Musical genre is one of the more contentious topics. On the one hand, it is human nature to want to categorize and compartmentalize the things we encounter every day. At the same time many of the most creative people, whether they are composers, writers or painters eschew and even go so far as to actively avoid this kind of compartmentalization, feeling it constrains their creative output and restricts their potential audience.
You see it in any type of music. The Proclaimers are loosely defined as a “folk-rock” duo, thanks largely to their Celtic origins, but their prolific touring and appearance at numerous festivals has won them a devoted following – of people who would never consider themselves fans of that particular genre.
Frank Zappa is another example of a musician who defied categorization – a man who became famous in the post-hippy era and was best known for his hard rock guitar solos and acerbic wit, few would have guessed that he would become a critically acclaimed classical conductor in the 1990s, but The Yellow Shark proved otherwise.
But while musicians might seek to avoid becoming pigeonholed, even Zappa, a dedicated student of the science behind music, would have to admit that the various genres he explored all followed certain rules. And a fundamental one is tempo.
Musical genres by tempo
There are some genres that are strictly dictated by the tempo, and these are most commonly found in the ballroom environment. Here, music has to facilitate certain dance steps at a certain pace, and there is very little room for manoeuvre. For example, the waltz is danced as a tempo of 84 to 90 beats per minute (BPM), the foxtrot at 112 to 120 and the rumba at 100 to 110. These are all examples of the tempo dictating the genre.
Looking beyond the ballroom to broader musical genres, however, we find that it is more common that the genre typically lends itself to a certain tempo. A few examples here might be reggae, which typically has a slow tempo of less than 80 beats per minute, jazz is up around 120-130 BPM and heavy metal is typically above 150 BPM.
Electro is even more tightly defined by its tempo. Garage and trance is between 130-140 BPM, while drum and base is between 165 and 175 BPM.
How can you find the BPM?
Back in the good old days, composers would use a metronome or a simple tapping device to measure out the BPM of their music. Today, they still do so, but these will typically be via online tools or smartphone apps, as opposed to physical devices. But if you want to know how to find the BPM of a song on your playlist, or indeed on any audio file, the Get Song BPM tool is a very handy device. It simply lets you drag and drop from a variety of formats and will immediately provide the answer.
Does tempo really define genre?
You might still be in doubt as to whether tempo is really such a fundamental factor in dictating the genre of a piece. If so, just try playing something slower or faster than you are used to hearing it. Or better still, listen to some of the more unusual live concert pieces that show up on YouTube from time to time.
Our old friend Franz Zappa was a master of it, and in his last tour in 1988 he explained to a New York audience that he had met Johnny Cash earlier that day and that the band had put together a “reggae version” of Ring of Fire in the great man’s honor. How did they go about doing that? Aside from some additional percussion, the main difference was a drop in tempo from 105 to around 75 BPM.
In a similar vein, British punk band Stiff Little Fingers created one of the most improbable cover versions you are ever likely to hear, when they delivered a high-tempo punk rendition of everyone’s favorite Bing Crosby classic, White Christmas.
Understand the tempo, and control the genre
These examples show that far from constraining the creative process, understanding the rules that link tempo and genre can actually open up a world of possibilities. And in some respects, the more closely defined the rules, the more fun you can have.
As a final illustration, let’s return to the ballroom again. Why not check the BPM of some of your favorite songs and see what fits the bill for a ballroom dance routine, just for fun? Without the tools we have at our disposal today, the chances are you would not have thought that Walk Like and Egyptian by The Bangles would work for a rumba, but at 104 BPM, it is absolutely perfect.