The tempo is the speed of a song. It may concern how fast you have to change chords, how fast you should sing the lyrics, or both. Why do musicians — mostly drummers — count in a song before they start playing? Exactly! To get everybody in sync with the tempo. It can be detected by the way we sway, stamp our feet or clap our hands while listening to music. Tempo consists of two important elements: beats per minute (bpm) and time signature.
The bpm is the speed. It is expressed by a number that denotes how many beats we encounter in one minute. For instance, 120 means that there are 2 beats in every second — 60 * 2 = 120.
The time signature shows us the value of each beat, and how many beats are in one bar. The most common time signatures are 4/4 and 3/4. The first number (4 or 3) stands for the amount of beats per bar. The second number (4 in both cases) is the value of each beat.
In the old days, composers had invented certain words as tempo markings to indicate speed. Each word indicates a special range of bpm. Note that nowadays you can find these tempo markings in charts as well!
Let’s look at a few examples:
- Largo: 40 – 60 bpm;
- Allegro: 120 – 160 bpm;
- Presto: 168 – 200 bpm.
Playing in tempo, in other words feeling the groove with the whole band, is a good indicator of the professionalism of a musician. Sometimes, however, band members can drag or rush the tempo. When someone is dragging or rushing, the whole band feels it.
Dragging is the tendency to play slower than the original tempo of a song or accidentally slowing down certain parts. It’s the opposite of rushing, which is the tendency to play faster than the original tempo of a song.
One of the ways to improve your time feel is to practice with a metronome.