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In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for "time") is the speed or pace of a given piece. The plural is tempi, although tempos is commonly used.

The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of sheet music. In most popular forms of music the tempo is usually measured in beats per minute (BPM). Such a measurement is sometimes called a metronome mark, especially in classical music. Classical musicians also frequently use words to describe the tempo of a piece, sometimes on their own, sometimes with an additional metronome mark. Because many of the most important early composers in the renaissance period were Italian, that is the language typically used.

Sometimes composers (or music publishers) will also use the tempo markings as the title of a piece of music, or of one of the movements, for example Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

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

It is not possible to give 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.

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 baroque composers such as François Couperin[?] and Jean-Philippe Rameau[?] for example, 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

Many composers have used German tempo markings. One of the first to do this was Ludwig van Beethoven. Typical German tempo markings are:

  • Langsam - slowly
  • Mässig - moderately
  • Lebhaft - lively
  • Rasch - quickly
  • Schnell - fast

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

Composers typically use the Italian terms accelerando (getting quicker) and ritardando, rallentando, or ritenuto (getting slower), to indicate a tempo change, even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language. Accelerando is usually abbreviated accel. Ritardando is usually abbreviated rit. or ritard.

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.

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