What is Tempo?


The goal for this lesson is for you to understand what tempo is and how picking a tempo affects the music.


Tempo is speed. Songs with a high tempo are “faster” and songs with a low tempo are “slower”.

Exact tempo was not originally possible due to the fact that keeping accurate track of time was difficult. So initially tempo was just a word. Play fast, play slow, play at a walking pace etc… Of course these words were italian initially and are still used to this day:

Various Tempos

Latin Word English BPM
Prestissimo As fast as you can go! Speedcore baby! 200+
Presto Very very fast 170 to 190
Vivace Lively, fast 140 to 180
Allegro Fast, Quick 120 to 140
Allegretto Moderately fast 112 to 120
Moderato Moderately 108 to 120
Marcia Moderato Moderately, in a march fashion 83 to 85
Andantino A little faster than walking pace 80 to 108
Andante Walking Pace 76 to 108
Adagietto A little slower than walking pace 72 to 76
Adagio Slowly and stately (Translated to "at ease") 66 to 76
Larghetto Rather Broadly 60 to 66
Lento Slowly 45 to 60
Largo Broadly 40 to 60
Grave Very Very Slow, In the Grave. 25 to 45
Larghissimo So Slow you're basically dead. Below 25

NOTE: These tempos are not set in stone and are just common estimates.

If a word ends in "issimo" its meaning is amplified, similar to how we add "very" such as "bad" vs "very bad".

If a word ends in "ino" or "etto" its meaning is reduced. Similar to "less" as in "bad" vs "less bad".

Later tempo got attached to a specific length of note. The quarter note being the most common. We will dive into notes more later but all you need to know for now is that the quarter note was a length of time.

With the invention of the metronome the ability to create regular ticks in time became possible at various rates and with came the ability to specify how many ticks should be in a minute.


For example, 60 tics in one minute would mean each tic was worth one second. 120 tics in one minute means each tic is worth half a second. These tics are often assigned a note value, the most common being the quarter note.

So you may see quarter note = 60 bpm, it simply means there are 60 quarter notes in a minute. More quarter notes in a minute means we are going faster and less means we are going slower.


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This formula can be used given we know tempo:

BPM Formula

Double click or (ctrl + click) to reset / Mouse wheel to zoom to mouse location / Click + drag to pan view

Say we had the example of:

BPM Formula

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Then we use the formula and find its length in seconds: 60/140= .428s so an 8th note is just under half a second for this tempo.

Original code by: Music and Coding

Number of beats per measure

There are many small details and special cases but in general it’s pretty straight forward, what I want to focus on with tempo is how picking a tempo can affect the music you write.

Common Tempo's in Music

Here is a list of common tempos for various styles of music:

Genre Tempo
R&B 60-80
Rock 110-140
Glitch Hop 110
Hop-Hop 80-100
House 128
Drum and Bass 174
Techno 120-160
Dubstep 140

These are not set in stone but are just commonly picked tempos.

The reason why some tempos are typically favored is because they affect the types of rhythms that easily come about. For example, at 98 beats per minute it is easier to fit more in a measure, certain rhythms can be slightly “pushed” so to speak. Other tempos like 174 have less time in a measure and so the same rhythms at that tempo will sound radically different.

Drum loop at 98 bpm

Drum loop at 174 bpm

As we get into note lengths and rhythms, tempo will become more important. When a musician begins to play they pick a tempo without even thinking about it, but as a composer and producer it is easy to simply go with the default tempo the DAW picks. Consider trying out a few different tempos and checking out what they may offer you. Perhaps write a few basic rhythms or themes first and select the tempo that suits them the best.

There are many additional topics of tempo, half time, cut time, and what if the note picked for the bpm is not the quarter note, but these are all topics that will be better approached after we understand note lengths, rhythm, and time signature better. Therefore we will save these for another day, for now I invite you to try and write a few basic ideas and try out different tempos. Get a small feel for the vibe of each. If you write in one often then try changing it up.

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