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Music Tempo

Since the early Baroque period, tempo markings had been used predominantly with instrumental music. But despite this fact, not all instrumental music had a tempo mark during those times. Composers have been inconsistent in their use of it; however, conductors have often modified a composer’s indications, either because of a different interpretation of the composition or because of the conditions under which it is performed.

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It was during the era of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) tempo markings became necessary which provided metronome markings instead of using descriptive words.

Dance and choral music were played at a certain tempo, depending on their style and reflections to the mood of the text. In addition, descriptive tempo markings will most likely present the mood for example, allegro, not only tries to project the thought of quickness but it also conveys brightness. Largo does not only imply slowness but also broadness and expansiveness. Still using today the verbal tempos frequently together with precise metronome markings are due to the expressive qualities being manifested.

Vague idea of speed and notation of confusion will be the results of music being written before the development of particular metronomes. Speed is being indicated as symbols give the number of beats per bar in the system of time signatures being developed during the Renaissance period. Terminologies such as allegro meaning fast, presto as quick and lento being slow are Italian words indicating tempo in the 17th century. To the modern musicians, these words only gave an indistinct concept of speed but for the enthusiasts of contemporary music, customs of tempo were taken as read among composers and nearly all players.

Tempo is an Italian word meaning speed or movement. At the top left corner of the musical staff, there could be found an expression that indicates how fast or slow the music should be played. This expression could be a word or a metronome marking. Metronome marking is the number of beats occurring in 60 seconds that measures the pace of music. As an example, ‘crotchet=60’ meaning there should be a 60 crotchet beats to the minute, that is to say, one .per second. Tempo is being measured by modern electronic metronomes very accurately.

To some performers, they play the tempo according to their preferences and what suit their interpretation of the music. Performers who were encouraged to pay more attention to original tempo markings were caused by the knowledge of performance practice achieved by academic investigation into earlier music. At any one time, some other factors are influencing the choice of tempo, and a critical musical analysis most likely relies on changes in the fundamental tempo throughout a piece such as accelerando which means getting faster, ritardando as getting slower or rubato with a beat that is strictly irregular.

The rate of speed is determined by its characteristics, performances’ physical conditions, and the composer’s transmitted instructions. Before the 17th century, from the notation, performers knew the correct tempo, for tempo were related to note values. The adaption of time signatures and tempo marks made visible a variety of durations for any note. The time signature ¾ gave a quarter note one pulse, 3/2 gave half pulse; 4/8 gave it two pulses. The rate at which these occurred could be modified by the use of tempo markings, such as allegro or andante. A high degree of accuracy in tempo indications was made possible by the invention of the metronome, a device that shows the number of beats per minute.

For adagio or very slow tempo, Adagio for Strings by Barber or Trio Sonata in G major by Bach are good sample pieces. Brandenburg Concerto No.6, in B-flat major by Bach and Clarinet Concerto in a major by Mozart are good pieces for allegro that is lively, rather quick. For rather slow, at moderate tempo that is andante, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C major is advisable to be listened.

For grave, that is extremely low and solemn, Beethoven’s Sonata No.8 in C minor would be the perfect example. And for largo that is slow and broad, Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 in E minor as its corresponding piece. For moderate tempo we have moderato. For the samples, try Shostakovich’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano or Hindemith’s Sonata for Bass, Tuba, and Piano. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major is an excellent musical piece for very quick tempo which is called presto. For quick and lively that is vivace, listen to Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano,II.

There are lots of tempo markings. From the fastest to slowest, common markings include prestissimo for extremely fast, vivacissimamente as the adverb of vivacissimo meaning very quickly and lively, vivacissimo for very fast and lively, presto and allegrissimo for very fast, and vivo as lively and fast. Allegro is used for fast and bright or called as a march tempo. Allegro moderato for moderately quick, allegretto used in moderately fast, moderato for moderately, andantino for alternatively faster or slower than andante, andante used at a walking pace, tranquillamante is derived from the adverb of tranquillo meaning tranquilly and tranquillo for tranquil.

Adagietto is used for rather slow, adagio for slow and stately, grave for slow and solemn. Larghetto is used for rather broadly, largo for very slow, lento is very slow like largo, largamente largo for broadly and very slow and larghissimo also for very slow. Basically allegro, largo, adagio, vivace, presto, andante and lento are the few root words used in markings.

The suffix –issimo when put in the root word makes the tempo amplified. –ino used as suffix makes the tempo reduced and by adding the suffix –etto to the word the tempo becomes endeared. For sudden changes of different tempo in a piece of music, a new tempo will be given also marked the same way. Molto or un poco are terms used as modifiers. Accelerando is used when tempo is accelerating or getting faster. Ritardando is used when slowing down, ritenuto when slower and rallentado when gradually slower. Poco a poco is used if pertaining to little by little or gradually speed. Rubato is used when speeding up and at the same time relaxes in ways that puts emphasis on the phrasing. Tempo I is used when referring to the original tempo again.


Farlex, Inc.  (2008). Tempo.  Retrieved

April 22, 2008 from