Timing: Rhythm and Tempo Explained for Singers

metronome

1, 2, 3, 4! That’s how we’d expect most songs to be counted in, and for good reason: without the count-in to set the tempo and the rhythm of the song, all the players would start at different times and play at different speeds.

With this introduction to understanding tempo and rhythm, and these simple exercises to help you put what you’ve learned into practice, we’ll soon have you singing from the same hymn sheet, as well as marching to the beat of the same drum.

What is tempo?

Put simply, the ‘tempo’ is the word we use to describe speed or the pace of the song, with songs played more quickly being described as having a fast tempo, and songs played more slowly being described as having a slow tempo.

A fact to help you remember this is that the word ‘tempo’ comes from the Latin word ‘tempus’, which literally means ‘time’ and also gives us words like ‘temporary’.

In music, tempo is usually described in  two main ways: in beats per minute (BPM), and in classical Italian musical terms.

What are beats per minute (BPM)?

As the term suggests, BPM is simply the number of beats that can fit into a standard minute of time. If a tempo is slower, the number of beats per minute is smaller, because there is more time between each beat, so not as many beats will fit inside a minute; if the tempo is quicker, the BPM is higher, because there is less time between each beat, so more beats will fit inside a minute.

This means that, since there are 60 seconds in a minute, a tempo at 60 beats per minute would mean one beat per second, and a tempo of 120 beats per minute would mean two beats per second, or one beat per half-second.

Watch this video to hear how the pace of the song quickens as the beats per minute increase – you’ll hear that the pulse at the end is twice as fast as the pulse at the start:

BPM is also used to measure your heart rate, especially when you’re exercising. You may have noticed high-energy music playing at the gym, or lower-energy music playing at a yoga class.

Some scientists believe this can be explained by the fact that the way we process sound begins in the same part of the brain, the brainstem, that controls our respiration and heart rate, which could also explain why music and singing can help to relieve stress. Read our article for more health benefits that singing has on your body.

There are many other factors, such as personal preference, that may have a greater impact on how particular pieces of music affect your heart rate. However, there’s something to be said for the fact that certain styles of music which are typically played at a similar BPM work so well with certain types of physical activity and exercise.

Here are a few examples of the recommended BPM of music to suit certain types of activity compared to the BPM of certain genres:

ActivityBPMGenreBPM
Yoga60-90Hip-hop60-100
Jogging120-140House115-130
Zumba130-170Techno120-140
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)140-180Drum and bass160-180

This means that you can listen to hip-hop to match your more relaxed heart rate while you’re practicing yoga, then pick up the pace with some house while you’re jogging.

Why are some musical terms in Italian?

You may have come across other Italian words to describe musical things before, such as singing terms like ‘a capella’, a style of singing with no instrumental accompaniment which comes from ‘in chapel style’, and ‘falsetto’, a style of singing in a breathy, high register which comes from ‘little false’. Some musical instruments get their names from Italian terms too, such as the ‘piano(forte)’, which comes from ‘soft-loud’.

The reason for so many musical terms being borrowed from the Italian language is that most of the important composers during the Renaissance, who developed and set the standard for how we wrote and spoke about music, were Italian themselves.

To this day, orchestras and other ensembles that play classical music follow directions written on their sheet music so they know what tempo to play the piece at. You might also see a ‘metronome mark’ on sheet music, written as BPM.

Here are some Italian terms that are used to describe different tempos, along with their definitions and BPM:

Italian termMeaningBPM
Adagio‘At a slow tempo’66-76
Andante‘At a moderately slow tempo’76-108
Moderato‘At a moderate tempo’108-120
Allegro‘At a brisk tempo’120-156
Vivace‘At a lively tempo’156-176

So, just to keep you up to speed, once a few minutes of zumba has got you blood pumping at an ‘allegro’ or ‘brisk’ rate, it’s time to blast some ‘vivace’ or ‘lively’ drum and bass to raise enough energy to tackle some CrossFit!

How can I improve my tempo as a singer?

Understanding tempo is very important for a singer, especially in the context of live performance or studio recording, because a strong sense of time will help you stay in time with your backing band or backing track.

Use a metronome

A popular way that many musicians practice their time-keeping skill is to play to the sound of a metronome. If you don’t own or want to purchase a physical metronome, you can find free apps that let you change the tempo and the number of beats in each bar, just like the real thing:

Playing to a metronome strips away the safety blanket of playing to the original recording of a song. If you’ve been putting in the hours to learn a song, you’ll probably be so familiar with the original recording that you can get away with relying on it, rather than working on your own sense of timing and tempo. With a metronome, all you are left with are the bare bones of the rhythm – just a steady flow of clicks, usually with one higher-pitched click to indicate the start of each bar.

A metronome will help you be stricter with your own instincts – we naturally tend to speed up when we’re excited, and slow down when we calm down. So if you hear the higher-pitched click interrupt you before you’ve finished, that means you’re singing too slowly; if you finish before you hear the high click, that means you’re rushing and need to lower your tempo.

Sing songs that change tempo

A good way to practice that you’re sticking to the same tempo as the rest of the song is by singing a song whose tempo actually changes. There are many great examples of this in classical and in popular music, but one song whose tempo change is both clear and well-known is Dexsys Midnight Runners’ 1982 hit, ‘Come On Eileen’:

The majority of the song is played at a consistently moderate 107 BPM, before slowing down noticeably after the second chorus to nearer 102 BPM, then accelerating back up to speed throughout the bridge.

Try tapping your foot along to the first two verses and choruses of the song, and you’ll find that your foot keeps at a steady pace.

foot tapping busker

Now try to anticipate where the tempo of the song slows down, and see if you can tap along with it at the right speed. If you got it immediately, well done – but you’ll quickly settle back into it if not.

While following the song’s bridge as it approaches its next chorus, keep tapping out the tempo with your foot, and see if you can feel your foot tapping at an increasingly fast rate. You might also notice your heart rate increasing, too – this type of build-up is designed to get you excited!

There’s another Italian musical term for this very technique, ‘accelerando’, which fits perfectly with the encouragement and urgency of the group vocals repeating the song’s title.

What is rhythm?

One of the 5 basic components of singing is rhythm – so that makes it just as important as other parts of singing, such as pitch and diction. You can read more in our article about the other components.

The easiest way to understand rhythm is to think of it as the pattern that musical notes follow, which adds up to a melody. Some notes are shorter, some are longer, and sometimes there are gaps, or ‘rests’, between them.

Rhythms can be very simple, or very complex, and this is determined by a couple of things:

  • what the time signature is
  • how similar or how different the note lengths are within each bar

What is a time signature?

At the core of each rhythm is the ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ of the song. It’s this pulse that you, as a singer, can learn to synchronise with so that you can stay in time with the song, even when the rhythm gets more complicated.

Whereas the tempo tells us how many individual beats , a time signature tells us how to organise those beats, and what each beat is worth. In other words, it tells us how many beats are in a bar, and what the note value of each of those beats is.

On sheet music, you’ll find the time signature at the very start, just after the clef and the key signature. Here, it’s written as two numbers, with one sitting on top of the other, but elsewhere it’s usually written as two numbers side by side separated by a forward slash, like a fraction.

The top number tells you how many beats are in each bar, and the bottom number gives you each beat’s note value, or what type of note is a beat.

What are the different lengths of notes?

In a similar way to how tempo can be described in different ways, note values also have a classical name and a modern name.

As with fractions, note values can be divided further down, which means that as we move down this list, the value of each note is worth half of the note above it:

Note symbolNote valueClassical name
Breve.gifDouble notebreve
Whole note.gifWhole notesemibreve
Half note.gifHalf noteminim
Quarter note.gifQuarter notecrotchet
8thNote.svgEighth notequaver
Sixteenth note.gifSixteenth notesemiquaver
32nd note.svgThirty-second notedemisemiquaver

What is 4/4 time?

To put this into context, one of the most common time signatures in popular music is 4/4 – so much so that it’s also known as ‘common time’. The top 4 tells us that there are 4 beats in each bar, and the bottom 4 tells us that each beat is a quarter note, or ‘crotchet’.

In practice, this means that you can count ‘1, 2, 3, 4’, on each beat up to the fourth to complete a full bar. Even though a ‘breve’ is a full note which is worth four quarter notes, the BPM will count the quarter note as one beat – the breve is counted as one bar of four quarter notes.

Let’s apply what we’ve learned so far to some songs you’ll know.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Take the classic nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, for example, a song that has been composed using a 4/4 time signature. For this version, we’ve played the melody over a simple bass line that will help you follow the 4/4 pattern that the melody follows:

You’ll notice that we’ve added two extra bars before the melody begins. This is so we can follow the tempo of the song, and be counted in with two bars of ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ so we know when a new bar begins and when to expect to hear the melody.

The title, which is also the first line of the song, can be notated as two bars long, with each syllable being worth one quarter note, apart from the last note, which is a half note, or ‘minim’. It fits like this: ‘1/twin, 2/kle, 3/twin, 4/kle, 1/li, 2/ttle, 3/sta-, 4/-ar’.

Try singing the melody to the line ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, but instead sing the numbers you’re counting in each bar. For the half note at the end of the two bar melody, try holding the note you sing for ‘3’ and clapping your hands where the ‘4’ would be.

The other lines in this composition follow the same pattern: ‘1, 2, 3, 4/1, 2, 3…’

Things get a little trickier with rhythms in time signatures other than 4/4, because these note values are the same, just grouped together differently. To put it another way, if you clapped your hands at 120 BPM and didn’t have a particular time signature in mind, your claps could be grouped into twos, threes, fours – even 57s.

What is 3/4 time?

A time signature like 3/4, for example, groups quarter notes into threes – which means that a semibreve is now too long to fit in a bar. Luckily, we have ‘dotted notes’ to help us with situations like this.

When you see a note with a dot after it, that means that you add half of that note’s value to itself again, making it one-and-a-half times its original value. So, because a bar of 3/4 is the same length as three quarter notes, if we take a half note and add a quarter note to its value by dotting it, we get 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4.

Since these notes behave in the same way as fractions, you might wonder why a time signature like 6/8 needs to exist.

1/8 + 1/8 is the same length as 1/4, so, mathematically speaking, it is true that six eighth notes fill the exact same space as three quarter notes – if you divided each beat from a bar of 3/4 into eighth notes, you’d end up with six of them anyway.

So what’s the difference?

It’s all about where the stress, or accent, falls. In 3/4 time, it’s the same ‘1, 2, 3’ on beat stress. This means that, even if you split each quarter note in two, the accent would still fall on the first of each pair – so you’d count it ‘1 and, 2 and, 3 and’.

But, in 6/8 time, the notes are already eighth notes, and they themselves are grouped into threes. This means the accent falls on the first of every three eighth notes, which you’d count as ‘1 and a, 2 and a’ – so the second accent in a bar of 6/8 falls between the second and third accent in a bar of 3/4.

For more information about and examples of the differences between these two similar yet distinct time signature, watch this video:

My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

Continuing with our nursery rhyme theme, let’s take a look at another beloved childhood tune, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’, which has been composed using a 3/4 time signature. Again, we’ve played the melody over a simple bass line to help you follow the 3/4 pattern.

You’ll notice straight away that, instead of four quarter notes per bar like in our previous song, this composition has three. Even though the BPM is the same, the notes are grouped together in bars of three quarter notes.

You’ll also notice that the melody doesn’t start on the first beat of the bar, but the third. This means that, instead of counting in ‘1, 2, 3/1, 2, 3’, then playing the melody, we count in ‘1, 2, 3/1, 2’, then the first syllable ‘My’ falls on the ‘3’ of the second bar.

A third thing you’ll notice is that this rhythm does indeed use some dotted notes. Whereas the word ‘ocean’ at the end of the first line has two syllables, falling on a quarter note and a half note (which adds up to the bar’s full three quarter notes), the word ‘sea’ at the end of the second has only a single syllable which needs to last a whole bar, which means we can dot the half note to make it fit.

Finally, you’ll be able to tell that the accents are very much on the beat – there’s no 6/8 sway here. Just for reference, this is what that would look and sound like:

One thing that both of these songs have in common is that both of their rhythms are ‘on beat’, which means that every note of the melody falls on a 1, a 2, a 3, or, in Twinkle Twinkle’s case, a 4. This is a simpler way to construct a rhythm, which is why both of these compositions are easy introductions to the idea of rhythm.

For more complex rhythms, the notes of the melody fall on beats other than the main pulse of the bar. A rhythm that uses ‘off beats’, which would be beats that fall between the 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s, is known as a ‘syncopated’ rhythm, or a rhythm that uses ‘syncopation’.

But how do you know precisely where, in this space between the beats, these syncopated notes fall? Read on to find out!

How can I improve my rhythm as a singer?

Just like some people have naturally strong singing voices, some people naturally have good rhythm – but you can learn to gain both.

Sub-divide the rhythm

Rhythm is all about accuracy – the more accurate you can be, the more ‘on the beat’ you’ll be with every note you sing. Especially when you’re playing in a band or an ensemble, it’s very important for every member to be ‘tight’ or ‘in the pocket’ with each other, and this means that everybody has to follow each beat of the rhythm to the letter.

To really hone in on a rhythm that uses syncopation, musicians use a technique called ‘sub-division’, which, as its name would suggest, involves dividing the notes down into smaller pieces – just as we did when we looked at the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 time. This gives musicians a reference point for where to count in between notes, even when none are being played.

In a 4/4 time signature that’s being sub-divided, this would sound like ‘one and, two and, three and, four and’, and would usually be written like ‘1 &, 2 &, 3 &, 4 &’. So, while we’re still counting 4 quarter notes, we’re also counting the eighth notes between them – the easiest way to understand it is to count aloud every ‘and’ between each beat of the bar.

You have probably heard sub-division being used in action already. The distinctive guitar style that the reggae and ska genres are known for comes from the players putting stress on these offbeat ‘and’ notes rather than playing on beat:

So the guitarist isn’t playing on any counted beat, just on the ‘ands’.

A great example of a 4/4 rhythm that’s been divided into eighth notes is the drum beat to Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’:

The bass drum and the snare drum show you where the 1, 2, 3, and 4 are (1/bass, 2/snare, 3/bass, 4/snare). Then, the hi-hat shows you where the ‘ands’ are (1/bass and/hat, 2/snare and/hat, 3/bass and/hat, 4/snare and/hat).

For rhythms that are even more complex, you might find it useful to sub-divide a rhythm even further. A beat which uses sixteenth notes, for example, can be counted as ‘1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & 2’, which is pronounced like “one, eeh, and, ah, two, eeh, and, ah, three, eeh, and, ah, four, eeh, and, ah”.

Let’s take the vocal melody of the first line from this same song, and see how sub-dividing its 4/4 time signature can help us to pinpoint where the notes that Michael is singing fall between the bass drum and snare:

So we can see that the vocal melody is almost all eighth notes, apart from between beats 2 and 3 from the second bar, where Michael sings ‘from a movie’ using sixteenth notes. Without sub-dividing this rhythm first, it would be quite difficult to place where the ‘a’ is supposed to fall.

Watch this video for a deeper dive into syncopation and sub-division:

Listen to songs that use irregular time signatures

There are more irregular time signatures that are less common in popular music, but it’s still useful for you to understand them in case you come across them.

You may find it easier to split these more unusual time signatures up into sections, using a similar technique to sub-division.

Let’s look at two pieces by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, who is renowned for using unusual time signatures in his compositions. Two of his most famous pieces are ‘Take Five’, which is in 5/4, and ‘Unsquare Dance’, which is in 7/4.

The rhythms of both of these compositions can be split up to make them easier to follow.

Released on the aptly titled ‘Time Out’ album, it’s as if Brubeck is inviting his listeners to relax about unusual time signatures with ‘Take Five’, which, naturally, is in 5/4. Listen to the drums and to the piano riff, only instead of counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5’, see if you can count along to the rhythm by counting the first half of each bar as ‘1, 2, 3’ then the second half as an extra ‘1, 2’:

Brubeck and his band continued to experiment on their later album, ‘Time Further Out’, with such compositions as ‘Unsquare Dance’, which, as it’s in 7/4, doesn’t divide down neatly into a ‘square’ multiple of 4.

As before, instead of counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7’, see if you can split the rhythm into ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ then ‘1, 2, 3’ – or, ‘stomp-clap, stomp-clap, stomp-clap-clap’:

Listen to songs that change rhythm

Sometimes, as with tempo, time signatures can change within the same song. This can make certain sections of a song really stand out, because the ‘feel’ of that section is totally different to the feel that everyone has grown used to up to that point.

A clear example of a time signature shift can be heard in the Beatles’ song ‘We Can Work It Out’:

The majority of the song is played straight, in simple 4/4 timing, in the key of D major (with the occasional accidental, a C natural, thrown in). This reflects the message of the lyrics – if only things could be kept on a more even keel, then everybody could get along – try tapping your foot along and counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ to the song’s pulse.

However, things take a turn during the bridge – the key changes to the relative minor (in this case, B minor) for the more serious warning “life is very short, and there’s no time”.

Then, as if taking the word ‘time’ as a cue, an even more dramatic shift happens: the time signature changes from 4/4 into 3/4, over which John and Paul sing “(for) fussing and fighting, my friend”. The time signature shift here gives the song a kind of waltzing, almost circus feel, hammering home the message of just how absurd it is to waste your precious time fighting with your friends.

If you keep trying to tap your foot along to the bridge in the same way that you’ve been doing for the rest of the song, you’ll notice that it doesn’t fit anymore. Instead, count ‘1, 2, 3’ to the song’s new pulse – you’ll notice that in this song, the gaps between the 3/4 beats are smaller than the gaps between the 4/4 beats.

Now you have some exercises to practice, as well as some songs to study, to help you lock into any rhythm you want to sing and keep accurate tempo to within 1 BPM. We hope you enjoy adding these techniques to your own vocalist journey!

Timing and Rhythm Books

Rhythmic Vocabulary

A Musician’s Guide to Understanding and Improvising With Rhythm
Alan Dworsky, Betsy Sansby, Robert Jackson (Illustrator)

You don’t have to be a drummer to study rhythm. This 208-page book with CD is a roadmap to rhythm for any musician. It organises and explains hundreds of patterns to give a deeper understanding of rhythmic structure. It also teaches rhythmic concepts and variation techniques you can use to create patterns of your own.

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