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In musical terminology, tempo [ˈtɛmpo] ("time" in Italian; plural: tempi [ˈtɛmpi]) is the speed or pace of a given piece.

In classical music, tempo is usually indicated with an instruction at the start of a piece (often using conventional Italian terms). Tempo is usually measured in by beats per minute (BPM). In modern classical compositions a "metronome mark" in beats per minute may supplement or replace the normal tempo marking, while in modern genres like electronic dance music tempo will simply be stated in BPM.

Tempo may be separated from articulation and metre, or these aspects may be indicated along with tempo, all contributing to the overall texture. While the ability to hold a steady tempo is a vital skill for a musical performer, tempo is changeable. Depending on the genre of a piece of music and the performers' interpretation, a piece may be played with slight tempo rubato or drastic accelerando. In ensembles, the tempo is often indicated by a conductor or by one of the instrumentalists, for instance the drummer.


Measuring tempoEdit

Electronic metronome, Wittner model

While tempo is described or indicated in many different ways, it is only measured in beats per minute (bpm). For example, a tempo of 60 beats per minute signifies one beat per second, while a tempo of 120 beats per minute is twice as rapid, signifying one beat every 0.5 seconds. The note value of a beat will typically be that indicated by the time signature. For instance, in 4
the beat will be a crotchet or quarter note.

This measurement of tempo became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome; in the 1810s he published metronomic indications for the eight symphonies he had composed up to that time.[1]

With the advent of modern electronics, bpm became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the bpm system to denote tempo.[citation needed]

Instead of beats per minute, some 20th-century composers (e.g., Béla Bartók, Alberto Ginastera, and John Cage) specify the total playing time for a piece, from which the performer can derive tempo.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

The speed of a piece of music can also be gauged according to bars per minute (mpm) or bars per minute, the number of bars of the piece performed in one minute. This measure is commonly used in ballroom dance music.[citation needed]

Musical vocabulary for tempoEdit

In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words, most commonly in Italian, in addition to or instead of a metronome mark in beats per minute. Italian is typically used because it was the language of most composers during the time these descriptions became commonplace.[2]

This practice developed during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baroque and Classical periods. In the earlier Renaissance music, performers understood most music to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus (roughly the rate of the human heartbeat).[3] The mensural time signature indicated which note value corresponded to the tactus.

In the Baroque period, pieces would typically be given an indication, which might be a tempo marking (e.g. Allegro), or the name of a dance (e.g. Allemande or Sarabande) - the latter being an indication both of tempo and of metre. Any musician of the time was expected to know how to interpret these markings based on custom and experience. In some cases, however, these markings were simply omitted. For example, the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. Despite the increasing number of explicit tempo markings, musicians still observe conventions, expecting a minuet to be at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a perpetuum mobile quite fast, and so on. Genres imply tempos. Thus, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, though that movement is not a minuet.

Many tempo markings also indicate mood and expression. 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, simply indicates speed. 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").

Often, composers (or music publishers) name movements of compositions after their tempo (or mood) marking. For instance, the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an Adagio.[4]

Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so composers need place no further explanation in the score.[citation needed] Popular music charts use terms such as bossa nova, ballad, and Latin rock in much the same way.[original research?]

Basic tempo markingsEdit

Here follows a list of common tempo markings. The beats per minute (bpm) values are very rough approximations for 4
time. In practice a musician will always follow their judgement on how to tackle the musical and technical demands of a piece, rather than look up a value in a table such as this one.

These terms have also been used inconsistently through time and in different geographical areas. One striking example is that Allegretto hastened as a tempo from the 18th to the 19th century: originally it was just above Andante, instead of just below Allegro as it is now.[5] As another example, a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster.[6]

From slowest to fastest:

  • Larghissimo – very, very slow (24 bpm and under)
  • Grave – very slow (25–45 bpm)
  • Largo – broadly (40–60 bpm)
  • Lento – slowly (45–60 bpm)
  • Larghetto – rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
  • Adagio – slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (66–76 bpm)
  • Adagietto – slower than andante (72–76 bpm)
  • Andante – at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
  • Andantino – slightly faster than Andante (although in some cases it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante) (80–108 bpm)
  • Marcia moderato – moderately, in the manner of a march[7][8] (83–85 bpm)
  • Andante moderato – between andante and moderato (thus the name andante moderato) (92–112 bpm)
  • Moderato – moderately (108–120 bpm)
  • Allegretto – by the mid 19th century, moderately fast (112–120 bpm); see paragraph above for earlier usage
  • Allegro moderato – close to but not quite allegro (116–120 bpm)
  • Allegro – fast, quickly, and bright (120–168 bpm) (molto allegro is slightly faster than allegro, but always in its range)
  • Vivace – lively and fast (168–176 bpm)
  • Vivacissimo – very fast and lively (172–176 bpm)
  • Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace – very fast (172–176 bpm)
  • Presto – very, very fast (168–200 bpm)
  • Prestissimo – even faster than Presto (200 bpm and over)

Terms for tempo change:

  • Rallentando – gradually slowing down
  • Ritardando – gradually slowing down (but not as much as rallentando)
  • Ritenuto – immediately slowing down
  • Stringendo – gradually speeding up (slowly)
  • Accelerando – gradually speeding up (quickly)

Additional termsEdit

  • A piacere – the performer may use his or her own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"[9]
  • A tempo – resume previous tempo
  • L'istesso, L'istesso tempo, or Lo stesso tempo – at the same speed; L'istesso is used when the actual speed of the music has not changed, despite apparent signals to the contrary, such as changes in time signature or note length (half notes in 4
    could change to whole notes in 2
    , and they would all have the same duration)[10][11]
  • Tempo comodo – at a comfortable (normal) speed
  • Tempo di... – the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz,  . ≈ 60 bpm), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march,   ≈ 120 bpm))
  • Tempo giusto – at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo semplice – simple, regular speed, plainly
  • Tempo primo – resume the original (first) tempo

French tempo markingsEdit

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 extensive tempo (and character) markings by defining them in a poetical and literal way, as in his Gnossiennes.[12]

German tempo markingsEdit

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[13]

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[14]).

English tempo markingsEdit

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", "brisk", "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear.

Tom Lehrer's anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, uses fake English tempo markings to humorous effect. For example, Lehrer specifies that the song National Brotherhood Week should be played "fraternally," We Will All Go Together be played "eschatologically," and Masochism Tango be played "painstakingly."

Variation through a pieceEdit

Tempo is not necessarily fixed. Within a piece (or within a movement of a longer work), a composer may indicate a complete change of tempo, often by using a double bar and introducing a new tempo indication, often with a new time signature and/or key signature.

It is also possible to indicate a more or less gradual change in tempo, for instance with an accelerando (speeding up) or ritardando (slowing down) marking. Indeed some compositions - for instance, Monti's Csárdás or the Russian Civil War song Echelon Song- are mainly composed of accelerando passages.

On the smaller scale, tempo rubato refers to changes in tempo within a musical phrase, often described as some notes 'borrowing' time from others.

Terms for change in tempoEdit

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 / doppio più mosso – double speed
  • Doppio più lento – half speed
  • Lentando – gradual slowing and softer
  • 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 – slowing down gradually; also see rallentando and ritenuto (abbreviations: rit., ritard.)
  • Ritenuto – slightly slower, but achieved more immediately than ritardando or rallentando; a sudden decrease in tempo; temporarily holding back.[15] (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 (literally "theft", so more strictly, take time from one beat to slow another)
  • 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 (literally "tightening")
  • Tardando – slowing down gradually (same as ritardando)[17]

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 Io – denotes an immediate return to the piece's original base tempo after a section in a different tempo (e.g. Allegro ... Lento ... Moderato ... Tempo Io 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.

Modern classical musicEdit

20th-century classical music introduced a wide range of approaches to tempo, particularly thanks to the influence of modernism and later postmodernism.

While many composers have retained traditional tempo markings, sometimes requiring greater precision than in any preceding period, others have began to question basic assumptions of the classical tradition like the idea of a consistent, unified, repeatable tempo. Graphic scores shows tempo and rhythm in a variety of ways. Polytemporal compositions deliberately utilise performers playing at marginally different speeds. John Cage's compositions approach tempo in diverse ways. For instance 4′33″ has a defined duration, but no actual notes, while As Slow as Possible has defined proportions but no defined duration, with one performance intended to last 639 years.

Electronic musicEdit

Extreme tempoEdit

More extreme tempos 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 tempo by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempi. 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", "Shaw Nuff") have been performed at 380 bpm plus.[citation needed] John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was performed at 374 bpm.[citation needed]


Beatmatching is a technique DJs use that involves speeding up or slowing down a record to match the tempo of a previous track so both can be seamlessly mixed.

DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict bpm value suggested by the kick drum, particularly when dealing with high tempo tracks. A 240 bpm track, for example, matches the beat of a 120 bpm track without slowing down or speeding up, because both have an underlying tempo of 120 quarter notes per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75–90 bpm) mixes well with a drum and bass beat (from 150–185 bpm).

When speeding up or slowing down a record on a turntable, the pitch and tempo of a track are linked: spinning a disc 10% faster makes both pitch and tempo 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.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 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. See "metronome" entry in Apel (1969), p. 523.
  2. ^ Randel, D., ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1986, Tempo
  3. ^ Haar, James. The Science and Art of Renaissance Music. Princeton University Press. p. 408. ISBN 1-40-086471-2. 
  4. ^ Heyman, Barbara B. (1994-05-12). Samuel Barber: the composer and his music. Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 0-19-509058-6. 
  5. ^ For extensive discussion of this point see Rosen (2002:48-95). Rosen suggests that many works marked "Allegretto" are nowadays played too quickly as a result of this confusion. Rosen, Charles (2002) Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Excerpts on line at Google Books: [1].
  6. ^ music theory online: tempo,
  7. ^ American Symphony Orchestra League (1998). Journal of the Conductors' Guild, Vols. 18–19. Viena: The League. p. 27. ISSN 0734-1032. 
  8. ^ William E. Caplin; James Hepokoski; James Webster (2010). Musical Form, Forms & Formenlehre: Three Methodological Reflections. Leuven University Press. p. 80. ISBN 905-867-822-9. 
  9. ^ Apel (1969), p. 42; for the literal translation see the online Italian–English dictionary at
  10. ^ "Istesso tempo" entry in Sadie (2001).
  11. ^ For a modern example of L'istesso, see measures 4 and 130 of Star Wars: Main Title, Williams (1997), pp. 3 and 30.
  12. ^ Gnossiennes music sheet, IMSLP Music Library
  13. ^ Apel (1969), p. 92.
  14. ^ Italian translation,; German, Apel (1969).
  15. ^ "Ritenuto" entry in Sadie (2001).
  16. ^ Apel (1969), p. 809.
  17. ^ David Fallows. "Ritardando". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.  (subscription required)


Books on tempo in music:

  • Epstein, David (1995). Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-873320-7. 
  • Marty, Jean-Pierre (1988). The tempo indications of Mozart. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03852-6. 
  • Sachs, Curt (1953). Rhythm and Tempo: A Study in Music History. New York: Norton. OCLC 391538. 
  • Snoman, Rick (2009). The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques – Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Press. ISBN 0-9748438-4-9.

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 978-0-674-37501-7
  • Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. NewYork: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.

Examples of musical scores:

  • Williams, John (1997). Star Wars: Suite for Orchestra. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corp. ISBN 978-0-793-58208-2. 

External linksEdit