Tempo, Time Signature Idiom Style

Every time signature has its suitable tempo range. 6 – 8 is never slow. 12 – 8 is never fast. 4 – 4 takes a wide range of tempi. So what better way to bring together tempo and time signature than to talk about idiom.

Many idioms have a deeply spiritual or cultural significance. The idiom may be integral to a particular dance such as waltz, minuet, polka or Paso doble. It may conjure up an era like 50’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Time signature, tempo, rhythm section, chord structure, instrumentation, voicings, melodic phrasing, all contribute to the idiom.

Time SignatureTempoIdiomExample
3 – 2 and 2 – 2 time signatures are suited to slow tempos (never fast) and long, broad notes.These time signatures are associated with sacred music. 
Fast, relentless duple quavers and 2 – 4 go together. Rough tempo range: 160 to 290.Polkas and reels are always written in 2 – 4.Polka
Rough tempo range: 60 to 300. A slow waltz may have tempo 60, a fast waltz with a reminiscence of say “The king and I” may be as fast as 300.3 – 4 is the time signature of many dances including the waltz and minuet. Note, every waltz is in 3 – 4 time but not every 3 – 4 piece is a waltz.
The 4 – 4 time signature is suited to a wide range of tempo from slow to fast.Common time is 4 – 4 is the traditional time signature for ballads, rock, jazz, Latin American, Spanish paso doble and many other idioms.
Cut common time is a modern form of 2 – 2 where the up beat is conducted. It is well suited to moderate to fast tempo.Cut common time is used frequently in swing and straight 8ths jazz.The above common time piece in cut common time.
3 – 8 is fast and relentless with its frequent, rushing pulse. Example tempo, 160.Traditional Spanish 3 – 8. 
6 – 8 is suited to fast tempo (eg 210).All Marzucca and tarantellas are written in 6 – 8.Tarantella
12 – 8 is an alternative to 4 – 4 when the tempo is slow. At fast tempo the feel is better written as a 4 – 4 shuffle.Ballads are well suited to 12 – 8 time.
Example tempo for 7 – 8, crotchet equals 200.Many traditional Greek, Turkish and Balkan dances are written in uneven time signatures like 7 – 8. The bar is made of simple beats with one compound beat at the start or end of the bar (pulse). Some modern jazz is written in uneven time where the proportion and order of common and compound beats is left to the pulse and discretion of the composer.