In the previous article of the series How to project emotions through music, we talked about choosing the key. Today I want to discuss the tempo.

Setting the tempo is one of the first details to consider when writing or interpreting a song. This process is similar to choosing a color palette before painting. And, this will influence the emotional effect the song has.

Have you ever listen to After You've Gone? It is a classic! This song is about a breakup and was composed in 1918 by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer.

Two of my favorites versions are Nina Simone's

and Django Reinhardt's.

Even though it is the same song, Nina's and Django's interpretations evoke opposite emotions. The first one makes me feel sad, and the second, happy.
If both are in the same key and have the same lyrics, what makes these versions so different? The main difference is the tempo.

Tip - How to identify the tempo of a song -
Count the beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4.
You can use an app. I like the one called ''The metronome''. You just have to tap on your phone's screen while listening to the song. The app will display the tempo.
Or, look for the song in SongBPM and figure it out.

The BPM (Beats Per Minute) establishes the duration of the musical figures. Considering one minute has 60 seconds, if BPM is ♩=60, the crotchet lasts one second. In other words, the tempo determines the speed of a piece of music.

Emotions have two main components: arousal and valence. Roughly, these psychological terms refer to stimulation and attractiveness/aversion.

The tempo affects the arousal, which is related to the activation of some neurotransmitters responsible for the cortical activity and the sense of alertness.

The tempo will not determine if someone likes or dislikes a song. But, it induces physical stimulation, which has emotional implications.

In normal conditions, the human's heartbeat is between 60 and 100. For composers, this is an important fact. Our body is the receptacle of the experiences we have. The experiences, mediated by the body, are translated into emotions. Therefore, the way the body works determines how we perceive things. For example, when we say a song is fast or slow, we are comparing it to our heartbeat.
You can see below four different moods and the heartbeat rate associated.

BPM of the human heart according to different moods 

The tempo will be interpreted by our brain, through the emotion we associate with a particular heartbeat.

If you are relaxed, your heartbeat is approximately 90. Therefore, a tempo BPM=90 can induce that state, while BPM=120 hardly can.  

The tempo is indicated by a written instruction (see example 1) or just by stating the BPM (see example 2).  

Example 1
Example 2

Let's go back to After You've Gone. On the one hand,  Nina's interpretation is approximately ♩=60, a Larghetto. On the other hand, Django's is ♩=132, an Allegro. Looking at the list below, you can see that me feeling sad with Simone's version, and happy with Django's version matches the tempo the interpreters chose to play along and the emotion related to that BPM.

Practice: take one of your compositions on Flat and change the tempo. Listen and see how it makes you feel.

What about changing the tempo in a song?

Changing the tempo is a great way to bring emotional nuances into a song. Thus, the audience's experience will be expanded, making our work more appealing.

Let's listen to Ella Fitzgerald's interpretation of After You've Gone.

From Adagio, at min 1:30, the tempo goes up to Allegro. This change brings an interesting connotation. Ella's interpretation enables a deeper connection between the audience and the story behind the composition. She makes me feel she is going through a breakup, which is sad, but also that she is going to be fine because life goes on.

In short,

consciously setting the tempo is vital for composing. It will help us to be more expressive and accurate. Also, to boost the emotional effect and foster a greater connection to our music.

Next time, we will talk about harmony and melody.

See you then!


If you liked this article, check out the other articles in this series:

  1. Music: A catalyst for emotions
  2. Choosing the key
  3. Setting the tempo
  4. Melody
  5. Harmony
  6. Chord progression
  7. Modulation