The Sin of Being Obsessed with Tempo Markings

Richard Floyd • Book ReportJune 2023 • June 11, 2023

Perhaps no element of the artistry of music making generates more discussion and debate than tempo markings. Why? As we continue to look at “our sins” we see that most sins are very subjective and open to an array of interpretations and opinions. What does forte mean? How soft is soft? Is the staccato crisp, short or light? The options are limitless. Arguably that is one of the beauties of music. There remains a broad array of “right answers.”  Boundaries of objective measure are spacious.

Now enter the conundrum of tempo markings. In truth tempo indications such as adagio, andante, allegro, vivace, and so on are equally subjective as the other expressive musical terms we encounter each day. These are Italian terms that have little to do with speed but rather imply a style and feeling. Examples such as:

Largo abundant, full, wide, or broad

Adagio at ease, leisurely

Allegro lively

Vivace brisk, vigorous

But, in today’s musical world the plot has thickened due to the heightened awareness of metronome markings and beats per minute (BPM). Since the time of Beethoven, we have had a tool, if you will, with the potential to objectify one of the most crucial and essential elements of music making. On the one hand this might appear to be a good thing but in the broader scope of music making a rigid adherence to tempo markings can be…yes…a sin!

Certainly, there are examples where tempo markings appear rigid. Take for example John Barnes Chance’s “Variation on a Korean Folk Song” where there is a metric relationship between the tempo markings of MM-96, MM-132, MM-72, MM-144 and a final augmented statement of the melody at MM-48 (precisely one half the tempo of the opening statement of the theme). And today there continues to be new works that include click tracks and other metronomic devices intended to clearly define tempo with rigid preciseness. 

But this genre of repertoire is the exception rather than the norm. In our broader musical world tempo exists in a state of flux that allows it to function in consort with multiple other musical factors. 

There are endless accounts of conductors, composers and performing artists sharing their points of view, engaging in debates, and changing their minds about a “right” tempo. Perhaps Hindemith said it best when, upon hearing the reading of a new work he had completed, he questioned the tempo. When told the piece was being performed at precisely the tempo, he had indicated on the score his response was, “Play the tempo that is right, not the tempo that is marked!” 

There are countless similar accounts of such divergences. I vividly recall attending an honor band performance under the baton of composer Francis McBeth. He was conducting one of his very own works and was taking a tempo very different than what was indicated in the score. After the concert I asked him about the incongruity. He responded, “Oh, I made a mistake. I sent the wrong tempo marking to my publisher. I personally take the tempo that was intended for this music.” Where does that leave the countless directors who set their metronome to the “correct” tempo indicated on the score and simply “went to work.”  A graphic example of the reality that “being correct” does not make it “right.” Yet again, a sin has been committed. 

While I was director of bands at Baylor University, I recall a collaboration with Eastman School of Music composer Samuel Adler. When he came to conduct our wind ensemble on one of his works, he took a tempo that was easily 20+ clicks faster than indicated in the score. When I asked him about his performance tempo, he replied that over time he had concluded the musical content called for a much faster tempo. He was right. The vigorous tempo was far more compelling. Adhering to the tempo marking in the score would have been a sin.

In his score for the stunning work This Cruel Moon, composer John Mackey suggests a tempo of Quarter Note = 56 BPM…rubato throughout.  While in the program notes he defines the duration of the piece to be six to seven- and one-half minutes. That 90 second variation in performance time opens countless options for expressive flexibility in interpretation. On the other hand, in much of his faster music, Mackey tends to be very specific about his tempo markings and expectations for specific BPM. 

Perhaps the most profound iteration of this phenomenon was uttered by the great American composer Aaron Copland. When a question regarding a tempo marking in his music was raised by a conductor during a rehearsal of Emblems, Copland reportedly stated, “I want you to go at the tempo that feels right to you.”

To me, the essence of Copland’s response was encapsulated in the simple words feels right. Without feeling there is no artistic connection. Certainly, it is possible to objectify tempo selection based on the indicated BPM marking. One can “check that box” and move on. But, if it doesn’t “feel right” the result is only a replication of the craft on the page. Without that feelingful connection there is little potential for an artistic connection and subsequent musically satisfying rendition of the music. 

To objectify tempo selection is a transgression. To ponder tempo without feeling is a sin. Tempo selection must consider score tempo markings but then result in a natural, internal, connection with the music. Certainly, there are external factors but ultimately the tempo must come from the inside out. It must be an extension of one’s internal connection with the music. 

Composer, writer, and Eastman School of music professor Bruce Adolph said it well.

Musicians know you cannot keep time.

Music travels in time and musicians take a ride.

Tempo is a liquid.

Like water, it seeks its own level.

A good tempo is a discovery.

The musical sin of Being Obsessed with Tempo Markings is explored in depth in The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making by Richard Floyd and published by GIA. Coming next, the wickedness of failing to contemplate and create musical line.

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