Teach Yourself Music Theory – 8.) General Guide to Understanding Tempo Markings

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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Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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