where your technical ability and your personal musical vision for the piece meets what you perceive as the composer’s intention.

Here’s an example:

Bach’s familiar setting of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” embellishes the simple chorale melody with flowing eighth notes. It seems clear that his intention was to use that gentle musical texture to support the chorale’s message of joy, peace and comfort.

Browse through YouTube and you will find a wide of tempo choices for this piece. There will be some that you prefer over others, but almost certainly you will find a range of interpretations among performances you enjoy. All of those tempos, though they are not the same, feel faithful to Bach’s intention. That’s what makes them feel “right.”

So let’s direct our efforts to finding not the right tempo, but to finding a musical tempo, a tempo that works for us and for the music too.

Here’s a step-by-step method to try:

  1. Take your cues from the indications on the music: title, tempo terms, metronome marking, etc.

  2. Decide how the tempo could best support the music’s “big picture.” Think in simple concepts – slow, medium, fast, not too slow, etc.

  3. Decide on a tempo range. You could listen to some recordings or play through the piece yourself. Choose a fastest tempo (one that’s possible for you or will be soon) and a slowest tempo to be the high and low ends of your tempo range.

  4. Practice!

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