Perfect pitch is an acknowledged musical skill - the ability to hear a note and name it.

Is there a corresponding skill that applies to tempo, to be able to hear music playing and say precisely what the bpm is?

For people claiming this skill, what level of accuracy is possible?

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    I just counted out six seconds while listening to Taylor Swift's Blank Space and noted it was about two measures, so eight beats in six seconds means about 80 bpm. The actual tempo is 96 bpm, so that's one way anyone can get a sense of the tempo of a song without having any skills, but clearly it's not super accurate. If I had counted ten seconds and multiplied by six it might have helped. Counting seconds and beats at the same time is not easy, though. – Todd Wilcox Nov 25 '15 at 13:51
  • I doubt this is possible unless you know the length of the notes (e.g. A semibreve in 120BPM would last the same amount of time as a minim in 60BPM). Btw "semibreve" is a "whole note" and "minim" is a "half note" in case you're not familiar with the UK system. – Rariolu Nov 25 '15 at 13:53
  • EDIT: although you could figure out the time signature and then the tempo from that I suppose. – Rariolu Nov 25 '15 at 13:54
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    Some people are demonstrably good at counting seconds, based on knowing their resting pulse, so this should be do-able, but I don't think it is equivalent to Perfect Pitch. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 25 '15 at 14:10
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    Knowing differences less than 5 BPM would require an immense amount of practice or some innate skill I've never heard of. However, when I was younger and a snare drummer in a DCI group, I could pretty consistently tell what a tempo was +/- 5 BPM. Most people here are talking about lengths over time, but ideally you'd be able to tell after just hearing 2 beats, and that's pretty difficult (but can be done). – Matthew Nov 25 '15 at 18:40

I know a professional conductor who can pretty much nail it right on.

It's just like perfect pitch, in that it's something you learn to do by being exposed to a ton of music and having reference points ingrained in your memory through sheer repetition. They're not magical skills that you're born with and either have or don't have.

You can probably find 120 pretty accurately, since it's march tempo. Just sing Stars and Stripes Forever or Washington Post. You can probably sing your favorite songs extremely close to their original tempo, so now it's just a matter of looking up what that tempo is to develop another reference point. Then you just keep going.

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    I think pitch is more complicated than repetition and practice. Wiki: "There are no reported cases of an adult obtaining absolute pitch ability through musical training" - that is "adult", of course - there's loads of things in there about key points in auditory development etc. - well worth reading. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_pitch – Whelkaholism Nov 25 '15 at 17:29
  • I agree there are folks like the conductor you mentioned, that have pretty close to perfect tempo recognition. And I am sure that practice would improve your ability to get close to determining a tempo of a piece just by listening. But the degree of accuracy would be the real question. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 26 '15 at 16:04

I've worked with quite a few dance band drummers who hit the correct tempo for particular dances - and believe me, serious dancers can tell if it's not right! It's sort of the opposite of what the OP is asking, but could very easily work the other way round. Basically, it's experience, the more you do it, the more consistently right it gets. Having said that, most people seem to be capable of singing/playing well-known songs at the recorded tempo, so if one knew a song at, say, 100b.p.m., it should be possible to judge another tempo from this reference point. More like relative pitch.

  • Won't these drummers simply use a metronome? I don't think that on events where performance and choreography are of so much importance, they'd let drummers (or bassists) play without a metronome. I've been part of such bands in the past and even though the level was quite amateuristic, I - the drummer - played with a metronome. Obviously, there are better drummers out there than me, but to make things perfect a metronome seems an easy and almost required add. – Bram Vanroy Nov 25 '15 at 20:11
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    @BramVanroy - never, ever saw a metronome used. Just wasn't part of the kit. If the bands I worked in had a drummer that needed to rely on one, he wouldn't have lasted even a gig. And no click track either. Everything was live, no pre-recorded stuff, so nothing to follow but charts and dots. – Tim Nov 26 '15 at 0:01
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    What do you mean 'he wouldn't have lasted a gig'? Having played in many different types of bands, I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes a metronome was required externally (e.g. by a choreographer who insists on minuscule perfect time), and sometimes I myself used one for the sake of perfect rhythm when recording different instruments independently. There's no shame at all in ever using a metronome to perfect your timing, though that doesn't mean your rhythm is bad. I've heard guys humbly play with metronomes, even though they managed perfectly without one, but they did for the sake of ease. – Bram Vanroy Nov 26 '15 at 7:22
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    PS: not trying to attack you here at all. Just trying to figure out if you're looking down on people who use a metronome or not. When everything needs to be perfect (e.g. For a choreography) I'd rather play with a metronome, just to be safe (a drummer can be as perfectly in time as he can, when his band members aren't, he won't be either no matter how hard he tries). However, playing with a 'regular' band, live, I'd never use a metronome. – Bram Vanroy Nov 26 '15 at 7:25
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    @BramVanroy - discussions are frowned upon here. However - there are times when playing with a click track/ metronome are fairly essential - and it's a skill in itself to be able to keep that sort of time. In 'regular' bands, often the music does (and probably should) move off the beat slightly, and as such, metronomes just get in the way. It's a pleasure to play with drummers who can do both. (But not at the same time!) – Tim Nov 26 '15 at 8:25

By coincidence, in last week's Boston Symphony program book (for Thursday November 12 through Saturday November 14) it says of Bela Bartok that "He was equipped with an uncannily accurate inner clock and he could tell when music marked to be played at metronome 112 was in fact going at 111 or 113."

I don't know if that is true or not. His piano pieces have a metronome marking at the top and a timing in minutes and seconds at the end and they never match up.

  • Do you have an electric alarm clock? Most likely it beeps at 60 beeps per minute. Can you think of the sound right now? – Mark Lutton Nov 28 '15 at 3:51
  • To be fair, there are almost no pieces meant to be played exactly at a single tempo with absolutely no deviations, even going back to baroque/classical music. An uncannily accurate beat is a distinguishing characteristic of music played on Synthesia (look up Youtube videos of it), giving it a highly unnatural feeling. – Tony Jan 24 '16 at 1:19
  • There are plenty of pieces meant to be played exactly at a single tempo. Every parade march, for example. Judging from historic recordings I would say most dances, jazz pieces, ragtime, boogie-woogie and rock-and-roll. – Mark Lutton Jan 24 '16 at 4:01
  • I guess by "piece" I meant "solo piano piece." – Tony Jan 24 '16 at 4:27
  • "Solo piano piece" ... that sounds right. Compare a solo piano piece to an orchestrated version of the same piece, or an orchestral piece to a piano transcription of it, and the performance of the piano version is almost always much more flexible in tempo. – Mark Lutton Jan 25 '16 at 2:19

I don't think anybody is a "born natural" at this, but one well-established way to become better at it, already partly mentioned by MattPutnam, is to find a set of reference points.

Matt's example of famous march music as a reference for 120 is a good one because those marches are always played at the same tempo, and to experienced ears sound "wrong" if played faster or slower. That's the catch - if you don't hear famous marches all the time so that you can reproduce them in your mind and nail the tempo, they won't work for you. The trick is finding strongly-rhythmic pieces of music, some fast, some slow, some medium, that are already "burned into your brain", and using them. For example, if you were watching TV in the 1970s and the Hawaii Five-O theme is stuck in your head, then listen to the beat of the bass drum and you have 88. If you don't know Sousa's marches but you know "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, well, that too is at 120. It doesn't matter what kind of music you use - what matters is that you know it really well and it never changes.

Don't use, for example, a national anthem or a children's song, because different people sing those at different tempi and they all sound OK. It needs to be music that "just sounds wrong" if the tempo isn't perfect.

To check the tempo of a song you find, get a free metronome app for your phone, borrow a friend's metronome, or whatever. Many of the phone apps have a "tap" function that will tell you how fast you're tapping the screen.

The answer to your question depends on your definition of "perfect".

I believe the only way to even achieve perfect tempo, much less possess the ability to listen to a piece of music and accurately determine the exact tempo, is with a computerized click track or quantized drum track. Even a metronome might be off a millisecond from perfect due to it's mechanical limitations.

Having said that, I am sure some folks have a unique ability to get pretty close by listening to the music. But even recorded music is not always in a "perfect" tempo.

To illustrate my point - as a songwriter I often use software and hardware to create demos of my original compositions. I know that if I use a live drummer, no matter how good he is and even if he is playing to a click track, the drum track will sound more realistic and organic than if I use a quantized drum sample that plays in perfect time. Somehow the listener is able to perceive perfect tempo in a drum track (but won't be able to tell exactly what the bbm is) and it sounds artificial compared to the imperfect timing of the best real drummer.

In real life, since music is often played slightly out of perfect tempo (unless a click track or metronome is employed) or at an imperfect tempo at best, I don't know how valuable it would be for someone to be able to say "Stop the music - we are supposed to be playing this song at 160 bbm and you people are playing at 161 bbm - we need to slow it down a bit"! Just sayin .....

If perfect means within a few bbm, then yes there are a few folks who can get pretty close.

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