How to Read Music - Tempo & Dynamics

So far, in learning how to read music, you've studied all of the mechanical details that you need to know, just to read the music. Now, it's time to learn the 'art' of making music.

To do that, you'll need to learn:

  • how softly or how loud to play
  • how fast or how slow to play
  • when to slow down or speed up
  • when to hold a note for longer than its time value
  • when to play short, choppy notes
  • when to play smooth notes that flow together
  • much more!

There's so much to cover that I won't be able to do it all here, but I can get you started on the most important stuff.


Tempo

Part of learning how to read music is knowing how fast to play. In piano music, we call the speed at which we play "tempo".

There are a couple of different ways songwriters tell us what tempo to play. You'll almost always see something in the upper left-hand corner of the first page of the music that tells you what the tempo should be.


Descriptive Words

In most popular music, there's just a general description such as "play it like a ballad". In this case, it's up to you to use your judgment about what that means.


Italian Tempos

Sometimes, especially in classical music, you'll see a word in Italian. These words are generally understood to represent specific speed ranges.

Most metronomes will give you a range of how many beats per minute for each Italian tempo, like this:

Tempo   Meaning   Beats
per
Minute
Largo broadly 40-60
Larghetto rather broadly" 60-66
Adagio slow and stately, at ease 66-76
Andante at walking pace 76-108
Moderato moderately 108-120
Allegro fast, quickly and brightly 120-168
Presto very fast 168-200
Prestissimo   extremely fast 200-208

For more tempos and their meanings, see Wikipedia's article on music tempo.


A Tiny Note

Another way we indicate tempo is by placing a tiny note with an equal sign and a range of speeds in that same place, at the upper left hand corner.

For example, you might see a tiny dotted quarter note, indicating that each tick or beep of the metronome represents a dotted quarter note's worth of time at the indicated speed.

Using a Metronome

Timing can be difficult, but it's one of the most important parts of learning how to read music. It's easy to hold notes too long, or not long enough.

The best tool in the world for working out timing issues is a metronome. A metronome can be either electronic, with buttons to adjust speed, or mechanical, with a dial or pendulum and a weight that slides up and down to control speed.

As a general rule, every time the metronome ticks or beeps, that's one beat. So if you're reading in "four-four" time, each tick or beep of the metronome is one quarter note, with other note values being different fractions of beats or combinations of beats.

Practice playing the music until you have no trouble following the metronome. You'll know you've got your timing down when it starts to feel like your fingers pressing the keys are what's driving the metronome.

Metronome Tip

Sometimes changing the number of beats per tick can help you figure out the timing more easily.

For example, you might see a tiny dotted quarter note indicating one beat per dotted quarter note, with a time signature of "six-eight". In this case, it might actually be easier to figure out what speed you want to go, then multiply that by three so each tick fits an eighth note instead.

This way, if you're having trouble fitting three eighth notes inside of a beat, you have a way to work out how it should all sound together.

AS you learn how to read music, I think you'll find the metronome to be indispensable at helping you figure out the timing.


Dynamics

In addition to tempo, there are other things you need to know as you're learning how to read music.

In piano music, there are symbols that indicate how soft or loud to play, when and how long to gradually play softer or louder, whether to play smoothly - legato - or choppy - stacato, and a whole lot more. We'll only be able to cover some of it here, but this will give you all the most important symbols that tell you how to read music.


Louder, Softer

Like the tempo names, the words we use to indicate "soft" or "loud" are also Italian. The symbols you see in the music are abbreviations of those words.

This chart shows the most common dynamics ranging from "pianissimo possibile" - softest possible - to "fortissimo possibile" - loudest possible:

Dynamic   Name   Meaning  
p piano soft
ƒ forte strong
mp mezzo-piano moderately soft
mezzo-forte moderately strong
pp pianissimo very soft
ƒƒ fortissimo very strong
ppp pianissimo possible   softest possible
ƒƒƒ fortissimo possibile strongest possible

For more information about music dynamics, see Wikipedia's article on music dynamics.


Getting Louder, Getting Softer

The chart above shows how to know fixed levels of "loudness" or "softness". But what if the music is supposed to get gradually louder or softer? Part of learning how to read music is knowing when, for how long, and how quickly to get louder or softer.

To get gradually louder, we use what's called a crescendo. This looks like a 'less-than' sign, only it's stretched out for however long you're supposed to be gradually getting louder.

To get gradually softer, we use a decrescendo. As you might guess, this looks like a 'greater-than' sign and does exactly the opposite: it tells you to gradually soften until the decrescendo ends.

Quite often, at the right end of a crescendo or decrescendo, you'll see softness or loudness indicated, showing what level you're transitioning to.


Faster and Slower

Another part of learning how to read music is learning when to play faster and when to play slower. When you need to slow the music down, you'll see the italian word 'ritardo' or an abbreviation of it - 'rit.'. When it's time to go back to playing normal speed, you'll see 'a tempo', meaning 'at tempo'.


Hold a Note Indefinitely

Sometimes, you'll hear music seem to pause for emphasis. When you are supposed to hold a note for longer than it's indicated value, you'll see a fermata. It looks like a bird's eye hanging above or below the note you're supposed to hold.


Staccato, Legato

One last part of learning how to read music: knowing when to play sudden, short notes, and when to blend the notes together.

When we play short, choppy, sudden notes, this is called "staccato". This is shown by a dot above or below the note.

When we blend the notes together and play them smoothly and evenly, this is called "legato", meaning "linked". For this, you'll usually see the word 'legato', or you'll see slurs joining a series of notes that need to flow together.


Now You Know

Now you know how to tell what tempo to play at, and how to read some of the more common dynamics symbols. These may not seem as important as learning how to find 'A' above middle 'C' on a clef or knowing how long to hold a half note, but I still think tempo and dynamics are the most important part of learning how to read music.

These dynamics add emotion, and that's the whole reason for having the music in the first place.

You wouldn't play Brahms Lullaby at 'fortissimo' or like it's a military march. Nor would you play your national anthem at 'pianissimo', like a lullaby.

If you've ever heard the Star Wars anthem, you know that parts of it are softer and parts are louder.

When the music gets louder, you can almost hear the rythmic cadence of boots marching down the halls of the Death Star, with the Empire's stormtroopers goose-stepping, closer and closer... and closer.

When it gets softer again, you can almost see the rebel fighter ships disappearing, victorious, into the vast expanse of space, their hyper-drives blurring the stars around them.

A faster tempo evokes the high-speed chase, rebels evading the Empire on Ewok speeders, while a slower tempo lets us feel what Luke and Leia were feeling when they learned they were brother and sister.

As Für Elise gets louder and then softer, faster and then slower again, you can relate to Beethoven's sweet, powerful feelings for his beloved Elise, ebbing and flowing with the music.

You're not really done learning how to read music until you can play it with feeling - and that's why we have tempo and dynamics.


Additional Resources


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Music Arrangements

Are you itching to try your hand at some simple Star Wars music? Pick out an Easy Star Wars Piano arrangement now.

Looking for something a little more advanced? Try this: All Star Wars Piano Music. Feeling like playing some classical music? How about some Easy Für Elise for the piano? Or maybe you'd like to learn an Easy Brahms Lullaby arrangement?


Sources:

Wittner Taktell Super-Mini metronome
Wikipedia Music Tempo
Wikipedia Music Dynamics