Tempo Markings and Changes

Photo of piano keyboard: two hands are shown along with sheet music instructing the pianist to play "Allegro con fuoco."

Tempo Markings

A tempo marking that is a word or phrase gives you the composer’s idea of how fast the music should feel. How fast a piece of music feels depends on several different things, including the texture and complexity of the music, how often the beat gets divided into faster notes, and how fast the beats themselves are (the metronome marking). Also, the same tempo marking can mean quite different things to different composers; if a metronome marking is not available, the performer should use a knowledge of the music’s style and genre, and musical common sense, to decide on the proper tempo. When possible, listening to a professional play the piece can help with tempo decisions, but it is also reasonable for different performers to prefer slightly different tempos for the same piece.

Traditionally, tempo instructions are given in Italian.

Tempo Terms

  • Grave – very slow and solemn (pronounced “GRAH-vay”)
  • Largo – slow and broad (“LAR-go”)
  • Larghetto – not quite as slow as largo (“lar-GET-oh”)
  • Adagio – slow (“uh-DAH-jee-oh”)
  • Lento – slow (“LEN-toe”)
  • Andante – literally “walking”, a medium slow tempo (“on-DON-tay”)
  • Moderato – moderate, or medium (“MOD-er-AH-toe”)
  • Allegretto – Not as fast as allegro (“AL-luh-GRET-oh”)
  • Allegro – fast (“uh-LAY-grow”)
  • Vivo, or Vivace – lively and brisk (“VEE-voh”)
  • Presto – very fast (“PRESS-toe”)
  • Prestissimo – very, very fast (“press-TEE-see-moe”)

These terms, along with a little more Italian, will help you decipher most tempo instructions.

Additional Useful Italian

  • (un) poco – a little (“oon POH-koe”)
  • molto – a lot (“MOLE-toe”)
  • piu – more (“pew”)
  • meno – less (“MAY-no”)
  • mosso – literally “moved”; motion or movement (“MOE-so”)

Slow Tempo

  • Grave—slow and solemn (20–40 BPM)
  • Lento—slowly (40–45 BPM)
  • Largo—broadly (45–50 BPM)

Listen: Largo

F. Chopin, Prelude Op. 8, No. 4 in E minor (score)

  • Larghetto—rather broadly (50–55 BPM)
  • Adagio—slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (55–65 BPM)
  • Andante—at a walking pace (73–77 BPM)
  • Moderato—moderately (86–97 BPM)

Fast Tempo

  • Allegro—fast, quickly and bright (109–132 BPM)
  • Vivace—lively and fast (132–140 BPM)
  • Presto—very fast (168–177 BPM)

Of course, tempo instructions don’t have to be given in Italian. Much folk, popular, and modern music, gives instructions in English or in the composer’s language. Tempo indications such as “Not too fast”, “With energy”, “Calmly”, or “March tempo” give a good idea of how fast the music should feel.

Tempo Changes

If the tempo of a piece of music suddenly changes into a completely different tempo, there will be a new tempo given, usually marked in the same way (metronome tempo, Italian term, etc.) as the original tempo. Gradual changes in the basic tempo are also common in music, though, and these have their own set of terms. These terms often appear below the staff, although writing them above the staff is also allowed. These terms can also appear with modifiers like molto or un poco. You may notice that there are quite a few terms for slowing down. Again, the use of these terms will vary from one composer to the next; unless beginning and ending tempo markings are included, the performer must simply use good musical judgement to decide how much to slow down in a particular ritardando orrallentando.

Changing-Tempo Terms

  • accelerando – (abbreviated accel.) accelerating; getting faster
  • ritardando – (abbrev. rit.) slowing down
  • ritenuto – (abbrev. riten.) slower
  • rallentando – (abbrev. rall.) gradually slower
  • rubato – don’t be too strict with the rhythm; while keeping the basic tempo, allow the music to gently speed up and relax in ways that emphasize the phrasing
  • poco a poco – little by little; gradually
  • Tempo I – (“tempo one” or “tempo primo”) back to the original tempo (this instruction usually appears above the staff)

Listen: Tempo Change

Listen for the dynamic changes in W. A. Mozart’s, Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro”

Before you start listening look for the dynamic markings in the score : pp, p, ff, p.