In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for time, plural: tempi or tempos) is the speed or pace of a given piece. Tempo is a crucial element of most musical compositions, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece.
- 1 Measuring tempo
- 2 Musical vocabulary for tempo
- 3 Understood tempo
- 4 Beats per minute
- 5 Measures per minute
- 6 Italian tempo markings
- 7 Tempo markings in other languages
- 8 Tempo markings as movement names and compositions with a tempo indicator name
- 9 Rushing and dragging
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Sources
- 13 External links
The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of music, and in modern Western music is usually indicated in beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note or crotchet) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute. The greater the tempo, the larger the number of beats that must be played in a minute, therefore, the faster a piece must be played. Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, although early metronomes were somewhat inconsistent. Beethoven was the first composer to use the metronome, and in 1817 he published metronomic indications for his (then) eight symphonies. Some of these markings are today contentious, such as those on his "Hammerklavier" Sonata and Ninth Symphony, seeming to many to be almost impossibly fast, as is also the case for many of the works of Schumann.
With the advent of modern electronics, BPM became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the BPM system to denote tempo.
As an alternative to metronome markings, some 20th-century composers (such as Béla Bartók and John Cage) would give the total execution time of a piece, from which the proper tempo can be roughly derived.
Musical vocabulary for tempo
Some musical pieces do not have a mathematical time indication. In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively and codified.
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 also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, indicates speed as such.
Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. 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").
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. For example, the first 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.
In Renaissance music most music was understood to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus, roughly the rate of the human heartbeat. Which note value corresponded to the tactus was indicated by the mensural time signature.
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 at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a perpetuum mobile to be quite fast, and so on. Genres can be used to imply 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. Popular music charts use terms such as "bossa nova", "ballad", and "Latin rock" in much the same way.
It is important to remember when interpreting these words that not only have tempos changed over historical time, and even in different places, but sometimes even the ordering of terms has changed. Thus a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster.
Beats per minute
Beats per minute (BPM) is a unit typically used as a measure of tempo in music and heart rate.
The BPM tempo of a piece of music is conventionally shown in its score as a metronome mark, as illustrated to the right. This indicates that there should be 120 crotchet beats (quarter notes) per minute. In simple time signatures it is conventional to show the tempo in terms of the note duration on the bottom. So a 4/4 would show a crotchet (or quarter note), as shown to the right, while a 2/2 would show a minim (or half note).
In compound time signatures the beat consists of three note durations (so there are 3 quavers (eighth notes) per beat in a 6/8 time signature), so a dotted form of the next note duration up is used. The most common compound signatures: 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8, therefore use a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note) to indicate their BPM.
Exotic time and particularly slow time signatures may indicate their BPM tempo using other note durations. BPM became common terminology in disco because of its usefulness to DJs, and remain important in the same genre and other dance music.
120 BPM tempo
Example of a basic 4/4, 120 BPM tempo
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In this context the beats measured are either crotchets (quarter notes) in the time signature (sometimes ambiguously called down-beats), or drum beats (typically bass-drum or another functionally similar synthesized sound), whichever is more frequent. Higher BPM values are therefore achievable by increasing the number of drum beats, without increasing the tempo of the music. House music is faster around 120–128 BPM (from regular house music to UK Garage), Trance Music ranges from 125 to 150 BPM, and Drum and bass generally ranges between 150–180 BPM. Psytrance is almost exclusively produced at 145 BPM, whereas Speedcore and Gabber music exceed 180–184 BPM.
More extreme tempos are achievable at the same underlying tempo with very fast drum patterns, often expressed as drum rolls. Such compositions often exhibit a much slower underlying tempo, but may increase the tempo by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempos. The use of extreme tempo was very common in the fast bebop jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. A common jazz tune such as "Cherokee" was often performed at quarter note equal to or sometimes exceeding 368 BPM. Some of Charlie Parker's famous tunes ("Bebop", "Shaw Nuff") have been performed at 380 BPM plus. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was performed at 374 BPM.
Beatmatching is a tool used by DJs that involves speeding up or slowing down a record in order to match the tempo of a previous track so both can be seamlessly mixed.
DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict BPM value suggested by the kick drum, particularly when dealing with high tempo tracks. A 240 BPM track, for example, will match the beat of a 120 BPM track without slowing down or speeding up, because both will have an underlying tempo of 120 crotchets (quarter notes) per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75–90 BPM) can be mixed well with a drum and bass beat (from 150–185 BPM).
When speeding up or slowing down a record on a turntable, the pitch and tempo of a track are linked: spin a disc 10% faster and both pitch and tempo will be 10% higher. Software processing to change the pitch without changing the tempo, or vice-versa, is called time-stretching or pitch-shifting. While it works fairly well for small adjustments (± 20%), the result can be noisy and unmusical for larger changes.
Measures per minute
Italian tempo markings
The definitions of the Italian tempo markings mentioned in this section can be found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music and/or the online Italian-English dictionary, both of which are listed in Sources.
Basic tempo markings
By adding an -issimo ending the word is amplified/made louder, by adding an -ino or -etto ending the word is diminished/made softer. The metronome marks are broad approximations. Note: Metronome markings are a guide only and depending on the time signature and the piece itself, these figures may not be appropriate in every circumstance. Also, in longer pieces such as symphony movements, the tempo marking used by the composer for the movement does not have to be adhered to strictly throughout the movement; individual interpreters may vary the tempo at times, at their discretion.
- Larghissimo – very, very slow (19 BPM and under)
- Grave – slow and solemn (20–40 BPM)
- Lento – slowly (40–45 BPM)
- Largo – broadly (45–50 BPM)
- Larghetto – rather broadly (50–55 BPM)
- Adagio – slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (55–65 BPM)
- Adagietto – rather slow (65–69 BPM)
- Andante moderato – a bit slower than andante (69–72 BPM)
- Andante – at a walking pace (73–77 BPM)
- Andantino – slightly faster than andante (although in some cases it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante) (78–83 BPM)
- Marcia moderato – moderately, in the manner of a march (83–85 BPM)
- Moderato – moderately (86–97 BPM)
- Accelerando – gradually accelerating
- Allegretto – moderately fast (98–109 BPM)
- Allegro – fast, quickly and bright (109–132 BPM)
- Vivace – lively and fast (132–140 BPM)
- Vivacissimo – very fast and lively (140–150 BPM)
- Allegrissimo – very fast (150–167 BPM)
- Presto – extremely fast (168–177 BPM)
- Prestissimo – even faster than Presto (178 BPM and over)
- A piacere – the performer may use his or her own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"
- A tempo – at the same speed from the beginning
- L'istesso tempo or Lo stesso tempo – at the same speed
- Tempo comodo – at a comfortable (normal) speed
- Tempo di... – the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz, ≈60 bpm), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march, ≈120 bpm))
- Tempo giusto – at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
- Tempo semplice – simple, regular speed, plainly
- alla – in the manner or style of, as in:
- alla breve – in short style, i.e., duple time, with the half note (minim) rather than the quarter note (crotchet) as the beat; cut time; 2/2 instead of 4/4; often marked as a C with a vertical line through it (see Time signature)
- alla marcia – in the manner of a march (e.g., Beethoven, op. 101)
- all' ongarese – in Hungarian style
- alla (danza) tedesca – in the style of the Ländler (c. 1800), and similar dances in rather quick triple meter (see Beethoven, op. 79, op. 130)
- alla turca – in the Turkish style, that is, in imitation of Turkish military music (Janizary music), which became popular in Europe in the late 18th century (e.g., Mozart, K. 331, K. 384)
- alla zingarese – in the style of Gypsy music
- assai – very much, as in allegro assai, quite fast
- ben – well, as in ben marcato (well marked or accented)
- con – with, as in
- deciso – decidedly, decisively
- fugato – in fugal style, usually part of a non-fugal composition; such passages often occur in the development sections of symphonies, sonatas, and quartets
- in modo – in the manner of, in the style of: in modo napolitano (in Neapolitan style), in modo di marcia funebre (in the manner of a funeral march)
- meno – less, as in meno mosso (less quickly)
- appena – almost none, as in appena forte (almost not at all loud)
- misterioso – mysterious
- molto – much, very, as in molto allegro (very quick) or molto adagio (very slow)
- non troppo – not too much, e.g. allegro non troppo (or allegro ma non troppo) means "fast, but not too much"
- non tanto – not so much
- più – more, as in più allegro (more quickly); used as a relative indication when the tempo changes
- piuttosto – rather, as in piuttosto allegro (rather quick)
- poco – slightly, little, as in Poco adagio
- poco a poco – little by little
- polacca – generic name for Polish dances, usually the polonaise, as in tempo di polacca; note, however, that the "Polacca" in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 shows little resemblance to the polonaise
- primo – principal or early, as in tempo primo, the same tempo as at the beginning
- quasi – almost, nearly, as if (such as Più allegro quasi presto, "faster, as if presto")
- senza – without, as in senza interruzione (without interruption or pause), senza tempo or senza misura (without strict measure)
- sostenuto – sustained, prolonged
- subito – suddenly
Mood markings with a tempo connotation
Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:
- Affettuoso – with feeling/emotion
- Agitato – agitated, with implied quickness
- Appassionato – to play passionately
- Animato – animatedly, lively
- Brillante – sparkling, glittering, as in Allegro brillante, Rondo brillante, or Variations brillantes; became fashionable in titles for virtuoso pieces
- Bravura – broadly
- Cantabile – in singing style (lyrical and flowing)
- Dolce – sweetly
- Energico – energetic, strong, forceful
- Eroico – heroically
- Espressivo – expressively
- Furioso – to play in an angry or furious manner
- Giocoso – merrily, funny
- Gioioso – joyfully
- Grandioso – magnificently, grandly
- Grazioso – gracefully
- Lacrimoso – tearfully, sadly
- Lamentoso – lamenting, mournfully
- Leggiero – to play lightly, or with light touch
- Leggiadro – lightly and gracefully
- Maestoso – majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow march-like movement)
- Malinconico – melancholic
- Marcato – marching tempo, marked with emphasis
- Marziale – in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases
- Mesto – sad, mournful
- Misterioso – mystical, in a shady manner
- Morendo – dying
- Nobilmente – nobly (in a noble way)
- Patetico – with great emotion
- Pesante – heavily
- Saltando – jumpy, fast, and short
- Scherzando – playfully
- Sostenuto – sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo
- Spiccato – slow sautillé, with a bouncy manner
- Tenerezza – tenderness
- Tranquillamente – adverb of tranquillo, "calmly"
- Trionfante – triumphantly
- Vivace – lively and fast, over 140 BPM (which generally indicates a fast movement)
Terms for change in tempo
Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:
- Accelerando – speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
- Allargando – growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece
- Calando – going slower (and usually also softer)
- Doppio movimento / doppio più mosso – double speed
- Doppio più lento – half speed
- Lentando – gradual slowing and softer
- Meno mosso – less movement or slower
- Mosso – movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme
- Più mosso – more movement or faster
- Precipitando – hurrying, going faster/forward
- Rallentando – gradual slowing down (abbreviation: rall.)
- Ritardando – slowing down gradually; also see rallentando and ritenuto (abbreviations: rit., ritard.)
- Ritenuto – slightly slower; temporarily holding back. (Note that the abbreviation for ritenuto can also be rit. Thus a more specific abbreviation is riten. Also sometimes ritenuto does not reflect a tempo change but a character change instead.)
- Rubato – free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes
- Stretto – in faster tempo, often near the conclusion of a section. (Note that in fugal compositions, the term stretto refers to the imitation of the subject in close succession, before the subject is completed, and as such, suitable for the close of the fugue. Used in this context, the term is not necessarily related to tempo.)
- Stringendo – pressing on faster (literally "tightening")
While the base tempo indication (such as allegro) appears in large type above the staff, these adjustments typically appear below the staff or (in the case of keyboard instruments) in the middle of the grand staff.
They generally designate a gradual change in tempo; for immediate tempo shifts, composers normally just provide the designation for the new tempo. (Note, however, that when Più Mosso or Meno Mosso appears in large type above the staff, it functions as a new tempo, and thus implies an immediate change.) Several terms, e.g., assai, molto, poco, subito, control how large and how gradual a change should be (see common qualifiers).
After a tempo change, a composer may return to a previous tempo in two different ways:
- a tempo – returns to the base tempo after an adjustment (e.g. "ritardando ... a tempo" undoes the effect of the ritardando).
- Tempo primo or Tempo Iº – denotes an immediate return to the piece's original base tempo after a section in a different tempo (e.g. "Allegro ... Lento ... Moderato .... Tempo I" indicates a return to the Allegro). This indication often functions as a structural marker in pieces in binary form.
These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers typically use them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.
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. The definitions of the tempo markings mentioned in this section can be found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music and/or the online foreign language dictionaries which are listed in Sources.
French tempo markings
Several composers have written markings in French, among them baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel and Alexander Scriabin. Common tempo markings in French are:
- Au mouvement – play the (first or main) tempo.
- Grave – slowly and solemnly
- Lent – slowly
- Modéré – at a moderate tempo
- Moins – less, as in Moins vite (less fast)
- Rapide – fast
- Très – very, as in Très vif (very lively)
- Vif – lively
- Vite – fast
German tempo markings
Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:
- Langsam – slowly
- Lebhaft – lively (mood)
- Mäßig – moderately
- Rasch – quickly
- Schnell – fast
- Bewegt – animated, with motion
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. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his sixth symphony, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig (Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous).
English tempo markings
English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, among many others. In jazz and popular music charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", "brisk", "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear.
In Tom Lehrer's anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, fake English tempo markings are used to humorous effect. For example, the song "National Brotherhood Week" is to be played "fraternally", "We Will All Go Together" should be performed "eschatologically", and "Masochism Tango" should be played "painstakingly".
Tempo markings as movement names and compositions with a tempo indicator name
Often, composers (or music publishers) will name movements of compositions after their tempo (and/or mood) marking. For instance the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an "Adagio".
Some such movements may start to lead a life of their own, and become known with the tempo/mood marker name, for instance the string orchestra version of the second movement of Barber's first string quartet became known as Adagio for Strings. A similar example is the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Sometimes the link between a musical composition with a "tempo" name and a separate movement of a composition is less clear. For instance, Albinoni's Adagio is a 20th-century creative "reconstruction" based on an incomplete manuscript.
Rushing and dragging
When performers unintentionally speed up, they are said to rush. The similar term for unintentionally slowing down is drag.
Musicians generally consider unintentional tempo drift undesirable, and these terms thus carry a negative connotation.
Therefore neither rush nor drag (nor their equivalents in other languages) are often used as tempo indications in scores. Mahler is a notable exception. For example, he used schleppend (dragging) as part of a tempo indication in the first movement of his Symphony No. 1.
Books on tempo in music:
- Snoman, Rick (2009). The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques – Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Press. ISBN 0-9748438-4-9.
- Apel, Willi, ed., Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. ISBN 978-0-674-37501-7
- Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. NewYork: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
- Research group specializing in rhythm, timing, and tempo, University of Amsterdam
- Tempo Terminology, Virginia Tech department of music
- Tempo indications for social dances
- Tempo variation among and within 300+ recorded performances of Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony
- Dolmetsch article on tempo