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In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for "time"; plural tempos, or tempi from the Italian plural) is the speed or pace of a given piece. In classical music, tempo is typically indicated with an instruction at the start of a piece (often using conventional Italian terms) and is usually measured in beats per minute (or 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 typically simply be stated in bpm.


Tempo may be separated from articulation and meter, 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 variances. In ensembles, the tempo is often indicated by a conductor or by one of the instrumentalists, for instance the drummer.


Electronic metronome, Wittner model Electronic-metronome(scale).jpg
Electronic metronome, Wittner model

While tempo is described or indicated in many different ways, including with a range of words (e.g., "Slowly", "Adagio" and so on), it is typically measured in beats per minute (bpm or 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 denominator of the time signature. For instance, in 4
the beat will be a crotchet, or quarter note.

This measurement and indication of tempo became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after Johann Nepomuk Maelzel invented the metronome. 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]

Instead of beats per minute, some 20th-century classical 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 ]

With the advent of modern electronics, bpm became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the bpm system to denote tempo. [2] In popular music genres such as electronic dance music, accurate knowledge of a tune's bpm is important to DJs for the purposes of beatmatching. [3]

The speed of a piece of music can also be gauged according to measures per minute (mpm) or bars per minute (bpm), the number of measures of the piece performed in one minute. This measure is commonly used in ballroom dance music. [4]

Choosing speed

In different musical contexts, different instrumental musicians, singers, conductors, bandleaders, music directors or other individuals will select the tempo of a song or piece. In a popular music or traditional music group or band, the bandleader or drummer may select the tempo. In popular and traditional music, whoever is setting the tempo often counts out one or two bars in tempo. In some songs or pieces in which a singer or solo instrumentalist begins the work with a solo introduction (prior to the start of the full group), the tempo they set will provide the tempo for the group. In an orchestra or concert band, the conductor normally sets the tempo. In a marching band, the drum major may set the tempo. In a sound recording, in some cases a record producer may set the tempo for a song (although this would be less likely with an experienced bandleader).

Musical vocabulary

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. [5] Some well-known Italian tempo indications include "Allegro" (English “Cheerful”), "Andante" (“Walking-pace”) and "Presto" (“Quickly”). 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). [6] 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. [7]

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? ] Lead sheets and fake book music for jazz or popular music may use several terms, and may include a tempo term and a genre term, such as "slow blues", "medium shuffle" or "fast rock".

Basic tempo markings

Here follows a list of common tempo markings. The beats per minute (bpm) values are very rough approximations for 4

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. [8] As another example, a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster. [9]

From slowest to fastest:

Additional terms

  • A piacere – the performer may use his or her own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure" [13]
  • Assai – (very) much
  • A tempo – resume previous tempo
  • Con moto – Italian for "with movement"; can be combined with a tempo indication, e.g., Andante con moto
  • 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) [14] [15]
  • Ma non tanto – but not so much; used in the same way and has the same effect as Ma non troppo (see immediately below) but to a lesser degree
  • Ma non troppo – but not too much; used to modify a basic tempo to indicate that the basic tempo should be reined in to a degree; for example, Adagio ma non troppo to mean ″Slow, but not too much″, Allegro ma non troppo to mean ″Fast, but not too much″
  • Molto – very
  • Poco – a little
  • Subito – suddenly
  • Tempo comodo – at a comfortable (normal) speed
  • Tempo di... – the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valzer (speed of a waltz, Figure rythmique noire hampe haut.svg .  60 bpm or Figure rythmique noire hampe haut.svg  126 bpm), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march, Figure rythmique noire hampe haut.svg   120 bpm))
  • Tempo giusto – at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo primo – resume the original (first) tempo
  • Tempo semplice – simple, regular speed, plainly

French tempo markings

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
  • Moins – less, as in Moins vite (less fast)
  • Modéré – at a moderate tempo
  • Vif – lively
  • Très – very, as in Très vif (very lively)
  • Vite – fast
  • Rapide – rapidly

Erik Satie was known to write extensive tempo (and character) markings by defining them in a poetical and literal way, as in his Gnossiennes. [16]

German tempo markings

Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:

  • Kräftig – vigorous or powerful
  • Langsam – slowly
  • Lebhaft – lively (mood)
  • Mäßig – moderately
  • Rasch – quickly
  • Schnell – fast
  • Bewegt – animated, with motion [17]

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 [18] ).

English tempo markings

English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, among many others. In jazz and popular music lead sheets and fake book charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", "brisk", "brightly" "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear. In some lead sheets and fake books, both tempo and genre are indicated, e.g., "slow blues", "fast swing", or "medium Latin". The genre indications help rhythm section instrumentalists use the correct style. For example, if a song says "medium shuffle", the drummer plays a shuffle drum pattern; if it says "fast boogie-woogie", the piano player plays a boogie-woogie bassline.

"Show tempo", a term used since the early days of Vaudeville, describes the traditionally brisk tempo (usually 160–170 bpm) of opening songs in stage revues and musicals.

Humourist Tom Lehrer uses facetious English tempo markings in his anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer. For example, "National Brotherhood Week" is to be played "fraternally"; "We Will All Go Together" is marked "eschatologically"; and "Masochism Tango" has the tempo "painstakingly".

Variation through a piece

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 (rit., slowing down) marking. Indeed, some compositions chiefly comprise accelerando passages, for instance Monti's Csárdás, or the Russian Civil War song Echelon Song.

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 tempo

Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:

While the base tempo indication (such as Allegro) typically appears in large type above the staff, 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 ways:

These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers tend to employ them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in another language.

Modern classical music

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 begun to question basic assumptions of the classical tradition like the idea of a consistent, unified, repeatable tempo. Graphic scores show 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 music

Extreme tempo

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 metal subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempo. 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 ]


In popular music genres such as disco, house music and electronic dance music, beatmatching is a technique that DJs use that involves speeding up or slowing down a record (or CDJ player, a speed-adjustable CD player for DJ use) to match the tempo of a previous or subsequent track, so both can be seamlessly mixed. Having beatmatched two songs, the DJ can either seamlessly crossfade from one song to another, or play both tracks simultaneously, creating a layered effect.

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 is called pitch-shifting. The opposite operation, changing the tempo without changing the pitch, is called time-stretching.

See also


  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. Hans, Zimmer. "Music 101: What Is Tempo? How Is Tempo Used in Music?". Masterclass. Masterclass. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  3. Velankar, Makarland (2014). "A Pilot Study of Automatic Tempo Measurement in Rhythmic Music".
  4. "E. Rules for Competitions (Couples). Rule E.3 (Music)" (PDF), WDSF Competition Rules (WDSF Rules & Regulations), World DanceSport Federation, 2018-01-01, p. 19, retrieved 2018-01-20, 3.2 The tempi for each dance shall be: Waltz 28‒30 bars/min, Tango 31‒33 bars/min, Viennese Waltz 58‒60 bars/min, Slow Foxtrot 28‒30 bars/min, Quickstep 50‒52 bars/min; Samba 50‒52 bars/min, Cha-Cha-Cha 30‒32 bars/min, Rumba 25‒27 bars/min, Paso Doble 60‒62 bars/min, Jive 42‒44 bars/min.
  5. Randel, D., ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1986, Tempo
  6. Haar, James (14 July 2014). The Science and Art of Renaissance Music. Princeton University Press. p. 408. ISBN   978-1-40-086471-3.
  7. Heyman, Barbara B. (1994-05-12). Samuel Barber: the composer and his music. Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN   0-19-509058-6.
  8. For an 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.
  9. music theory online: tempo, Dolmetsch.com
  10. Elson, Louis Charles (1909). Elson's Pocket Music Dictionary: The Important Terms Used in Music with Pronunciation and Concise Definition, Together with the Elements of Notation and a Biographical List of Over Five Hundred Noted Names in Music. Oliver Ditson.
  11. American Symphony Orchestra League (1998). "Journal of the Conductors' Guild, Vols. 18–19". Journal of the Conductors' Guild. Viena: The League: 27. ISSN   0734-1032.
  12. William E. Caplin; James Hepokoski; James Webster (2010). Musical Form, Forms & Formenlehre: Three Methodological Reflections. Leuven University Press. p. 80. ISBN   978-905-867-822-5.
  13. Apel (1969), p. 42; for the literal translation see the online Italian–English dictionary at WordReference.com.
  14. "Istesso tempo" entry in Sadie (2001).
  15. For a modern example of L'istesso, see measures 4 and 130 of Star Wars: Main Title, Williams (1997), pp. 3 and 30.
  16. Gnossiennes music sheet, IMSLP Music Library
  17. Apel (1969), p. 92.
  18. Italian translation, WordReference.com; German, Apel (1969).
  19. "Affretando". Encyclopaedia Britannica . 1 (14 ed.). 1930. p. 282.
  20. "Ritenuto" entry in Sadie (2001).
  21. Apel (1969), p. 809.
  22. Fallows, David (2001). "Ritardando". In Root, Deane L. (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . Oxford University Press.
  23. "Tempo Markings – Common Tempos in Italian, German, and French". theonlinemetronome.com. Retrieved 2019-08-16.

General sources

Books on tempo in music:

Music dictionaries:

Examples of musical scores:

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