A practical guide on tempo markings.

Hi everyone, welcome to this practical guide on how to read the tempo markings found at the top of a music chart. First of all, in music we use a beat per minute count, or bpm, to designate the tempo. Being a minute made of 60 seconds, this means that in a 60 bpm tempo there will be one beat every second, 120 bpm means 2 beats every second and so on. Whereas the Italian terminology is still used in Classical music, as we will see at the end of this lesson, in contemporary music you will find, most of the times, the bpm value at the top of your chart indicating exactly the beats per minute.


A natural question arises at this point: what is the value of each beat? First, if only a number is found at the top of your music chart, you know by default that a quarter note is played at the designated bpm. As an example, 150 means that 150 quarter notes are played every minute, therefore 150 bpm. Remember that the default note value in Western music is always the quarter note, sometimes notated before the bpm value, as shown following here. 

= 60

60 beats every minute, therefore a quarter note is played at 60 bpm.

Sometimes you will find a different indication at the top of your music chart, specifying a note length other than the quarter note. Let’s see what that means.



240 bpm in quarter notes.

Every whole note is played at 60 bpm, meaning 60 whole notes per minute. Since a whole note equals 4 quarter notes, we multiply the value by 4, i.e. 240 bpm in quarter notes. Seldom found in contemporary music charts.

= 60

120 bpm in quarter notes.

Every half note is played at 60 bpm. Since one half note equals 2 quarter notes, then 60 half notes mean 120 quarter notes every minute, i.e. 120 bpm in quarter notes. Pretty common to mark a double tempo.

= 60

90 bpm in quarter notes.

Since a dot after a note increases the note value by half, a dotted quarter note equals one quarter note plus an eighth. Meaning, in our case, 60+(60/2) = 90 bpm in quarter notes.

= 60

30 bpm in quarter notes.

60 beats of eighth notes per minute. Since an eighth is half of a quarter note, in one minute we have half the noted value in quarter notes. Therefore, our tempo is 60/2 = 30 bpm

Less specific than the previous ones, but still used in Classical music, are the Italian tempo markings, identifying a range of beats per minute, as we can see in the following table. 

Being the Italian terminology less specific in terms of beats per minute, it relies on the accuracy of the music director in counting off the exact tempo for the rest of the band. It’s undeniable that this way of marking the tempo is still used in Classical music more as a tradition coming from the past centuries, when no instrument could mark with exact precision the seconds. 

I hope this lesson cleared up some doubts about the tempo markings. Thank you for reading and see you in the next lesson!

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