Expressing a specific tempo, on command and without the aid of an external device, is a vital skill of any performer. The proven method for recalling tempos is that of aural memory. But what tempos do we honestly recall, that which is printed on the page or that which resides in our memory through listening? Although all musicians are aware of what the opening measures of Beethoven’s fifth symphony sound like, and have a specific tempo at which they recall it, is it at quarter equals 108, which is what Beethoven penned in his score?
It can be argued that it is required to study music of a specific tempo in order to be able to recall it. In my graduate conducting studies I kept a pocketbook in which I wrote down new tempos learned in my score study. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a study in abstraction. I wrote out notable melodies and ostinatos but did not put the music in its proper context (orchestration, harmony, expressive markings, etc.). And after a few years of study I only had a a few examples in my pocketbook, most from the periphery of the canon. Enter the need to create this reference manual.
I catalogued over 1200 beats per minute (BPM) tempo indications from the orchestral canon in order to construct this book. The earliest is dated 1801 and the latest 1923—it was determined only to consider music that was in the U.S.A. public domain for this project. The tempos selected (i.e. 60, 63, 66) represent the most commonly employed BPM markings of the music surveyed. The musical examples all hail from the masterworks of the orchestral canon to aid study and facilitate recollection.
A serious effort was made to detail music from a wide range of compositions, albeit still located within the canon. And, whenever practical, differing meters and/or beats are exampled. I acknowledge composers like Beethoven and Stravinsky are over well-represented, but in attempting to put together a book to aid quick recollection and memorization, I chose not to ignore the most familiar moments in classical music.
Please consider the examples herein only an introduction to BPM memorization. It is encouraged that the reader find their own examples that work best for their unique needs. For example, some of the author’s personal go-to musical moments for tempo recollection are not included in this book. Of course, opera, band, chamber music, and popular music all have their own rich catalogue of selections to be explored too.