Before, we have only talked about how a written piece of music indicates to the performer the pitch frequencies to play, and at what rhythmic patterns to play them at. However, we have not discussed how composers indicate at what speed to play the piece at.
That is why composers include (most of the time – unless they want it to remain ambiguous) tempo, speed, markings at the top of the page.
The general format is that a composer would indicate a unit of rhythmic value (i.e. quarter-note, dotted eighth-note, half-note, etc.) and set it equal to a specific Beats Per Minute ratio amount. In other words, “quarter-note equals 120” mean that the piece will be played at a tempo where 120 quarter-note pulses will occur over a minute’s duration of time.
By default, usually the quarter-note is the tempo unit if not directly indicated. Or, look for the beat unit in the time signature for more clues.
On occasion, the composer might tell the tempo character by just giving an Italian word for it. Here is the general guide to understanding them:
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