What’s The Difference Between Tempo And BPM?

What Is The Difference Between Tempo and BPM

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Even if you’re not a professional musician you are probably familiar with words like melody, beat, harmony, rhythm, and tempo.

Through my experience, I can tell you that I struggled to understand the clear difference between some of these musical terms, specifically bpm, and temp. But once you get into it, tempo and bpm are actually simple concepts to grasp.

So, what’s the difference between tempo and bpm?

Tempo and bpm are not exactly different. Bpm stands for beats per minute and the beat is a measurement of time in music. Tempo is the speed at which a song or a piece of music is performed and it is measured in the number of beats happening per minute.

If you also struggle to understand how tempo and bpm are different, then I think it’s time we explored these concepts so you can finally know how to find a song’s tempo and bpm.

What’s The Difference Between Tempo and BPM?

It’s difficult to talk about tempo and bpm in terms of differences because these two concepts are quite intertwined, and we need to look at them separately first before we look at the two together.

What is the definition of tempo?

Tempo is the speed of a played song. I know it sounds quite simple, too simple to be true, so let me give you a very simple example.

If you place your palm over your heart, you will hear its beating and if you pay attention to it, you will notice that it can go fast or slow. In other words, your heart has a tempo.

In fact, you can find tempo in a lot of “simple” things, like your breathing, and your walk. Of course, tempo can be a bit more complicated than that when it comes to music, but it is still about speed.

As a musician, you can be directed to play fast or slow or receive a series of directions that are more complicated like presto, largo, and moderato that are not just about speed, but also tell you the musical feel of the piece.

What is the definition of bpm?

By definition bpm, which means “beats per minute,” is quite self-explanatory, unless you’re not so sure what a beat is. Well, in music theory the beat is the basic unit of time, and every beat lasts half a second.

According to the University of Amsterdam, the beat is “so fundamental to humans that we recognize patterns in music even without paying any attention or receiving any training.”

Musicians or not I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves tapping or nodding our heads, or even swaying our bodies along with a song, and it’s most likely that we were following the beat.

So, are tempo and bpm different?

Now, we need to look at how bpm and tempo are actually connected, and this is also quite simple. Bpm is one of the ways that tempo is communicated to musicians, it is an assigned numerical value to a tempo, or in other words, it’s how we measure tempo and it’s the most precise way of doing so.

So, if tempo tells us how fast a piece of music is then bpm is the number that tells us exactly how fast that is. Since a beat lasts half a second, bpm tells us how many quarter notes will fill the space of a minute.

A tempo of 60 bpm means there are 60 beats or quarter notes per minute, or one beat every second. A tempo of 120 bpm means you have two beats per second or 120 beats per minute. The larger the number the faster the tempo.

How To Find A Song’s Tempo?

Tempo might be a simple concept to wrap your head around at first, but finding the tempo is not that easy. This is however something all musicians have to learn how to do, not just the ones that have to follow the tempo instructions of a composer in an orchestra.

The most straightforward way of finding the tempo of a song is by looking at the tempo marking, or metronome markings at the start of the piece which will tell you how fast or slow the piece is.

Another way of finding tempo if you don’t have a score before you is by using a metronome. The metronome as we know it today was designed by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel and patented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel in 1815.

This device produces a steady beat or pulse, which is usually an audible click, and as you can imagine the pulses are measured in bpm.

The great thing about the metronome is that by taping this device in time to the beat of whatever song you’re listening to it will automatically calculate the speed of the song, or its tempo in bpm.

While the metronome is a great tool for musicians to internalize a clear sense of timing and tempo, it does take time and practice.

If you don’t have a metronome, then you should be thankful that you live in the digital age because you can also use specific apps that basically work like a digital metronome. There are also different digital audio software that can determine the tempo of a song.

Additionally, you can find mechanical metronome series on YouTube like this one:

I also want to add that plenty of bands and musicians use “click tracks” to synchronize sound recordings. A click track is a simple ticking sound that is played through the musician’s headphones and keeps the tempo.

When it comes to musical instruments drums are usually the ones to set the tempo, so if you are listening to a song and you’re trying to find the tempo then perhaps you need to focus on the drums or another rhythmic instrument.

How To Find A Song’s BPM?

If you want to find out the tempo of the music then you will naturally find the bpm of it as well. After all, bpm is a measurement of the number of beats that occur in a minute which indicates the speed of the music.

If you’re looking for the bpm of a song then you can either listen to the drum beat and use a stopwatch to count the bpm, or you can use a metronome instead, which should give you a precise result.

You can also use a musical program or software that can analyze a song and determine its bpm. There are also sites that can give you the bpm of songs and all you have to do is type in the name of the song.

How Long Is A Beat?

The beat is a basic time unit in a piece of music, it is determined by the time signature of the piece and while the duration of a beat is half a second, the beat can last as long as the composer of the song or piece of music indicates it will be.

For example, the beats per minute (bpm) of a song is usually given right at the start of a piece, so if it says 120 bpm there will be two beats every second, or if it’s a slower tempo like 60 bpm then there will be one beat every second.

What Are The Common Tempo Markings?

Aside from bpm, you can also identify the speed of a song, meaning its tempo through tempo markings. As you will see below, tempo markings are usually a word that basically corresponds with a bpm number.

Tempo Markings

The reason we still use Italian terminology to describe tempo is rooted in human history of course. The most famous early composers were from Italy and flourished during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Other languages like German and French are also used, but they are not as popular as Italian. But even Italian is not used everywhere, not by all musicians, by every musical genre, and in every studio.

I also want to add that certain Italian tempo markings are more popular than others. Of course, classical musicians are familiar with most if not all of them, but largo, andante, allegro, and presto are known by a wider variety of musicians.

There’s also casual musical language, used by contemporary musicians in genres like Jazz and Rock players that rarely use Italian terminology. Instead, they will use terms in English, or their own language, like fast, laid back, steady rock, medium-up, and slowly and etc.

Tempo rubato is also worth mentioning because this term is used to let a player know that they won’t be playing with a set tempo, instead, they will be setting their own.

Chopin Frederic Chopin is known for his use of tempo rubato, and you can hear Vladimir Horowitz perform his music beautifully!

Italian Tempo Markings

Here’s a table that can help you see clearly the Italian tempo markings and their metronome mark range, as well as their meaning.

I do want to mention that these are not all the markings that exist and there are plenty of in-betweens as well as variations and it will depend on the context of the piece and the composer’s intention.

Italian Tempo MarkingsBPMMeaning
Larghissimo24 bpm or slowerVery, very slow
Grave25 to 45 bpmSlow and solemn
Largo40 to 60 bpmSlow and broad and it’s subtly faster than grave
Lento45 to 60 bpmslow
Larghetto60 to 66 bpmRather broad but still quite slow
Adagio66 to 76 bpmAt ease, slow with great expression
Adagietto70 to 80 bpmFaster than adagio but rather slow
Andante76 to 108 bpmAt a walking pace
Moderato108 to 120 bpmModerate speed
Allegretto112 to 120 bpmModerately fast
Allegro120 to 156 bpmFast and Bright
Vivace156 to 176 bpmLively and fast
Presto168 to 200 bpmExtremely fast
Prestissimo200 and overFaster than Presto

How To Measure The Tempo?

Tempo as we’ve discovered by now is expressed by tempo markings that are words expressing the speed and feel of the music and by metronome markings that are indicated in beats per minute.

There are different ways you can measure the tempo and you can start by calculating the bpm of a song. You can do this with your ears and a stopwatch, however, this is not always the most precise method, especially if you are not an experienced musician.

Instead, you can use a metronome, whether that’s the traditional wooden metronome, a digital metronome, or a quartz metronome doesn’t really matter. Otherwise, you can also use apps and software that are designed to detect tempo.

What’s The Difference Between Tempo And Rhythm?

It can be easy to confuse one for the other, but if you look closely you will be able to see the subtle difference between tempo and rhythm.

As we already know tempo is the speed at which a song or a piece of music is performed. Rhythm is the placement of sounds in time, the shifts and changes in tempo, and the creation of a pattern of sound, silence, and emphasis.

So unlike tempo, rhythm is not all about speed but about all the melodic components that give flow to a music piece. You can identify a rhythm from the pattern that different components create, and that’s the notes, their length, and sequencing.

Your heartbeat as I’ve already mentioned has a tempo, there’s a speed to the way it’s beating, but there’s also a pattern that creates rhythm.

Closing Thoughts

In the complex world of music, tempo is one of the most important ingredients, because it’s like a living and breathing being that is constantly changing and its main purpose is to evoke emotion, draw our attention and get us to listen.

But what role does bpm plays in relation to tempo?

This exquisite manipulation of musical time in a song we call tempo can be measured in beats per minute, bpm.

In a sense, these two concepts are not different, you can use bpm or tempo markings to find out the speed of a song, essentially the tempo.