How do we find an appropriate tempo for a piece of music we’ve never seen or heard before? Sometimes the title can help, particularly in dances (Minuet, Waltz, Gigue, etc.), but only if we have already played quite a number of pieces with those titles. The tempo markings above the first line, usually in Italian, can suggest tempo and character, but cannot be precisely correlated with a metronome (though some metronomes attempt it). The time signature is also important, but cannot by itself tell us what the tempo is, or even necessarily what beat to count. The surest way to find a good tempo is to look at the rhythmic subdivisions found in the score. These, considered in relationship to the time signature and tempo marking, are what help us to set the music in motion in our heads before we start sight-reading.
Our feeling of tempo comes of course from the heartbeat. That is why we also refer to tempo as pulse. In relationship to our pulse, subdivisions have a certain feeling: notes that divide the pulse into 2 have a rocking feeling, notes that divide the beat into 3 have a swinging feeling, and notes that divide the beat into 4 have a flowing feeling. (These are of course purely subjective adjectives; substitute any others you prefer.) In this little piece by Gurlitt, if we imagine the rocking motion of the 8th notes within the composer’s Andantino marking, we are likely to feel a pulse of about 60 for the quarter note, which as it happens is my heart rate as I write this.
In Türk’s Miniature Rondo (whose opening notes are nearly identical to the Gurlitt), the Poco Presto marking makes us feel the quarter note at 110-120. At this speed, we start to group the beats into 2, feeling the half note as the beat instead of the quarter, and thereby bringing the tempo back in line with our heart rate. With a half note beat, the 8th notes here feel flowing rather than rocking, because they are dividing the beat into 4 rather than 2. In this way, thinking about the feeling of subdivisions, we can not only find a good tempo, but also determine which rhythmic value should receive the beat.
In fact, the 8th notes in Türk’s piece have the same flowing feeling as the 16th notes in this study by Schytte.
The swinging feeling of triple subdivisions is familiar from pieces in 6/8, such as another study by Schytte, which swings well at (again) about 60 to the dotted quarter.
The same swing is felt in quicker waltzes, as in Czerny’s arrangement of a Strauss waltz, where the whole measure becomes the beat. The measures are almost always grouped in pairs, leading to the paradoxical saying that waltzes aren’t in 3, they’re in 2!
Of course, when we are sight-reading we must take our own ability and comfort into consideration when choosing a tempo. But it is wise to choose music that we can read the first time at a tempo near to the ideal one. I always tell my students that the best material for sight-reading is something they can play with at least 80% accuracy and at a tempo at least 80% of the ideal. In this way, we are more likely to come close to Sylvaine Billier’s description of sight-reading as “the art of the first performance,” even if we are only performing for ourselves.
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Thank you for the insightful and helpful article, especially the fact that we should choose material that we can read at 80%!