Today I will show you how to work out the tempo of a song or any piece of music for yourself, with confidence and accuracy. Let’s get started!
Find the beat
Straight away, let me tell you that working out the tempo of a song is very straightforward. Anyone can do it. In fact, most of the work is done for you.
All you need to do to find the tempo of a song is tap your metronome in time to the beat, and the metronome will automatically calculate its speed or tempo in bpm (beats per minute). This is a built-in feature of any decent metronome called Tap Tempo. Thus, if you can tap your foot in time to a song, you can find its tempo.
If that’s all you need to do, what’s the point of this article? – you might wonder.
Well, the only trouble is how to be sure you’ve found the actual beat. This where people get confused and where mistakes get made, so this is what today’s lesson is really all about.
The whole problem
Because musical rhythm is based on division, you can be happily tapping away to ‘a rhythm’ that’s ‘in time’ with a song… while missing the fundamental beat that determines the tempo.
(This in turn creates a spiral of confusion in determining the time signature, a related issue which we’ll address in a future article.)
When we refer to ‘a beat’ in casual conversation about music, we really just mean any rhythm that is repetitive, catchy or distinctive in some way.
But what you need to find the tempo is the beat – that is, the fundamental, foundational beat – properly known as the ‘Pulse’.
The pulse ticks away in the background like a clock, marking out the passage of time, and all the other rhythms in a song are pinned to it. As the word suggests, it really is like the heartbeat of the music.
The difficulty is that the pulse can easily be obscured by other elements in the music, and you find yourself locking-in with a sub-rhythm (either faster or slower) which is not the real pulse.
What you need is a foolproof method to be sure you’re tapping to the actual pulse.
How to find the pulse
The key to accurately determining the tempo of a song lies in the drums (or main rhythmic instrument).
Once you know what specifically to listen for in the drums, finding the pulse and therefore the tempo of a song becomes a straightforward process.
The drums in every style of popular music are built from a very simple beat which goes like this:
Bass, Snare, Bass, Snare
(The bass drum is the low-pitched, bass-y and thumpy sounding one, while the snare has a sharp, military-march type sound.)
Typically, these main beats are arranged in a repeating pattern of 4, with the bass playing on Beats 1 and 3, and the Snare playing on beats 2 and 4.
1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, etc.
The key is the snare drum, which has a distinctive almost gunshot-like bang in between the bass drum hits:
1 2 3 4
By listening for the snare, you can instantly tell which are the 2nd and 4th beats, which in turn tells you where ‘1’ is, i.e. the beginning of the bar.
This is how to zero in and lock on to the genuine pulse of a song.
(PS Bear in mind the exact sound of the snare beat is variable, since it can be hit with different levels of intensity. It also has a mechanism underneath that changes the tone, and hits on the skin be replaced altogether with a ‘rim shot’, which is a strike against the metal rim of the drum. The point is not the exact sound quality of the hit, it’s what the snare hit represents – the off-beat accent following the kick drum’s strong downbeat.)
Rhythm obviously gets far more complex than this, but fundamental pulse consisting of strong down beats alternating with weaker off-beats – 1 2 3 4 – is the foundation of everything, and this basic idea is always present in some form.
"But what if there are no drums?"
The drum kit simply brings to life something that is already there; a natural interplay between strong and weak or heavy and soft accents within every musical rhythm.
Even when there are no actual drums or percussion in a piece of music, there is always a pulse. On solo instruments, experienced players establish a sense of pulse naturally by playing natural stronger and weaker accents on certain notes.
This might sound quite subtle and even intangible, but a lot of times it is quite obvious. Unaccompanied singer songwriters on acoustic guitar, for example, often put ‘snare hits’ into their strumming patterns by knocking on the body of the guitar or hitting muted strings where the snare would be.
The point is, once you know what to listen for – the alternating of down and up or strong and weak beats – you can start building the foundations of a strong internal sense of rhythm.
Find the Tempo
Now you know you’re counting THE beat(!) correctly, you can go ahead and find any song’s tempo by getting your metronome and using the ‘Tap Tempo’ function.
Tap the button in time to the pulse of the song while it plays, and the metronome will calculate the interval between your taps to give you a tempo value in BPM. This will be a numerical figure like ‘120’ or ’98’.
Tap Tempo becomes more accurate the longer you tap, because more taps help the metronome iron out any little human discrepancies from tap to tap and take an accurate ‘average’.
Depending on the song, I recommend tapping for a good 30-60 seconds to get an accurate reading.
Bear in mind that lots of songs have variable tempos, either because a speed up or slow down is deliberately built-in, or naturally occurring because the recordings did not use a ‘click track’ (studio speak for having a metronome running while recording). In such scenarios, you’re just looking to take as accurate a measure as you can, or you can even measure different sections (eg Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solo, etc) separately if you like.
And that’s it. Got a question? Let me know in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.