Beats Per Minute
“Beats Per Minute” or BPM is how musicians measure tempo. Classically trained musicians use Italian words like adagio, presto, largo, andante to express tempo. During their training they learn the rough BPM range of each term and they learn to take direction from the conductor as to the exact tempo of a piece.
It’s no different in Celtic music. We anticipate that a reel may be played slowly at 120 bpm or at a hot dance tempo of 160 bpm. The strong, lead player in a session (often a fiddler) usually sets the tempo. We expect that a jig may be played slowly at 90 bpm or fast at 110 bpm. Performance bands – the pros – often play at speeds approaching Mach 2. It’s impressive. But, it isn’t always musical.
Dance competitions set specific, and very tight, BPM ranges for music. These standards are far more detailed than any BPM approximations used in sets.
Things to keep in mind about Celtic reels and jigs.
1. The pulse of the music is everything. Pulse is far more important than speed in music. Energy comes from pulse not from pace. How the music feels to a listener is far more important than the number shown on the speedometer. A reel played well at 120 BPM may be more effective for listeners than the same reel played at 160 BPM. Always aim for musicality. Speed is not always the best way to get there.
2. Most Celtic reels are written in 4|4 time. It makes the music somewhat easier to read in standard notation. But, reels are counted and played as though the music was written in 2|4 time. That means we count 1,2 – 1,2 – 1,2……. We don’t count 1,2,3,4 – 1,2,3,4….. It often helps to think of language and music as sharing a common sense of rhythm. If you can say “watermelon” on beat with a Celtic tune, that tune is a reel. Any four syllable word will do for this test.
Leaving aside the matter of ornaments in traditional music, a Celtic reel is played to allow for two eighth notes on each beat. If I play a reel at 150 bpm it means the music will move along at a tempo that supports 300 eighth notes each minute. At that tempo, a player generates 5 eighth notes each second Commonly used dance tempos range from about 140 BPM to 160 BPM.
3. A Celtic jig is written in 6|8 time. But, jigs are also counted in two beats. The difference between a jig and a reel is that each beat of a jig supports three eighth notes. This means that each beat of a jig supports a triplet. Think about the sound of the tune The Irish Washerwoman and you’ll get it. We count as 1,2. We play as da,da,da – da,da,da. Using language again, if you can say “pineapple-raspberry” and stay on beat with a tune, that tune is probably a jig. Musicians in Ireland and Scotland often say “rashers and sausages” to achieve the same result. But, that’s tough for my tongue to produce. So, I side with vegetarians on this matter!
If I play a jig at 100 bpm it means the music will move along at a tempo that supports 300 eighth notes each minute. At that tempo, a player generates 5 eighth notes each second.
4. A reel at 150 bpm and a jig at 100 bpm have the same tempo but different pulses.
5. When changing time signatures within a set of Celtic tunes, it may be important to maintain a steady tempo. This is critical in supporting dancers. It’s common practice at most sessions. But, there are occasions when speeding up tempo is planned into a set. It’s important to know what listeners expect and what fellow musicians can do. We all have speed limits!