Tempo

Now we know that the beat is the constant pulse that underlies the music and the meter is how those beats are organized, but there is one final element we should mention: tempo - how fast the beats should go. There are two primary indications for this:

  • Tempo Marking: Terms (typically written in Italian) that deal with the speed of the beat, and sometimes the mood of the piece of music too
  • Metronome Marking: A more modern invention (still really old though...) that gives a specific indication of the speed of the beat using beats per minute

Tempo simply defines the speed of the beat in a piece of music. Virtually any piece of music you encounter is likely to have a tempo marking included at the beginning of the work. Most times these are an Italian word or phrase that help to define the tempo of the music, and often its mood. Why Italian? Much of our notation system was created in Italy, and over time, Italian became the traditional language of music notation.

Tempo marking of Allegro at the beginning of a piano piece

Frequently, a tempo marking is found just above the time signature at the beginning of a piece (as in the image above). You may see additional tempo markings throughout any given piece, especially if the piece speeds up or slows down frequently. Some of the most common tempo markings are Andante (a medium speed), Allegro (a faster speed AND happy), and Largo (meaning long or broad, in other words, slow).

Tempo markings are always somewhat ambiguous; you are likely to hear two performers play the same piece with the same tempo marking at different speeds. This ambiguity is generally seen as a good thing, it leaves lots of room for the performer's personal interpretation. The coming assignment will ask you to identify some common tempo markings. Ready to memorize some Italian?

Tempo markings and their translations and speed
Tempo Marking Translation/Meaning General Tempo Category
Grave Solemn Slow
Larghetto Broad, diminutive of Largo Slow
Largo Broad Slow
Adagio At ease Slow
Lento Slow Slow
Andantino Walking, diminutive of Andante Medium
Andante Walking, going Medium
Moderato Moderate Medium
Allegretto Happy, diminutive of Allegro Medium
Allegro Happy Fast
Vivace Lively Fast
Presto Fast Fast
Prestissimo Very fast Fast

These are also good to be acquainted with. Below are a common set of terms that are used change or adjust the tempo in some way.

Table of terms for modifying the tempo
Tempo Marking Translation/Meaning
Ritardando Gradually slowing down
Rallentando Gradually slowing down
Allargando Getting broader, slowing down
Meno mosso Less movement, slower
Più mosso More movement, faster
Più animato More animated, faster
Accelerando Gradually speeding up
Stringendo Squeezing together, speeding up

A metronome produces an audible click at a specific interval of time, which can be set by the player. It was patented in 1815, during Beethoven's lifetime, by Johann Maelzel. It allows the user to set the tempo of the metronome's click to a specific number of beats per minute (BPM). For example, 60 beats per minute means that there is one beat per second.

In a musical score, you will often see a metronome marking placed next to the tempo marking as a secondary indication of the tempo. When a metronome marking is placed in a piece of music it has two elements: the note that gets the beat (a quarter note, an eighth note, etc.) and a number for the beats per minute (BPM). This example shows a metronome marking where a quarter note beat is at a tempo of 120 beats per minute (two beats per second).

A metronome marking showing the note that gets the beat to be a quarter, and the bpm to be 120

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