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Pulse and tempo

The pulse is a regular beat. The tempo corresponds to the speed of the pulse.

The pulse

Regular and irregular beats

The pulse is a regular beat, i.e. occuring at regular intervals of time, such as the ticking of a watch. Since this is a beat, we will use the expression "to beat the pulse" .


Example of a regular beat

Irregular beat

Example of an irregular beat (this is not a pulse)

To "feel" the pulse is essential to a good performance of the rhythm. The rhythm corresponds to the time placement of the notes. If the musician is not "grounded" on a regular pulse, he will not be able to play rhythm correctly. He will also have difficulty playing with others.

How to train to feel the pulse? The best way to feel the pulse is to beat it. Take a pencil, a stick, or just your hand, and try taping at the same time as excerpt 1. If you can't do this, stand up and try to walk at the pulse speed.

Writing on the staff

In order to facilitate the rhythmic learning of a piece, it may be wise to graphically represent the beats on the staff. This helps to identify where beats "fall". For this, write the pulse using a vertical line under the staff. Notes that are vertically aligned with a pulse line indicate that you must play the note on the beat.

There are always as many pulses in a measure as there are beats. In a piece at  for example, it will be necessary to make sure to write down 3 vertical lines by measure, one under each beat.
Beat notation (simple rhythms)

FIGURE 1 - Simple example of beat notation


Audio of figure 1 with pulse

On figure 1, all notes are on a beat, except the second eighth of the second measure which is between to beats (between the first and the second beat of the measure). Note also that we are in a 4-beat measure ( meter) so there are 4 pulses per measure.

Beat notation (complex rhythms)

FIGURE 2 - More complex example of beat notation


Audio of figure 2 with pulse

In this second example, the rhythms used are more complex and varied. The usefulness of beat notation is clearly apparent here. Notice that notes are not necessarily beamed by beat: the 4 eighths of the second measure form a group of notes, but last 2 beats. The vertical lines make easier to be aware of the beat positions.

Beat notation (with long notes and rests)

FIGURE 3 - Example of notation of pulsations with long notes and rests


Audio of figure 3 with pulse

Pulse notation also makes sense when there are rests or long notes ​​in a song. Notice that the second beat of the first measure and the first beat of the second measure are written under rests. However, nothing is harder for a beginner than to wait for the right duration during a rest! The materialization of the beats on the score helps to take this problem into account.

Finally, the pulses allow to correctly execute the long values ​​(whose duration exceeds one quarter). Observe the fourth beat of the first measure. It represents the second pulse of the half note, and thus allows not to shorten its duration.

You will not find sheet music with beats already noted on the market, except if it is specially designed for learning theory or ear training.

The tempo

The speed of the pulse

The speed of the pulse is called the tempo . When the pulse is fast, we say that the tempo is fast, when the pulse is slow, we say that the tempo is slow.

Slow tempo

Example of slow pulse (56 beats per minute)

Moderate tempo

Example of moderate pulse (96 beats per minute)

Fast tempo

Example of fast pulse (140 beats per minute)

Be careful not to confuse tempo and dynamic which are two distinct and totally independent notions (cf. Dynamics)

Tempo indications

Whatever the style, each piece of music has its own tempo, its own speed of execution. In order to specify the tempo of a work, the composer writes down the tempo indication at the beginning of the piece, just above the first measure.

This tempo indication can take several forms: either an movement indication, written out in words, in the language of the composer or in Italian (particularly true in classical music), or a metronomic indication, or both together.

Movement indications

Until the early XIXth century, the metronome does not exist, the composers indicated the movement by Italian expressions commonly used such as Largo, Adagio, Allegro, Presto, etc. Sometimes, for more precision, some composers prefer to note the movement in their native language. Since the invention of the metronome, movement indication is often supported by metronomic movement, but not systematically. It is therefore important to know the most frequently used movement indications in order to easily know the tempo of a work.

FIGURE 4 - Adagio (slow tempo indication)

FIGURE 5 - Allegro (fast tempo indication)

Movement indications frequently used
Italian termsMeaning
LargoLarge, very slow
AdagioSlow, still
AndanteA bit slow but moving
AllegroFast, joyful
PrestoVery fast, in a hurry

Le métronome

The metronome is a tool that produces a stable pulse at the desired speed. Thanks to the metronome, the speed of execution is determined with great precision and it remains the same in all conditions. Originally a pendulum (see photo below), the metronome now exists in electronic format and is very often integrated with digital instruments (such as digital pianos for example).

Pendulum metronome

When and how to use the metronome? The use of the metronome is relevant as soon as you have trouble keeping a stable tempo. As long as you follow it well, listen to it and do not try to go faster than the music! Some beginners have a hard time settle on the metronome and start too fast in the execution of a passage without having taken the time to feel the pulse. So take that time and feel the beats before starting. It is also not necessary to stare at the pendulum of the metronome or the indicator light of an electronic metronome. Use your ears instead!

The metronomic movement

The metronomic movement is defined as the number of beats per minute (bpm). For example, a tempo of 60 bpm corresponds to the speed of the second (because there are 60 seconds in a minute). The higher the number, the faster the tempo. For example, 160 bpm corresponds to a very fast tempo (equivalent of a Presto).

On a score, the metronomic movement is indicated in relation to a note value: rhythm value = x.

Examples of metronomic movement indications

 = 60 indicates a 60 bpm tempo, beats corresponding to quarters.

 = 120 indicates a 120 bpm tempo, beats corresponding to quarters.

 = 80 indicates a tempo of 80 bpm and beats corresponding to half notes. In this last case it will be necessary to multiply the metronomic indication by 2 to obtain the quarter value:  = 80 is equivalent to  = 160.

Sometimes composers will instead give an interval between two values, as in  = 88 ~ 96. This means it will be necessary to interpret this piece at a tempo between 88 and 96 bpm.

FIGURE 6 - Metronomic indication example ( = 40) with an Adagio movement indication

Last update on 2021/05/07

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