On Tempo

Tempo—or bpm: beats per minute–is music’s invisible engine. As listeners and makers we focus on the music’s rhythms, and if it has one, its beat. We hear the syncopations and steady-pulse timelines. We hear the time (typically) divided up among low and high pitched instruments like kick drums, snares, and hi hats. And specific rhythms—four-on-the-floor EDM, swinging jazz, lugubrious folk rock—signify particular musical styles. But tempo is a bit more abstract because it never announces itself, yet informs how different rhythms feel. A tempo is slow or fast, its feel is dragging or rushing, calm or hyper. The wrong tempo can make the music sound worse. Consider an example: at a show a few days ago, the conductor took a slightly slower tempo and suddenly the music felt, to me, sad. Suddenly the sounds were as if without power. We musicians were powerless to change the situation, as we could only follow the conductor’s indifferent baton. For the duration of music, the world lost its pep and I made a mental note to think more about tempo. On the other hand, on a good show day the right tempo feels perfectly calibrated to the moment, alive, and effortless to play.

When you’re making music, it’s worth taking a moment to think about tempo before you begin. In the past, I have sometimes been lazy about tempo. If I made a piece at 60 bpm, the next ten pieces might well stay at that tempo because I never bothered to change it. This reminds me of a quote by the English producer Dexplicit who explains how the default tempo of his DAW, FL Studio, impacted his work: “I got so accustomed to the default tempo that everything I made in my earlier days was 140bpm. Whether it was garage, grime or bassline, it was almost exclusively at that tempo for this reason.”

Increasingly, when I listen to music I focus on its tempo above all else. First I try to guess it, then I tap along on a metronome to figure it out more precisely. I’m often surprised how fast some musics are, even though they appear to move rather slowly. For instance, you might encounter a piece of music with a bpm of 150, yet some of its parts change at a half-time, or 75 bpm feel. In other words, the beat moves fast, while the chords move slow. Alternately, a piece might slink along at a slow-ish 90 bpm, yet some of its parts—rolling hi hats or arpeggiating sequences—chatter away two thirds faster. I enjoy music that works in this way, and such levels of pulsation rates bring to mind ancient musical composition techniques such as prolation canons and the sea of tensions they create. (I wrote about them in a blog post here.)

Finally, I have also found it useful to steal the tempo of music I enjoy listening to for use in my own work. While tempo is music’s invisible engine, it isn’t music’s copyrightable content per se. Tempo isn’t artistic property. In and outside of music, tempo is merely, yet crucially, our rate of movement, an agreed upon level of happening and intensity upon which we build. 

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