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In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for time, plural: tempi) is the speed or pace of a given piece. It is a crucial element of composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece.

The first two measures of Mozart's Sonata K. 331, which indicates the tempo as "Andante grazioso" and a modern editor's metronome marking: " = 120".


Measuring tempo

The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of music, and in modern 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 is, and, 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.[1]

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.

Tempo is as crucial in contemporary music as it is in classical. In electronic dance music, accurate knowledge of a tune's BPM is important to DJs for the purposes of beatmatching.

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, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively.

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").

Understood tempo

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[2].

Beats per minute

BPM of 120

Beats per minute (BPM) is a unit typically used as a measure of tempo in music.

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 above, 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.

Beats per minute became common terminology in disco because of its usefulness to DJs, and remain important in the same genre and other dance music.

In this context the beats measured are either crotchets (quarter notes) in the time signature (sometimes called down-beats, although the term is ambiguous), 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), and Jungle music generally ranges between 140-150 BPM (with some differences in older compositions). Psytrance is almost exclusively produced at 145 BPM, whereas Speedcore and Gabber music both frequently exceed 160 BPM, with an underlying crotchet tempo of around 150-220 BPM[citation needed].

Extreme BPM

More extreme BPMs 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 BPM by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and cybergrind often strive to reach excessively high BPM rates. 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, Sha Nuff, Donna Lee) have been performed at 380 BPM plus. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was performed at a BPM of quarter note equal to 374. Another example of extreme BPM is "Fascination MAXX" by 100-200-400.


Beatmatching, a tool amongst DJs, concerns the speeding up or down of a record in order to match the BPM of a previous track so both can be seamlessly mixed.

DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict BPM, particularly when dealing with high BPM tracks. A 240 BPM track, for example, will normally match the beat of a 120 BPM track without slowing down or speeding up, because both are likely to have an underlying tempo of 120 crotchets (quarter notes) per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75-90 beats per minute) can be mixed well with a drum and bass beat (from 150-185 beats per minute).

Normally, the pitch and BPM 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

Measures per Minute (MPM) or bars per minute is another way to measure the speed of music: the number of measures in one minute. It is commonly used in ballroom dance music.

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

All of these markings are based on a few root words. By adding an -issimo ending the word is amplified, by adding an -ino ending the word is diminished, and by adding an -etto ending the word is endeared.

  • Larghissimo — very, very slow (20 bpm and below)
  • Lento — very slow (40–60 bpm)
  • Largo — very slow (40–60 bpm), like lento
  • Larghetto — rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
  • Grave — slow and solemn
  • Adagio — slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (66–76 bpm)
  • Adagietto — rather slow (70–80 bpm)
  • Andante — at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
  • Andante Moderato — a bit faster than andante
  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato — moderately (101-110 bpm)
  • Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato — moderately quick (112–124 bpm)
  • Allegro — fast, quickly and bright or "march tempo" (120–139 bpm)
  • Vivace — lively and fast (˜140 bpm) (quicker than allegro)
  • Vivacissimo — very fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo — very fast
  • Presto — very fast (168–200 bpm)
  • Prestissimo — extremely fast (more than 200bpm)

Additional Terms:

  • A piacere — the performer may use his own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"[3]
  • L'istesso 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), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march))
  • Tempo giusto — at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo semplice — simple, regular speed, plainly

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.

Common qualifiers

  • 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 semicircle with a vertical line through it (see Time signature)
    • alla marcia — in the manner of a march[4] (e.g., Beethoven, op. 101)
    • all' ongarese — in Hungarian style
    • alla (danza) tedesca — in the style of the Ländler (ca. 1800), and similar dances in rather quick triple meter (see Beethoven, op. 79, op. 130)[5]
    • 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 — much, as in allegro assai, quite fast[6]
  • ben — well, as in ben marcato (well marked or accented)
  • con bravura— with skill[7]
  • con brio — with vigor and spirit[8]
  • con fuoco — with fire
  • con moto — with motion
  • 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[9]
  • 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)[10]
  • mena — almost none, as in mena forte (almost not at all loud)
  • misterioso — mysterious
  • molto — much, very, as in molto allegro (very quick) or molto adagio (very slow)[11]
  • 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)[12]
  • 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[13]
  • 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)[14]
  • sostenuto – sustained, prolonged
  • subito — suddenly

Note: In addition to the common allegretto, composers freely apply Italian diminutive and superlative suffixes to various tempo indications: andantino, larghetto, adagietto, and larghissimo.

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[15]
  • 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
  • Lacrimoso — tearfully, sadly
  • Grandioso — magnificently, grandly
  • Grazioso — gracefully
  • Leggiero — to play lightly, or with light touch
  • Maestoso — majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow march-like movement)
  • Malincònico — melancholic
  • Marcato — marching tempo, marked with emphasis
  • Marziale — in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases
  • Mèsto — sad, mournful
  • Morendo — dying
  • Nobilmente — nobly (in a noble way)
  • Patètico — with great emotion
  • Pesante — heavily
  • Sautillé/ Saltando — jumpy, fast, and short
  • Scherzando — playfully
  • Sostenuto — sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo
  • Spiccato — slow sautillé, with a bouncy manner
  • Teneroso — 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 — double speed
  • 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 — immediate slowing down (abbreviation: rit. or more specifically, 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.[16] Used in this context, the term is not necessarily related to tempo.)
  • Stringendo — pressing on faster

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 I - 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

Erik Satie was known to write extense tempo (and character) markings by defining them in a poetical and literal way, as in his Gnossiennes [17].

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[18]

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[19]).

Tempo markings in English

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", and similar style indications may appear.

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 Mahler's most famous work - the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5. Another is Mozart's Alla Turca (here indicating the Janissary music type of mood of the final movement of Mozart's 11th Piano Sonata, K. 331)

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, a 20th century creative "reconstruction" based on an incomplete manuscript.

Some composers chose to include tempo indicators in the name of a separate composition, for instance Bartók in Allegro barbaro ("barbaric Allegro"), a single movement composition.

Rushing and dragging

A Wittner model metronome
A Seth Thomas model metronome

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.

See also


  1. ^ See "metronome" entry in Apel (1969), p. 523.
  2. ^ music theory online: tempo,
  3. ^ Apel (1969), p. 42; for the literal translation see the online Italian-English dictionary at
  4. ^ Apel (1969), p. 505.
  5. ^ Apel (1969), p. 834.
  6. ^ Apel (1969), p. 61.
  7. ^ Online Italian-English dictionary at
  8. ^ Apel (1969), p. 112.
  9. ^ Apel (1969), p. 334.
  10. ^ Apel (1969), p. 520.
  11. ^ Apel (1969), p. 537.
  12. ^ Apel (1969), p. 680.
  13. ^ Apel (1969), p. 683.
  14. ^ Apel (1969), p. 763.
  15. ^ "Brillante" entry in Sadie (2001).
  16. ^ Apel (1969), p. 809.
  17. ^ Gnossiennes music sheet, IMSLP Music Library
  18. ^ Apel (1969), p. 92.
  19. ^ Italian translation,; German, Apel (1969).


Books on tempo in music:

  • Epstein, David (1995). Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028733207. 
  • Marty, Jean-Pierre (1988). The tempo indications of Mozart. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300038526. 
  • Sachs, Curt (1953). Rhythm and Tempo: A Study in Music History. New York: Norton. OCLC 391538. 

Music Dictionaries:

  • Apel, Willi, ed., Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. ISBN 9780674375017
  • Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. NewYork: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1561592390.

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Tempo". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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