The Devil Is in the Metronome Marking

I wonder if other there are other composers who have the same relation to tempo that I do. I sometimes struggle with the beginning of a piece until I get the tempo right. In recent months I’ve written sketches for a piece commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players for next January. I wrote a passage at quarter-note = 88. Didn’t feel right. Wrote further passages at that tempo. All fell limp the next time I looked at them. Tried a new passage at 112. Even worse. Finally, today, I got an idea at quarter-note = 84 and suddenly wrote 100 seconds of music in an hour. 84 is a good tempo for me, and one I’ve used before: calm, unhurried, and yet with a little energy. Yet after I’ve written a piece, I generally give the performer(s) considerable leeway with tempo. In the case of The Day Revisited, though, I learned from experience that the piece only works at half-note = 50, which was the first tempo I’d marked – not a beat more or less.

On the other hand, for my Disklavier pieces I’ve gotten in the habit of accepting Sibelius’s default tempo of quarter-note = 100, and, since there are no performers to worry about, simply used quintuplets or septuplets or 13th-lets or whatever to get the speed I want.

I’ll never forget how at the first June in Buffalo festival, 1975, at dinner one night Morton Feldman talked about how young composers used to write everything at 60, but lately they had all started using 72. That was my first inkling that even a tempo could become a cliché. One of the great things about Feldman was that he could pick out clichés no one else would have recognized. I hope 84 isn’t becoming a fad.


  1. Dan Schmidt says

    I never used to obsess about tempo when I wrote in pencil at a desk or at the piano. These days, when I write in Sibelius, I’m always playing passages back and worrying that they’re just a little too fast or a little too slow. It’s kind of an unwelcome distraction – I spend less time in the flow of writing, and keep getting second thoughts about the sound of what I’ve just written instead of moving forward.

  2. says

    What is the perfect tempo in one space doesn’t necessarily work in another. Even the weather can change things. I always have this image in mind of a hang glider- the density of the air supports the glider. I use that same idea with metronome markings – the right one will find that air pocket and soar. Too fast and it’s out of control, too slow and it falls to the ground.

  3. says

    Seems to me that there’s a Stravinsky quote somewhere saying something very similar: that he couldn’t really get started writing until he had the tempo squared away. (possibly one of the many unreliable quotes, but you takes your cahnces…)

  4. says

    I have almost the reverse problem — I tend to set my tempo from the getgo on the basis either of the first idea I come up with that I like or sometimes even arbitrarily. (I’ve noticed the danger of defaulting to the standard 100 or 120 BPM that Cakewalk has, at different times, started you out with and try to avoid it.) Then my later material tends to flow from that tempo. Except that historically I’ve also found that live performances need to take the tempo down slightly from the ideal MIDI tempo — this particular problem has lessened as my MIDI rig has gotten more realistic sounding.

  5. says

    Perception of time varies with body temperature (according to NASA, as reported in Scientific American about 1993, look it up yourself if you’re feeling wikilicious), therefore with season, latitude and age.
    Anyway the Spaniard in the Wurst of the whole thing is notation, it seems to me. Ignoring notation, playings with time such as metric modulation, acc/decc and “swing” with MIDI sequencers are easy as pie, at least with Cubase, for it features “snap-off” event entry and a “conducter” kind of master timeline in which you can draw tempo curves to taste.
    The resulting notation is illegible.