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Tempo: Music Between Tradition and Technocracy

You will see two score examples. Both are four bars long. Answer without thinking too much about it: Which one is shorter?


Beispiel Mozart Jupiter IV ohne Tempoangabe


Example B has quite a few notes, doesn’t it? But is it also played faster? The correct answer: You can’t decide that. Why? Because I have withheld from you a crucial element that characterizes every musical sequence like no other: the tempo indication.

Adrian, der Musiktheorie-GurUHU

Adrian, the Music Theory MentOWL:

“In music, tempo indicates how fast a piece is to be played, thus determining the absolute duration of the note values.” 1

1Cited and translated from:, 25/SEP/2020

Thanks, Adrian.

Our musical notation today is good. I mean, it’s really quite useful, considering the huge task it has to accomplish: it captures an actual acoustic process on paper (or, as in this blog, on the screen) and makes it visual.

However, during this transfer process, information is lost, even information that is quite crucial. A striking example: musical notation as such does not transport any information about the absolute duration of note values. If you can read notes and see the following example…

Einfacher Rhythmus Halbe Viertel
A simple rhythm consisting of halves and quarters.

…all you know is that you have to play the quarter notes twice as fast as the half notes. No more and no less. But whether the whole thing lasts three seconds or twelve years – without a tempo indication you can’t know.

Adrian, der Musiktheorie-GurUHU

Adrian, the Music Theory MentOWL:

“Since the note values of today’s musical notation represent only relative rhythmic value relations, an additional tempo indication is required to determine their duration.” 1

1Cited and translated from:, 25/SEP/2020

Let us take an antichronological approach to the phenomenon of tempo indication: The current (admittedly quite technical) solution is to assign a fixed duration to a note value. The unit for this is bpm (beats per minute). The indication…

Tempo q=60
Say: "quarter sixty".

…would therefore mean that there would be room for 60 quarter notes in one minute. In other words, a quarter note receives the absolute duration of one second. In this way, tempos can of course be specified with extreme precision – in the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important German composer of the 20th century, even sometimes with decimal places.

But this technocracy was not always as widespread as it is today. Old masters such as Mozart or Bach used a system of tempo indication that was not only much closer to human nature, but, if you ask me, still allows much more dynamic performances today. Watch and listen to the beginning of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony (if you want to learn more about this work, read this article):

Mozart Prager Reduktion erste Takte

Mozart, Symphony KV 504 “Prague”, beginning. Reduction by Jonathan Stark.

Recording of June 17, 2019 from the Radiokulturhaus Vienna. Orchestra: Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Conductor: Jonathan Stark

What system does Mozart use to indicate the tempo? He combines a certain time signature with a certain tempo word. The time signature c stands for four-four time, the tempo word “Adagio” is Italian and means “slow”.

By the way, there are an incredible number of tempo words in music. For example, if you want to, you can say “faster” in 27 different ways and “slower” in 30 different ways. There are also at least 67 different tempo markings. Amazing, isn’t it? At this point, I’d like to show you just five of the most important tempo words, so you can get an idea of the variety:

Tempi ENG
A selection of tempo words.

So Mozart only needs a few strokes of ink to call out to me, the conductor, 200 years later: “Take slow quarters!” How slow exactly? Well, that is for me to decide. I use my baton to communicate my decision to the orchestra.

Adrian, der Musiktheorie-GurUHU

Adrian, the Music Theory MentOWL:

“The tempo indication can be extended with the addition of adjectives or other terms in order to describe the character of the music.”

You’re right, Adrian. Mozart could also tell me the character of the music in the same breath. For example:

Selected additions that can supplement the tempo indication.

“Adagio con dolore” would then be “Slow, with pain”, “Presto con fuoco” would be “Fast, with fire”. Great, isn’t it? Back to our examples from the beginning: These are of course real examples from the literature of classical music, and you probably already guessed it: Example B takes (much) longer. Here is the resolution:

A – Mozart, Symphony KV 551 "Jupiter", Fourth Movement

Beispiel Mozart Jupiter IV mit Tempoangabe

This recording is from the European Archive and is part of the Public Domain. It is not subject to any restrictions regarding copyright and related rights.

B – Beethoven, Piano Sonata op. 13 "Pathétique"

Beispiel Beethoven Pathetique mit Tempoangabe

Paul Pitman, piano. This recording is not subject to any restrictions on copyright and related rights as viewable under, 26/SEP/2020.

Thank you for braving my explanation of “tempo”. As a reward, you can now read the explanation of someone who really knew his stuff: Mozart himself, after all, also commented on tempo.

Jonathan Stark – Conductor
Jonathan Stark – Conductor

Hello! I'm Jonathan Stark. As a conductor, it is important to me that visits to concerts and operas leave a lasting impression on the audience. Background knowledge helps to achieve this. That's why I blog here about key works of classical music, about composers, about opera and much more that happens in the exciting world of music.

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