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Tempo Terms

31 December, 2014 - 15:00
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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.

Some Common Tempo Markings

  • 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.

More 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")

Exercise 1.13

Check to see how comfortable you are with Italian tempo markings by translating the following.

  1. un poco allegro
  2. molto meno mosso
  3. piu vivo
  4. molto adagio
  5. poco piu mosso

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.