Picking the Right Tempo

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I’ve been thinking about tempo a lot recently in performances I’ve been listening to, and how we develop perceptions about what is the ‘right’ tempo for a piece. It’s one of those interesting questions because there are no absolute right answers, but as listeners we still have a pretty reliable sense of when a particular choice feels appropriate.

So, to state the obvious: most pieces of music have a range of speeds at which they will work well. The metronome looked like a major advance for composer control-freakery, but even with pieces that have precise speeds specified in the text, there are still musically plausible performances possible at faster and slower speeds.

Most pieces also have limits as to how fast or slow you can take them before they stop sounding realistic, and the amount of variation possible probably correlates quite well with style. My completely untested hypothesis is that music from the ‘common practice’ tradition (i.e. tonal stuff) is more flexible than post-tonal music.

But the thing that really interests me is the performance in which the basic tempo choice is well within the outside limits for that piece, but we still perceive it as ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Other aspects of the performance, that is, are affecting how we respond to the tempo.

So far, I have identified two elements that make a clear difference:

  • Timbre. The slower the tempo, the fuller the sound you need to sustain it; conversely, the lighter the sound, the brisker the tempo you can use. This generalisation works whether you’re thinking about orchestral music (think period instrument bands versus the modern symphony orchestra) or vocal music (compare the Handelian tenor with the Wagnerian one).
  • Rhythmic feel or flavour. If the pulse were a gesture, what would it look like? A rhythmic characterisation that, in Laban effort-shape terms, is light or quick seems to call for a faster tempo than one that is strong or sustained. Stretch swing wants to go slower than sling swing.

So, when we hear a performance, and think that it’s a bit too slow, it might be actually that the tempo choice is sensible in the abstract, but either the sound-world or the articulation of the pulse is too light for that speed. So you could solve the problem either by speeding up to match the timbre, or by develop a deeper, more resonant delivery to match the speed. And vice versa of course.

A clear symptom of mismatch between sound or rhythmic feel and tempo is the tendency to speed up or slow down as the performance proceeds. The same culturally-shared intuitions that lead a listener to question the tempo act on the performers themselves so that a discrepancy between sound and speed gradually self-corrects over time.

This suggests in turn that trying to control tempo by techniques such as playing along with a metronome is to address the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Addressing the tempo issue in isolation leaves in place the other factor that’s pulling it out of shape – you need to work on both together to solve the problem. (This isn’t to say that using metronomes is a bad thing. Nothing wrong with sticking plaster in its proper place – but if you also need stitches, get them done first.)

These observations open up two more theoretical questions which I may well want to come back to at a later date. The first is about metaphorical mapping between different musical elements – the sense that timbre and pulse can be understood in analogous terms, and that the coherence of this mapping is part of our perception of musical coherence. The second is about musical identity, and the relationship between a piece of music’s sense of autonomous existence and that of its performer(s). How much is it the performer’s job to adapt to the music?; how much can they meld the music to their own identity?; and how much should they just aim to perform music where there is a good match without doing either?

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