How to Pick the Perfect Tempo

How fast should I go?

Hint: Not this fast

Hint: Not this fast

This is one of the most frequent questions I get from students, and it’s also a question I repeatedly ask myself in the course of my own music preparation.   Tempo can make or break a piece, and choosing the right one is an essential part of your job as a musician.

Of course, “the right tempo” is a bit of a misnomer because there is usually a range of “perfect” tempos that can work for a particular piece, and that range often broadens as you gain expressivity and skill as a musician.

But if you choose a tempo that doesn’t work, both you and your listeners will know it: The piece will, in some essential way, refuse to come alive. Finding the right tempo is like plugging music into an electrical circuit: Suddenly, it shines.

So how do you choose? Unfortunately for quick-fix fans, the decision is fairly complex, requiring a consideration of multiple, often interlocking factors.  So buckle up, folks: this is going to be a long one.

What is the tempo designation?

When you start to think about tempo, this is the obvious starting point. An adagio is going to be slower than an allegro, for example, and a larghetto is going to be faster than a largo. Great!

But you have to be careful, because it isn’t, as many students want it to be, a straight shot between vivace and the handily shaded vivace range on your metronome.  First of all, metronomes were invented in the nineteenth century, so you really shouldn’t apply a modern-day metronome maker’s take on vivace to music written in, say, 1727.  And for baroque music, tempo designations are often most usefully interpreted as designations of character, not speed (though these concepts are intertwined).  Vivace, for example, means “lively,” and you can be lively at a variety of different speeds

How fast can you play the piece with ease?

This provides you with an obvious upper limit for your tempo selection.  Notice I said “how fast can you play the piece with ease?” and not “how fast can you play the piece?” When you play with ease, you have relaxed body positioning.  You can play with good consistency, as well as with a minimum of mental and physical effort.   If you can’t play a piece with ease within the range of that piece’s musically desirable tempos, you should probably choose another piece to perform in public, although playing at a slower tempo can still be a fabulous learning experience.

What do you know about the piece?

This is where you get to break out all the musical knowledge you’ve been steadily squirreling away from teachers, books, articles, and colleagues.  A chorale, for example, will have a tempo that is very different from a dance….and if you’re playing a dance, the type of dance matters.  A sarabande is going to have a very different tempo (and character) from a gavotte- though to add complexity, this can vary by time period and geographic origin.   If a piece is vocal, you know the tempo needs to be slow enough for the text to be comprehensible.   If you know Bach wrote a flute sonata for a player of particular skill, that piece might be faster than some other works for flute.  A triple meter often suggests more speed than a duple meter.  And on and on. Nerdery for the win!

What’s the mood?

Mood is another tempo indicator, often entwined with key.  Something doleful in minor is probably going to be slower than something peppy in major, though there are always exceptions.  On a more fine-grained level, it tends to work well to select a few words to describe the character of the piece, and use them to help guide you toward a tempo.  Is a piece martial?  Forlorn?  Cute? Lyrical?  All of these suggest different speeds.  And if there is text, what is its content?  You’re definitely going to take a piece about, oh, say, chickens at a different speed than you’re going to take a piece about death.

What is the harmonic rhythm or density?

This is among the most nerdy and intimidating of tempo clues, but it is also one of the most useful, so it’s absolutely worth learning how to assess.  Basically, we are asking ourselves: How easy is a piece to listen to?  As listeners, we need more time to process complex harmony than simple harmony, and we need more time to process changes in harmony than we do harmony that stays the same.  So if a piece has a lot of different chords, one after another, the performer has to take it slower than a piece that features only a chord or two per bar. Or if a piece has complex or unusual harmony, it’s likely to be slower than a piece that contains only two or three chords.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to hack your way through a music theory course or two, a pretty fair cheat, at least in pieces with figured bass, is to look at the numbers underneath the staff.  Are there are a lot of them, and are they close together?  Then you likely have a piece with high harmonic density/complexity, and you should take it relatively more slowly.  Are there only a few in the whole piece?  You’ve probably got low harmonic density/complexity, and you might consider going faster.

What just happened?  What will happen next?

Say you’ve just played an andante as the opening movement of your sonata.  Next comes an allegro ma non troppo.  If you play them at a tempo that is too similar, your listeners are going to get bored.  If every slow movement in your partita is exactly the same tempo, your listeners are going to get bored.  If every piece on a program is played as fast as possible, your listeners are going to get bored….you get the idea. The name of the game is contrast, and in general, the more, the better.  

Red herrings

Here are some things I DON’T think about when I try to find a piece’s best tempo.

Note values   This is a common misapprehension among beginning musicians.  A piece isn’t slow just because there are two whole notes per bar.  Nor is it fast just because you see a lot of black notes.  

Breathing  Your breathing should adapt to your tempo, not the other way around. Don’t take things too fast simply because you would otherwise have to take a breath. Instead, learn to breathe quickly and quietly, without interrupting the musical line.

The named ranges on your metronome  Step away from your metronome’s tempo chart.  Just step away. 

How fast that one dude was playing it on Youtube Maybe it works for him, maybe it doesn’t- but you want something that works for you.  And Youtube is full of crazy. 

I’ve done everything you said: Now what?  

In a word, experiment. Take all your data, make your analysis, and try out some tempos.  Some will feel too fast or too slow; one, or several, may feel “right.” And some may feel “right” only with practice, so it’s worth giving things more than one shot. Over time, your tempo selection process should become faster, more intuitive and, I hope, more fun!


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© 2016 Anne Timberlake