Music Duration Calculator

By Rijk de Wet
Last updated: Nov 29, 2021

The music duration calculator is here to help you keep time! Need to keep to a time limit in your musical performance? Or looking to play John Cage's 4'33" at the optimal tempo? The music duration calculator can help with all these and more!

In this text, we'll discuss the formula for and definition of the duration of a musical piece. We'll also look deeper at what tempo in music is, and we'll examine some common tempo markings in musical pieces with the help of a music tempo chart.

How do I use the music duration calculator?

Using the music duration calculator is as easy as reading the first line of your sheet music. If you don't understand the terms used, you can use the reference image at the top of the music duration calculator.

  1. Select the piece's time signature from the list. The time signature determines how many beats a measure contains. The music duration calculator supports many different time signatures β€” if your time signature of choice isn't in our list, you can select "Other".

  2. Enter the piece's tempo. The tempo is the speed at which the piece is played. It's measured in beats per minute or abbreviated as BPM.

  3. Enter how many measures the piece has. Solid barlines separate measures, but it's typical for the sheet music to add numbers to measures, so you don't have to count them.

  4. If, instead, you know how long your piece should go on for, the music duration calculator can work backward and determine at which tempo you should play.

If you don't quite understand what duration in music means, read on!

What is duration in music?

In music, duration means how long a composition takes to perform. In some contexts, it also refers to how long a particular note lasts. We have a separate calculator for note durations, and so this article will discuss the concept of an entire piece's length.

Although we've learned the definition of duration for musical pieces, it can still be hard to accurately pinpoint some pieces' durations. Large compositions with multiple movements like Beethoven's Fifth, or compositions with highly flexible tempos like Debussy's Arabesque No. 1, can have a highly variable duration. It's much easier to estimate durations for smaller pieces, especially those with a strict rhythm like Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16.

Here's a simple formula that governs a musical piece's duration:

duration = (beats per measure) * (number of measures) / tempo

Above, duration will be in minutes and tempo in beats per minute or BPM. Scroll down for more information on musical tempo. If the piece doesn't maintain a steady tempo throughout, the above formula won't hold.

And there you have it β€” a succinct definition of musical duration! Now, let's move on to what tempo in music means.

What is tempo in music?

Tempo is the speed at which we perform a musical piece. The defining element of a musical piece's rhythm (also called its meter) is the beat. Most modern songs have four beats per measure, but many musical pieces throughout history have three, two, or even five or seven beats per measure. Tempo refers to the rate at which we play the beats of a composition, and that is why we note it in beats per minute (BPM). Faster tempo means more beats per minute. We can instinctively hear when a song speeds up, as tempo is a fundamental concept of music.

Tempo markings in music

Composers need a way to convey the desired tempo at which musicians must perform their pieces. This is typically done by indicating the note value which constitutes one beat and equating it with a beats-per-minute value:

  • β™© = 120

Above, we're dictating that a quarter note β™© must be played at a rate of 120 beats per minute. Tempo is indicated at the top of an instrument's staff (the line of measures).

Sometimes in older compositions, the tempo isn't given as a precise rate of beats per minute but is instead presented as some strange word in a foreign language (usually Italian). These are called tempo markings, and they're more guidelines than they are rules. Instead of indicating a precise tempo, tempo markings prescribe an entire range of tempos at which the musician can play the piece.

In this handy music tempo chart, we've tabulated some of the most common tempo markings in music in ascending order of tempo.

MarkingMeaningBPM
Larghissimo Very very slow < 24
Grave Very slow 25–45
Largo Slow 40–60
Lento Slow 45–60
Larghetto Moderately slow 60–66
Adagio Slow and expressive 66–76
Andante At a walking pace 76–108
Moderato At a moderate speed 108–120
Allegretto Moderately fast 112–120
Allegro Fast (bright) 120–156
Vivace Fast (lively) 156–176
Presto Very fast 168–200
Prestissimo Very very fast 200 <

FAQ

Where are tempo markings written in a score?

Tempo markings are written above the staff, at the beat where they come into effect. They are regularly found at the start of a piece, but they can appear whenever a change in tempo is required.

Scores featuring more than one instrument will only show the tempo marking for the topmost staff. A change in tempo is applicable for all instruments simultaneously, so showing it for each instrument would only clutter up the sheet music.

How does tempo affect the mood of music?

The tempo has a massive impact on the energy of a piece. Faster pieces feel more urgent, while slower pieces feel calmer. However, the mood remains highly dependent on other factors, such as harmony, dissonance, and time signature. Many classical composers would accelerate the tempo throughout a piece β€” find an example and listen to how the mood changes as the tempo shifts.

What's the longest piece ever written?

A composition's duration is heavily dependent on the tempo at which it's performed, and so there is no universally accepted "longest piece ever". The longest piece ever performed (and still being performed) is John Cage's "As Slow As Possible". It is currently being performed on an organ in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance began in 2001, is still ongoing, and is due to finish in 2640.

What's the thing that keeps tempo for music?

A metronome is a tool for keeping tempo in music. It ticks loudly at a user-defined rate so that it can keep strict and precise time for any tempo.

Metronomes come in many forms:

  • Mechanical metronomes use a pendulum with an adjustable weight and other mechanical components.
  • Electronic metronomes use internal circuitry to keep time and usually feature a dial that adjusts the tempo.
  • Synthesizers and electronic keyboards frequently come with metronome functionality built into their software.
Rijk de Wet
A small piece of sheet music that highlights important aspects of the staff. These are the tempo marking, the tempo in beats per minute, the time signature, a single measure, and a barline.
Time signature
4/4
Beats per measure
A template for beats-per-minute tempo marking.
Tempo
bpm
Number of measures
Duration
min
sec
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