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A bit of a trivial question perhaps, but are there any historically/intrinsically meaningful BPMs?

As in, there's obviously 60 bpm. I ask because while trying to correct my rushing, I've noticed that on my keyboard the default metronome is at 106 bpm. For another metronome I have it's at 96. Is there a meaningful reason? Are they of no meaning to me and so should I continue to treat 60 bpm as a sort of base, regardless of instrument?

Multiples of 6 I can imagine being associated with seconds (I assume they're the most familiar to our internal clocks?), but 106? Or maybe they're just some arbitrary defaults? Or heartbeat-related?

Are there examples of historically/inherently significant specific BPMs?

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  • Recommended CPR BPMs I've read about tend to be in the 100-120 BPM range. – Dekkadeci Feb 18 '20 at 6:53
  • This is as you say heartbeat related. Also relaxing music and music recommended for super learning has this heartbeat pulse. I assume also the 60 sec/min are defined by the rhythm of our heart. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 18 '20 at 9:27
  • @Dekkadeci - 'Staying Alive' (ironic) is 103bpm, quite a bit faster than the average heartbeat. Never understood why CPR is substantially faster, but there we go! More ironic - Heartbeat (Buddy Holly) is 149bpm. That's what love does! – Tim Feb 18 '20 at 16:06
  • If you start with a resting heart rate - I think normally around 60-70 depending on the individual - that would be a kind of resting and inactive base. Musically, that should be something pretty mellow. 100 bpm roughly should then have a moderate active level, and 120+ would be active – Michael Curtis Feb 18 '20 at 16:46
  • Andante – at a walking pace (76–108 bpm) that actually matches up with Stayin Alive pretty well, given the scene in the move where John Travolta is walking. – Michael Curtis Feb 18 '20 at 16:48
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Short answer: yes, there are common metronome markings. This has to do with the tempo numbers that are usually printed on an actual physical metronome. As you progress upward in bpm, the number markings on the metronome jump, first by 2, then by 3, 4, 6, etc.

My guess is that this is because proportionally, the higher on the metronome you go, the greater a tempo shift must be to be felt. The proportional difference between 40 and 44 is much greater than between 120 and 124.

Thus, a metronome will give you “milestones” along the way, but these will become increasingly further apart the higher in bpm you get. Because these numbers have been pretty much standardized through the years, it’s not uncommon for composers to choose one of these “standard” markings since they’re so easy to find.

Here is a list of the common markings you’ll find on a physical pendulum type metronome.

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  • My oldest metronome has 104 and 108.In fact, every one of them has! So, as the question, why 106..? – Tim Feb 18 '20 at 15:53
  • The 106 baffles me. I’d say that was something the keyboard manufacturer chose at random! – Kevin H Feb 19 '20 at 22:00
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Heart beat, breathing rate. Walking, running, and skipping speeds.

You could probably extend that with other rates that are more physics based. The time to jump up and land, waves hitting the shore, the spring of a tree branch. Common things that oscillate in nature.

IMO and experience 60-160 bpm is sort of a range of normal extremes, and I can notice a change in tempo at around 4 bpm changes. I notice a change in mood/character at somewhere around 15 bmp changes.

Separate, but related, length of breath and phrase length.

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A bit of a short answer, but at the very extremes, Adam Neely has two videos on his exploration of the fastest and slowest tempi possible in music. In his endeavor, he discusses the limits of human perception: As the time between notes in a pattern becomes longer and longer, Neely finds/researches that humans stop feeling it as a pattern at around 33BPM. The question of the fastest tempo is a little more up in the air, but it's still a question of human limitations on perception and pattern recognition. To me, those two tempi at the absolute limit of human experience are intrinsically meaningful, even though they're not super-common.

Into the more practical realm, 120BPM is a pretty common average/default setting in most notation programs I know of, and I imagine it's pretty common around musical circles (120BPM is like the "C major" of tempi, or the "4/4" of tempi). It's also equal to exactly one quarter note per 0.5 seconds, or a half note per second. I imagine tempi that align well with notes-per-second are pretty common, especially in fields where music intersects with other sunject areas (physics, architecture, mathematics, etc).

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Tempos are especially important for processional music and dancing.

Marches and processions

The modern march tempo is typically around 120 beats per minute. Many funeral marches conform to the Roman standard of 60 beats per minute. The tempo matches the pace of soldiers walking in step. Both tempos achieve the standard rate of 120 steps per minute.

SOURCE: Wikipedia, "March (music): Characteristics"

John Philip Sousa conducted his marches using around 120 beats per minute. Most European march composers, however, conducted their marches in a slower style, using around 100 beats per minute.

SOURCE: Wikipedia "American march music: Tempo"

The US Army's training circular "Army Ceremonial Music Performance" is explicit in giving bpm for specific occasions.

2-17. ... Army musicians march at a cadence of 112-118 beats per minute.

5-89. If the deceased was entitled to honors, they are played at a tempo of 80-100 beats per minute to preserve the solemn dignity of the ceremony.

5-93. ... The march from the chapel to the grave is played at a tempo of 100 beats per minute. If the distance from the chapel to the grave is extremely great, the drum section gradually increases the tempo to 112-118 beats per minute.

And Wikipedia again, in "Military step: Marching types and commands" specifies that:

  • Quick march
    • Standard pace: 120 bpm
    • British light infantry and rifle regiments: 140 bpm
    • Highland regiments: 112 bpm
    • Australian Army: 116 bpm
    • Canadian Armed Forces: 120 bpm
    • United States Army: 120
  • Slow march
    • Standard pace: 60 bpm
    • French Foreign Legion: 88 bpm
    • Australian Army: 70 bpm

A short article on marching speeds (marching speeds, as opposed to music speeds) offers some different numbers than above.

Dances

Below are the international standard tempos for various dances. All of these come from ballroomdancers.com.

  • Slow Waltz: 84-90
  • Tango: 128-132
  • Viennese Waltz: 174-180
  • Foxtrot: 112-120
  • Quickstep: 200-208
  • Cha Cha: 128
  • Samba: 100
  • Rumba: 104
  • Paso Doble: 120-124
  • Jive: 176
  • American Waltz: 84-96
  • American Tango: 120-128
  • American Foxtrot: 120-136
  • American Viennese Waltz: 162
  • American Cha Cha: 112-120
  • American Rumba: 128-144
  • East Coast Swing: 136-144
  • Bolero: 96-104
  • Mambo: 188-204
  • Lindy Hop: 130-200
  • Salsa: 160-220

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