Beginning Tempo Exercises

If you’ve ever found yourself tapping your toes, dancing, or clapping along with music, then you already have a pretty good start. Most music has a rhythmic bedrock that is called the tempo, or speed. It is the pulse that underlies the music and keeps going at a steady pace. It is the reason you can tap your toes, dance, or clap along. Or, more appropriately, the reason most music has a tempo is so the listener can tap, dance, or clap along.

One of the most beautiful ways to communicate with people through music is to make music for people to dance to. When people dance, they are listening and receiving the musical message. Dancing to music that has a steady tempo is built into our biology. Even if you are not physically dancing, when you are listening to music, some inner part of you is feeling the tempo. This inner part of you is, in a sense, “dancing” along to the song, and this plays a large role in making the experience of listening to music enjoyable.

Tempo Exercise 1: Feeling the Underlying Pulse

If you have a hard time finding the steady pulse underlying a song, try walking. Walk at a steady speed. Walk at a steady slow speed, and then a faster speed. Now pick a comfortable pace and try singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” along to your footsteps. For each step, sing one syllable (don’t do this with other songs because not all songs work this way). Below, the dots represent each step, and the words line up with the dots.

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Notice the extra dot after the word “star.” This is deliberate. In the song, there is a pause after that word, but the underlying tempo keeps going so the pause lasts the length of one step. The underlying tempo keeps going steadily, even if it is not being played. This is true in most pieces of music.

Tempo Exercise 2: Playing at Different Speeds

When you walk and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” the rate at which you step, or how fast or slow you are walking, is the tempo. Each step you take is called a beat. The tempo can be measured by counting the number of beats per minute (bpm). The faster the tempo, the more beats per minute. A metronome is a device that you can set to a specific tempo (measured in bpm), and it will tap out beats at that tempo. I recommend buying one or finding a metronome app (this free online metronome is pretty good). One that goes down to very slow tempos like 10 bpm will be useful for advanced exercises. Try setting the metronome at different tempos, and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” along to the metronome, the same way you sang along with your steps. Try 100 bpm. Try 150 bpm. Can you hear how 150 bpm is faster?