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This article is about tempo in music. For tempo in chess, see Tempo (chess).

In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for "time") is the speed or pace of a given piece.


Measuring tempo

The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of music, and is usually indicated in beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note = crochet) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute.

Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented. MIDI files today also use the BPM system to denote tempo.

Some 20th century composers (such as Bela Bartok and John Cage) would alternatively give the total execution time of a piece, from which the proper tempo can be roughly derived.

Musical vocabulary for tempo

Whether a music piece has a mathematical time indication or not, in classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, a result of the fact that many of the most important composers of the Renaissance were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were used extensively for the first time.

Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. Yet after the metronome's invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece, thus blurring the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, "presto" and "allegro" both indicate a speedy execution ("presto" being faster), but "allegro" has more of a connotation of joy (seen its original meaning in Italian), while "presto" rather indicates speed as such (with possibly an additional connotation of virtuosity).

Additional Italian words came into use for indicating tempo and mood long after the metronome. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual "Allegro") and a mood indication ("agitated").

Understood tempos

In some cases (quite often up to the end of the Baroque period), conventions governing musical composition were so strong that no tempo had to be indicated: e.g. the 1st movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. To provide movement names, publishers of recordings resort to ad hoc measures, for instance marking the Brandenburg movement "Allegro", "(Allegro)", "(Without indication)", and so on.

Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so no further explanation is placed in the score. Thus musicians expect a minuet to be performed as a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a Perpetuum Mobile to be quite fast, and so on. The association of tempo with genre means that genres can be used to define tempos; thus Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, although that movement is not a minuet.

Italian tempo markings

See also Italian musical terms.

Basic tempo markings

Common tempo markings in Italian are:

  • Largo - slowly and broadly
  • Larghetto - a little less slow than largo
  • Adagio - slowly
  • Andante - at a walking pace
  • Moderato - at a moderate tempo
  • Allegretto - not quite allegro
  • Allegro - quickly
  • Presto - fast
  • Prestissimo - very fast

Additional tempo markings

There are additional tempo markings which are used less frequently, among them:

  • Larghissimo - as slow as reasonably possible
  • Adagietto - slightly faster than adagio

Mood markings with a tempo connotation

Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:

  • Vivace - lively (which generally indicates a rather fast movement)
  • Maestoso - majestic or stately (which is generally a solemn slow movement)

Terms for change in tempo

There is also a set of terms that are used to designate a change of tempo:

  • Accelerando - speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
  • Rallentando - slowing down (abbreviation: rall.)
  • Ritardando - slowing down (abbreviation: rit.)
  • Ritenuto - slightly slower

These generally designate a gradual change in tempo; for immediate tempo shifts, composers normally just provide the designation for the new tempo. There is also:

  • A tempo - return to the previous tempo after change(s).

which also indicates an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Composers typically use these terms for tempo change even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.

More complex and less precise (though vital in many composers' music) is:

  • Rubato - free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes

Tempo markings in other languages

Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have written tempo indications in their own language.

French tempo markings

French baroque composers such as for example François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau used French tempo indications. Common tempo markings in French are:

  • Grave - slowly and solemnly
  • Lent - slowly
  • Modéré - at a moderate tempo
  • Vif - lively
  • Vite - fast

German tempo markings

Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:

  • Langsam - slowly
  • Mäßig - moderately
  • Lebhaft - lively (mood)
  • Rasch - quickly
  • Schnell - fast

One of the first German composers to use tempo markings in his native language was Ludwig van Beethoven. The one using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler (sometimes even mixing German with Italian tempo indications): e.g. 2nd movement of his 9th symphony: Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a folk-dance-like movement, with some vulgarity in the execution.

Tempo markings in English

English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten, amongst many others.

Rushing and dragging

When performers unintentionally speed up, they are said to rush. The similar term for unintentionally slowing down is drag. Both of these actions are undesirable, although dragging is usually worse, since it tends to suck the energy from a performance. Because of their negative connotation, neither rush nor drag (nor their equivalents in other languages) are often used as tempo indications in scores, Mahler being a notable exception: as part of a tempo indication he used schleppend ("dragging") in the first movement of his 1st symphony, for example.

Can tempo terms be defined with the metronome?

Most musicians would agree that it is not possible to give Beats per minute (BPM) equivalents for these terms; the actual number of beats per minute in a piece marked allegro, for example, will depend on the music itself. A piece consisting mainly of minims (half notes) can be played very much quicker in terms of BPM than a piece consisting mainly of semi-quavers (sixteenth notes) but still be described with the same word.

Metronome manufacturers usually do assign BPM values to the traditional terms, in an attempt, perhaps misguided, to be helpful. For instance, a Wittner model MT-50 electronic metronome manufactured in the early 1990's gives the following values:

  • Largo = 40-60 BPM
  • Larghetto = 60-66 BPM
  • Adagio = 66-76 BPM
  • Maestoso = 70-80 BPM
  • Andante = 76-108 BPM
  • Moderato = 106-120 BPM
  • Allegro = 120-168 BPM
  • Presto = 168-208 BPM

Tempo markings as movement names

Generally, composers (or music publisher s) will name movements of classical compositions (and in some cases individual compositions) after their tempo (and/or mood) marking, as for instance in Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Usage note: plural

The plural of tempo in Italian is tempi. Some writers employ this plural when writing in English. Others use the native English plural tempos. Standard dictionaries reflect both usages.

Unfortunately, neither plural can be used without offending the tastes of at least some readers: inevitably, tempos will strike some readers as incorrect, and tempi will strike other readers as pretentious. Careful writers will assess their context and choose accordingly.

Musical notation

Staff : Clef | Key signature | Time signature | Note | Rest | Tempo | Dynamics | Leger lines
Note length : Longa | Breve | Semibreve | Minim | Crotchet | Quaver | Semiquaver | Demisemiquaver | Hemidemisemiquaver

Last updated: 02-06-2005 20:03:20
Last updated: 02-27-2005 12:04:33