St. Lambert, in his preface to his compositions, states that the normal tempo in music is that of a man walking. The observation that anyone can make from looking at people walking is that they all walk at different tempi. The only conclusion that one can make of this is that St. Lambert was an idiot. However, people used to make the observation that the earth was flat and concluded from that observation that, indeed, the earth was flat. If we take what St. Lambert said seriously and attempt to discover what he observed, then something very interesting happens. We discover that he was right. That is, if you observe all people walking, they indeed walk at all different tempi. But if you observe only those people walking "who are intending to get someplace specific," they all walk at the same tempo. Large or small, young or old, the tempo is the same. The only condition is that they are healthy, able, strong, and normally formed. The tempo they stride at to get someplace intended is exactly 116 beats per minute. For every other purpose, people walk at all different speeds.
What makes this so interesting is that music like thought always intends to get someplace specific. That place happens to be the end of the thought or the cadence. What makes this even more interesting is that just as we walk, to get someplace specific, at 116, most people also speak with the normal accents in their speech occurring at a rate of 116 beats per minute. But we only do this when we have something specific to say. People who by temperament, by personality, by persuasion, or by habit speak either faster or slower than that speed are perceived to be intolerably dull or slow witted, if they speak much slower than 116, or untrustworthy, if they speak much faster than 116. The affect of being slower is of slothfulness or of painful self consciousness. The affect of being faster is that of a shyster who is always trying to fast talk people into doing things they don't want to do.
What is even more interesting is that at the same time the normal accents of our speech occur at 116 beats per minute, our moments of pause, our moments of emphasis, our phrases, the duration of silence between exchange of speakers in conversation occur at 72 beats per minute. What makes this interesting is that if you divide 116 by 1.618... (the number needed to calculate the ratio of the "Golden" proportion) you get 72 (exactly 71.69...)!
Anyone who finds these observations too incredible should prove it for themselves by taking a metronome and set it at 116 and put it in front of a television and discover the truth for themselves. Then they need to set the metronome at 72 to verify the speed of emphatic moments, pauses, phrases, etc. Then they need to set it slightly off these tempi to see if speeds such as 118 or 74 or 114 or 70 produce the same level of coincidence. Then they will know that what we have observed is real.
What is also extremely interesting is that there are a few other tempi which work. These tempi are multiples or divisions of 116 and 72 such as 58 (one half of 116), 144 (twice 72), 96 (4 times 72 divided by 3...a 3:4 ratio), 108 (3 times 72 divided by 2...a ratio of 3:2) 87 (116 times 3 divided by 4...a 3:4 ratio), etc.
What one can conclude from these observations is that the human brain is designed to process heard information at a precise rate of flow. The rate of flow may change depending on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information. If the information flows at a rate faster than it can be processed and comprehended, we feel overwhelmed. If it flows at a rate slower than it can be processed and comprehended, we feel hampered, impatient, irritated, or bored by the manner of delivery.
We have proposed that the mechanism in the brain which processes flow does so on the basis of speed of flow in relation to intensity of content. If the intensity of content decreases, yet the speed of flow remains constant, the perception will be that the flow has become much slower. Hence, as intensity of content decreases, the speed of flow must increase, lest the mind become bored. Conversely, if the intensity of content increases, but the speed of flow remains the same, the mind assumes that the speed has increased, thus, the speed must decrease otherwise the mind will soon feel overwhelmed. It is most easily understood as an inverse proportion. The more that is happening in the heard music, the slower the tempo needs to be. The less that is happening in the heard music, the faster the tempo needs to be. Furthermore, each of these musical communication techniques, when added to a performance will require the tempo of that performance to be ever slower, if only slightly, that is, depending on the information intensity of the score.
Thus it is fair to criticize the way classical music it performed today, being as it is overly controlled as to metrical regularity and tightness of simultaneous soundingness of parts, because, in the case of early musics, musicians feel compelled to play it too fast (due to the lack of interest or meaning in the delivery) or, in the case of romantic literature, in which musicians must play it too slowly in order to include in their performances those techniques which they are accustomed to using for the purpose of "warming" up an otherwise cold sounding, mathematically accurate performance. Those techniques to which we refer are: a continuous vibrato, acceleration and deceleration of a predictable and regular sort, and predictably regular gradations of change in volume (techniques which when applied to speech produce the silliest, most ridiculous effect). In the first case, of early music that is, the excessive speed fills up the spaces between notes so the listener's brains won't have the opportunity to fill up those spaces with thoughts of boredom. And, in the second case, the "warming" techniques, used to take the chill off otherwise stiff passionless performances, are distractions which the performers hope will divert the listener's attentions from their unimaginative playing.
Tempi selection in music needs to account for the rate of flow as it changes depending on the significance, density, importance, intensity, or degree of urgency of the information, as well as the affect of the piece before any tempo can be decided upon. Failure to hit upon the right tempo will create the effect of forcing, if the tempo is slightly too slow, or racing if it is slightly to fast. However, if these observations are dismissed altogether, then the selection of tempo is based on hope; much like buying groceries, throwing them into the oven and hoping an edible dish will emerge after a while...a kind of three stooges approach to cooking. Or, you must rely entirely on talent; which is OK if you have it and not so OK if you don't have it.
Application: be aware of where in a piece a value maybe played at 116 or 72 and test these tempi on listeners. These tempi should make music feel more natural to listeners. Sometimes it will be more challenging to play because the speed may be far faster than a player can handle the technique of playing. However, many composers took these tempi into account in the writing of the music and made the piece so that it would be easier to play when taken at the correct tempo...even if the tempo was significantly faster than normal.