Tempo means how fast or slow the music should be played or sung.

TL;DR (Overview)

  • Tempo means how fast or slow the music should be played or sung.
  • Tempo is measured in “beats per minute”, or BPM.
  • A metronome helps us to find the tempo, or BPM.
  • Tempo markings are words that give us a range of BPM:
    • Largo – slow and broad
    • Adagio – slow, “at ease”; with great expression
    • Andante – at a walking pace
    • Moderato – moderately
    • Allegro – fast, quick, and bright
    • Vivace – lively and fast
    • Presto – very, very fast
    • Prestissimo – very, very fast; even faster than presto
  • Time signatures tell us how many beats are in each measure, and which note equals one beat.

Go to the extras to test yourself!

The word “tempo” means “rate”, or “speed”. The tempo is determined by how many beats there are in one minute.

Remember: a beat is regular. Imagine that you are walking, and as you walk, you sing a song. Your feet are keeping the beat, while your voice sings the rhythms and the words.

BPM - Beats per minute

When we write a tempo, we use the abbreviation “BPM”, or “beats per minute”.

60 BPM is the easiest tempo to understand. If there are 60 beats in a minute, it means there is one beat every second.

Listen to what 60 BPM sounds like:

120 BPM means that there are 120 beats in a minute, or two beats every second. Listen to 120 BPM:

The Metronome

Some people may be able to find a tempo by using math… If 60 BPM is one beat per second, then 72 BPM is… Well, some of us are not math geniuses, and we need some help.

So how do we know how fast or slow a tempo should be? We use a tool called a metronome. A metronome can show you what every tempo sounds like.

There are several types of metronome:

  • Mechanical metronomes
  • Electronic metronomes
  • Software metronomes
  • Click tracks

Mechanical Metronome

A mechanical metronome has an adjustable weight at the end of a steel rod. When you slide the weight up and down the rod, the tempo changes. When the weight is near the bottom of the rod, the swing is shorter, and so the tempo is faster. When the weight is near the top of the rod, it takes longer to swing back and forth, and so the tempo is slower.

mechanical metronome

Electronic / digital metronome

An electronic metronome sometimes uses a quartz crystal, like those found in watches, to make sure it is accurate. Some have a dial that you turn to choose your tempo. Others are regulated by pressing buttons. They require batteries to run. They make a beeping sound to indicate the tempo and keep a musician on track while practicing.

Software metronome

A software metronome is usually an app that you can use on your phone or computer. Sometimes you can find a software metronome in music recording / arranging software, like GarageBand.

Soundbrenner has an excellent metronome app. You might like to download it and play with it.

Apple store linkGoogle Play link

Click Track

A click track is a tool used in music processing software. You use it to indicate tempo either before a piece begins, or during it, if you need to adjust the music you’re writing. Unlike a metronome, the click track doesn’t “beep”, it… clicks.

Just for fun!

Here’s a metronome you can play with. It was made by 4four.io. You can change the tempo, the number of beats per minute (BPM), the volume, and even the instrument sound made by the metronome.

You may want to go directly to the site to play with it, there’s lots of other great stuff there too!

Google metronome

If you open Google, and type the word “metronome”, you’ll see another interactive metronome that you can use. It’s very basic, but it’s interesting that Google made one.

Tempo Markings

Often we will see what we call “tempo markings” at the beginning of a piece or at the beginning of a section. These markings tell us broadly how fast or slow the music should be. These are the most common tempo markings, and for each you’ll see how many beats per minute the indicate. The ones in bold, blue letters are the most common; these are the ones you should remember.
When a tempo changes during a section, we might see some of the following terms to indicate how it should change:

Time Signatures

Time signatures tell us how many beats are in one measure, and which note should equal one beat.

Time signatures appear at the beginning of a score, or at the beginning of a new section. They can sometimes come right in the middle of a piece, too.

A time signature consists of two numbers, one on top of the other:

The following chart will show you how to read them.
Time signature chart


Here are some little challenges to test yourself on tempo and time signatures.

Match the time signature to the score excerpt.

This is a really catchy video… Only two tempo markings are in the song, but I guarantee you won’t forget them!


Tempo (fast or slow); beats per minute (BPM); metronome; tempo markings: largo, adagio, andante, moderato, allegro, vivace, presto, prestissimo; time signatures (see the chart above for the time signatures)