Tempo

A comprehensive guide to tempo, tempo terms and tempo change markings

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Metronome

Tempo is the speed of the beats of a piece of music or any subsections of it. It means “Time” in Italian. Because it affects how fast or slow we should perform a a piece of music , it is an important element in music.

Measurement of Tempo

Usually we measure tempo in beats per minute or BPM. The greater the number of beats per minute, the smaller amount of time between successive beats. This means if we have more beats per minute, music will be faster. For example, if we have a tempo of 60 BPM, we divide a minute into 60 equal parts. Because a minute equals to 60 seconds, we play each beat for a second. If we have a tempo of 120 BPM, we divide a minute into 120 equal parts. So we play each beat for half a second. This is why 120 BPM is faster than 60 BPM.

Holding a steady tempo is considered as a desirable skill for any musician. We use a mechanical or electronic device called metronome to give us a good idea about different tempos.

Metronome Mark

There are various ways of indicating the tempo of a piece in musical notation. First one is using a metronome mark. We use it to show exact BPM like an equation. In metronome mark, you specify a particular note value as a beat, write an equals sign and then write the amount of beats per minute.

Metronome mark
Metronome mark

In simple meters (or times), the note value shown in metronome mark is usually the bottom number of the time signature. So if you have a piece in 4/4 time, you usually use a quarter note (crotchet) in metronome mark, whereas you use a half note (minim) in 2/2 time.

In compound meters (or times), we use a dotted form of the next longer note in metronome mark. For example, if we have a piece in 6/8 time, we use a dotted quarter note to indicate the tempo.

Tempo Terms

Another way of indicating the tempo of a piece is using words like Slowly, Fast or Italian tempo markings such as Allegro, Andante, Largo etc. These markings are approximate. Metronome equivalents are controversial. But there are some suggestions as to the number of beats per minute to those markings. Here you can find a reference table of Italian tempo markings, their meanings and suggested BPM equivalents.

ITALIAN TERM

MEANING

SUGGESTED BPM

Grave

Very slow, solemn

40 BPM and under

Largo

Slow, broad

40-60 BPM

Lento

Slow

45-60 BPM

Larghetto

Slow, but not as Largo

60-66 BPM

Adagio

Slow, at ease

66-76 BPM

Adagietto

Slower than Andante

72-76 BPM

Andante

Walking pace

76-108 BPM

Andantino

Slightly faster than Andante

76-108 BPM

Moderato

Moderate speed

108-120 BPM

Allegretto

Moderately fast

112-120 BPM

Allegro

Fast, quick, bright

120-168 BPM

Vivace

Lively, fast

168-176 BPM

Presto

Very fast

168-200 BPM

Prestissimo

As quickly as possible

200 BPM and over

If you study or listen to classical music, you will see these terms frequently. These Italian terms seem a little bit confusing. I’ve just tried to give you some ideas here. But be ready to see different values in different resources. For example, a 19th Century Maezel metronome suggests Allegro as 120 BPM, while a 1950 metronome suggests it as 116 BPM, even a modern electronic metronome suggests it in a range of 120-160 BPM. The problem here is the BPM equivalents of these tempo terms can change from a music period to another, from a composer to another, from a performer to another and even from a metronome to another.

More Tempo Terms

On top of these terms, most composers used some more terms derived from these to describe the pace of their work. For example, Molto Vivace. Molto means “Very” in Italian. So it is very fast or faster than Vivace. Poco (a little), Non Troppo (Not too much) and some more words are still used with these tempo terms. Also, there are some endings that you may notice in this table. An -issimo ending amplifies the word’s meaning. For example, Presto is fast, Prestissimo is very fast. Likewise Largo is slow, Larghissimo (not mentioned in this table) is slower. The -ino and -etto endings gives a meaning of little bit more or less. For example, Andante is at walking pace while Andantino is slightly faster. Adagio is moderately slow, while Adagietto is slightly faster.

In short, using tempo terms is a little bit controversial. After all, 45 BPM and 50 BPM are both slow. So which one of them will you use? Or will you play with 47 BPM or so? Actually, it is up to you. As long as you don’t play a slow piece very fast or vice versa, slight differences won’t be noticed by listeners. You will learn how to use tempo terms with experience and also by searching musical periods, composers, their works, the famous performances of their works. Remember when I said theory is not about rules, it is about practices? It actually is.

Changing Tempo

We can change the tempo during any piece of music. We can speed up or slow down at times. When this change is immediate, we can just add another tempo marking where the change occurs. But if we want to speed up or slow down gradually in a piece, we use some other Italian markings which indicate tempo changes. Here is a reference table of them.

ALPHABET METHOD

SOLMIZATION METHOD

A

LA

B

SI or TI

C

DO

D

RE

E

MI

F

FA

G

SOL

Fermata

Fermata
Fermata

Sometimes we may want to stop on a beat, hold a specific note instead of speeding up or slowing down. Then we use fermata on that particular note. A fermata is a symbol which looks like a bird’s eye placed on a note that should be prolonged beyond its normal duration or note value. Exactly how much longer it is held is usually up to the discretion of performers, but it is usually twice as long. A fermata can occur in the middle of a piece or at the end of a piece. We can use fermata on rests too. Other names for fermata are Corona (Italian), Point d’orgue (French), Fermate (German) and Calderón (Spanish).

One thing to remember is you should not confuse this sign with augmentation dot. A fermata is used to hold a specific note and prolong its value, but how much you want to prolong is entirely up to you. On the other hand, an augmentation dot changes the note value always half as long. They are not same.

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