Tempo, or how fast or slow to play a piece, is one of the most basic components in music. It’s manipulated in a myriad of ways to define sections of music, establish a
mood, and add emotional depth. For many reasons, tempo is a crucial point in music and it’s good to understand what tempo markings are and, more importantly, why they’re there.
I’ll discuss the effects tempo can give a piece in this first section and then I’ll move on to a list of the tempi markings themselves.
1. Tempo is a clean way to separate a piece of music into more discrete parts. In sonatas, concertos, and symphonies, every new movement has a new tempo. This makes each more recognizable. Actually, tempo—for sonatas in particular—is so basic that there is an actual structure for tempi of the movements of the sonata. Generally, the 1st movement is allegro, which even led to the nickname for the sonata form: “sonata-allegro form”. The 2nd movement is slow; andante, largo, or adagio. The 3rd movement is typically dance-like, consisting of two parts such as a Minuet (or Scherzo) and Trio, and marked allegretto or similarly. If there is a 4th movement, it is probably a Rondo or theme and variations and it will likely be faster than the preceding movement, marked vivace or similarly.
2. The markings composers give us aren’t just distinctions between movements. Marks in tempo can also establish the mood of the piece. In many instances, a piece’s “tempo” doesn’t really matter; rather what matters is its “spirit”. An example might be the tempi markings presto versus allegro. Presto literally means “ready” in Italian while allegro means “cheerful” or “joyful”. While presto is supposed to be played more quickly than allegro, allegro signifies a more lively, light-hearted spirit which subtly changes the whole aspect of the piece.
3. Tempo can affect not only the mood of the piece but also add emotional depth. Rubato comes from the Italian for “to rob”, and I think rubato in piano is basically analogous to vibrato in violin. It’s the ebb and flow, the sometimes restless changes in tempo, that give a piece that finishing touch. Arthur Rubinstein was a master at rubato, especially when it came to Chopin. Chopin, having lived in the Romantic Period, expected rubato to be used in all his pieces, and Rubinstein plays rubato to perfection. In the video below, just listen to how delicate and unobtrusive it is. Rubinstein keeps a mainly steady beat in his left hand while “robbing” notes, giving and taking, with his right hand. Combined with his phrasing, you can actually feel the music breathing.
4. Sometimes tempo is manipulated to increase tension. Claude Debussy’s music is unique in that instead of rushing into a climax, the performer is expected to keep the climax contained, holding back and gradually building the suspense. This is somewhat similar to rubato, though unlike rubato this “holding back” doesn’t come naturally or easily – for me, at any rate.
Now that we’ve discussed the main uses of tempi, let’s get to the terms.
Common Tempo Terms
These terms are ordered from slowest to fastest. And just a general rule in music: we have special endings, -issimo, -etto, and -ino. When a musical marking has -issimo on the end, the original meaning of the word without the -issimo is amplified – and note that this doesn’t mean made louder. For instance, if piano (“softly”) changes to pianissimo, the meaning of the word piano is amplified. Pianissimo means “more softly than piano“. The endings -etto and -ino are the opposite – the meaning of the word is softened. If allegro (“fast”) changes to allegretto, then allegretto means “moderately fast”.
These -issimo, -etto, and -ino endings can be applied at random. Allegretto is a common tempo term, but composers often apply these endings to other tempo markings, changing andante to andantino or adagio to adagietto.
Larghissimo – very, very slow. (Example: Larghissimo e tranquillo by Jonas Tarm.)
Grave – very slow. (Example: the 1st page of the 1st movement of the Sonata Pathetique by Beethoven. On the 2nd page, it delves into allegro di molto e con brio, or “very lively and with spirit”.)
Largo – broadly. (Example: Chopin’s “Largo” in E Flat, naturally.)
Lento – slowly. (Example: Chopin’s Funeral March from his Sonata, Op. 35, No. 2.)
Larghetto – rather broadly. (Example: Dvorak’s beautiful 4th Romantic Piece.)
Adagio – slow and stately; literally, “at ease”. (Example: the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.)
Adagietto – slower than andante. (Example: the gorgeous 4th movement from Mahler’s 5th Symphony.)
Andante – at a walking pace. (Example: Chopin’s Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1.)
Andantino – slightly faster than andante; although in some cases it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante. (Example: Liszt’s Consolation No. 5.)
Andante moderato – between andante and moderato. (Example: Symphony No. 4, 2nd movement, by Brahms.)
Moderato – moderately. (Example: Confidence, a Song Without Words by Mendelssohn.)
Allegretto – moderately fast. (Example: Spring Song, another Song Without Words by Mendelssohn.)
Allegro moderato – close to but not quite allegro. (Example: Burgmüller’s Consolation.)
Allegro – fast, quickly, and bright. (Example: the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique.)
Molto allegro – slightly faster than allegro, but always in its range. (Example: the 1st movement of the Symphony No. 1 in E Flat by Mozart.)
Vivace – lively and fast. (Example: the two-part Invention No. 8 by J.S. Bach.)
Vivacissimo – very fast and lively. (Example: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, 4th movement.)
Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace – very fast (Example: the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 28, in D Major.)
Presto – very, very fast. (Example: the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.)
Prestissimo – even faster than presto. (Example: C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggio.)
Descriptive Tempo Terms
I prefer to see more descriptive tempi markings in music, for they mark a mood rather than a tempo and I have some freedom in interpreting that mood as a tempo.
Affettuoso – with feeling.
Agitato – agitated; implied quickness.
Appassionato – passionately. Beethoven went a step further than marking a section appassionato. He wrote an entire sonata nicknamed the “Appassionata“.
Animato – animatedly, lively.
Brillante – brilliant, sparkling. Seen in with other tempo markings such as allegro brillante or rondo brillante. Chopin titled one of his waltzes “Grande Valse Brillante“.
Cantabile – in singing style; lyrical.
Dolce – sweetly.
Dolente – sadly, sorrowfully.
Energico – energetic, strong, forceful.
Eroico – heroically. Again, Beethoven outdoes everyone – he wrote an entire symphony called the “Eroica“.
Espressivo – expressively.
Furioso – angrily.
Grandioso – magnificently; grandly.
Grazioso – gracefully.
Lamentoso – lamenting; mournful.
Leggiero – lightly; gracefully.
Maestoso – majestic or stately. This generally indicates a solemn, march-like tempo.
Marziale – in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases.
Misterioso – mystical, mysterious.
Nobilmente – nobly (in a noble way).
Patetico – with great emotion.
Pesante – heavily.
Pomposo – dignified, in grand style.
Scherzando – playfully.
Smorzando – dying away. The speed and dynamics decrease to nothing.
Sospirando – sighing; listless; almost apathetic.
Sostenuto – sustained, with a slowing of tempo.
Tenerezza – tenderly.
Tranquillamente – adverb of tranquillo, “calmly”.
Trionfante – triumphantly.
Vivace – lively.
Terms for Tempo Change
Accelerando – speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
Allargando – growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece
Calando – dying away. This combines a ritardando with a diminuendo.
Doppio movimento / doppio più mosso – double speed; if a quarter note=100, now a half note=100.
Doppio più lento – half speed; if a quarter note=100, now an eighth note=100.
Lentando – similar to calando; gradual slowing and softening.
Meno mosso – less movement; slower.
Mosso – movement; more lively, but not so much as più mosso.
Più mosso – more movement; faster.
Precipitando – hurrying, moving forward.
Rallentando – very gradually slowing down. (Abbreviation: rall.)
Ritardando – gradually slowing down, but not so much as rallentando. (Abbreviations: rit., ritard.)
Ritenuto – slightly slower. This is more of an immediate tempo change than a ritardando or a rallentando. (Abbreviation: rit.. Because ritardando is also often abbreviated as rit., a better, more specific abbreviation is riten.)
Rubato – adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes. As I mentioned, it means “to rob”, so to be correct, it’s not free adjustment; one must take time from one beat to give to another.
Stretto – in faster tempo. Stretto is often near the conclusion of a section. In fugal compositions, stretto can refer to a rapid imitation of the theme before it is completed at the end of the fugue. In this context, stretto is not necessarily related to tempo.
Stringendo – gradually speeding up; literally, “tightening”.
Tardando – slowing down gradually. (Similar to a ritardando.)
Additional Tempo Terms
A piacere – literally, this means “at pleasure”. The performer can play according to his preference in terms of tempo and rhythm.
A tempo – resume the previous tempo.
L’istesso, L’istesso tempo, or Lo stesso tempo – at the same speed. L’istesso is added when the actual speed of the music has not changed, even if musical context seems to direct otherwise. An example is a change in time signature and note length – half notes in 4/4 might change to whole notes in 2/2 but because of the l’istesso, they would all have the same duration.
Tempo comodo – at a comfortable speed.
Tempo di… – the speed of a … Example: tempo di valse – “speed of a waltz”.
Tempo giusto – at the “right” speed; in strict tempo.
Tempo semplice – simple speed; regular speed.
Tempo primo – resume the original (first) tempo. This is the same as a tempo.
I hope you learned a few things today – tempo has a very broad range in music, so it’s difficult to memorize every obscure marking. Still, it’s good to get down the basics so we can then better and more easily interpret the composer’s musical instructions.
Thanks for reading!
~ Maggie J.