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What Is Tempo In Music?

We all think we know the answer when asked the question. What is tempo in music? But, do we really know? In something so familiar as tempo, there might be a bit more than we realize. For instance, there is probably more description and words we must learn for music exams in Tempo than in most music theories.​​

There are plenty of new words to learn. Some in Italian, French, German, and some in English. Furthermore, learning about tempo in music and then applying it is a challenge. It isn’t just about counting the song in. 

Tempo And Beat

Tempo And Beat

Some people confuse tempo with the beat. They are not the same. The beat of the music can be described as a pattern of rhythmic stresses of the music. When you tap your foot to music, it is the beat that you are hearing. 

However, the definition of tempo in music is the speed of that beat. The tempo then is a description of what the beat is actually doing. 

How Important is Getting the Tempo Right?

Composers and songwriters, and even those making new arrangements, must get the tempo right. The tempo can have a dramatic effect on the piece of music. It can even often determine its genre. 

Some styles of music have, by default, certain tempos. Disco music needs an upbeat tempo, whilst a ballad will need to be slower. They wouldn’t work at all the other way round.

All Music Has Tempo

You will usually find the tempo instructions on the first page of the music. It is placed immediately above the first stave, top left corner. It will be in either French, Italian, German, or English. There are plenty of words used, and we will look at them all later.

The words give a tempo description rather than precise measurements. This means that the piece can be open to plenty of interpretation. These days you will often find a calculation that offers BPM or beats per minute. 

Establishing Beats per Minute

That, of course, is a more precise way of deciding tempo in music. But you can still make interpretive changes if you wish. You can work out the BPM of a song or piece of music by setting a metronome and then counting the beats.

The faster the piece, the higher the BPM. The slower the piece, the lower the beats per minute, as you will see it written at the top of a piece of sheet music. For example, it will show you that you should play at a tempo of 76 beats per minute. Of course, it can be any number; that is just an example.

Words Used to Describe Tempo

As I have already said, there are a variety of words in at least four languages. If you are taking music theory exams, you will be expected to know them. Not all for Grade 1, of course, but the requirement will increase with the grades.

As the Italians have had a major influence on music, let’s start with them. Here is a list of tempo instructions in Italian with their very approximate beats per minute.

  • Grave – Very Slow, 25-45 bpm.
  • Largo – Solemnly, 40-60 bpm.
  • Lento – Slowly, 45-60 bpm.
  • Adagio – Slowly but with increased emotion, 60-75 bpm.
  • Andante – Walking Pace, 75-105 bpm.
  • Moderato – Moderate Speed, 95-110 bpm.
  • Allegro – Quick and Bright, 120-155 bpm.
  • Vivace – Very Lively and Fast, 155-175 bpm.
  • Presto – Very Quick, 170-200 bpm.

Along with the Italian, you will also find German words. They differ a little in their descriptions. And some terms may have been adapted a little in translation. However, the meanings are about the same.

  • Kräftig – powerful.
  • Langsam – slowly.
  • Lebhaft – lively.
  • Mäßig – moderately.
  • Rasch – quickly.
  • Schnell – fast.

And some extra French words for tempo in music.

  • Grave – very slowly.
  • Lent – slowly.
  • Modéré – a moderate tempo.
  • Rapide – fast.
  • Vif – lively.
  • Vite – quickly.

And there are also some English words describing tempo you may come across.

  • Slowly.
  • Ballad.
  • Laidback.
  • Medium.
  • Steady rock.
  • Medium-up.
  • Brisk.
  • Brightly.
  • Up. 
  • Fast.

Additional Descriptions

Additional Descriptions

As in the use of language, when describing tempo, we have words that offer a little more description. Some of these are quite obvious, as in English, where a piece might have a tempo described as “very slow.”

In Italian, we see the suffixes “etto” and “issimo.” They mean less and more. You will also see them used in other musical descriptions. You might see “fortissimo,” which means very loud. Or “pianissimo,” meaning very quiet.

If you have a basic knowledge of the French language, you will recognize the words “moins” and “tres.” They mean less and very. The same in German with words like “sehr” meaning very and “etwas” meaning slightly or somewhat.

The Tempo Is Not Always Fixed

Tempo does not always have to be fixed; it can change. Most of the music we listen to today is at a fixed tempo. It begins at a certain speed and ends at the same speed, or in some cases, that is the plan. It is constant throughout the whole song.

What is Tempo in Music – Modern Examples

With some songs, the music speeds up unintentionally, as in “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Rolling Stones. But, some are intentional, as in The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” Or the band who were masters of tempo and time change, Yes, with songs like “I’ve Seen All Good People.” And the British classic by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come on Eileen.”

Commonplace in The Classics

This change of tempo was a normal practice though going back some hundreds of years. The Classical period composers moving into the Romantic period wrote symphonies having four movements. Quite often, each of those movements would have a different tempo.

In most, but not all cases, the formula was the First Movement would be quite quick and the Second slow. The Third was a little faster and back to fast for the Fourth Movement. 

The Progression of the Music Dictates the Tempo

This was no accident. The idea was to maintain the interest level of the audience with tempo changes. It created anticipation and added as an expectorant, and the thought of “what is next.” The progression of the music through the movements dictated tempo change as a necessity.

We see this beautifully executed in more modern times by the progressive rock band ‘Yes.’ They wanted people to sit and listen to the music, not jump around. They often constructed it in a symphonic way that made you just stop and listen. Tempo can have that much importance in music when used as a creative force.

Does a Tempo Change Mean the Music Must Stop?

Music Must Stop

Not at all. Tempo changes can be more dramatic if used within the song. As with the examples by The Beatles and Yes, it can also speed up or slow down. Intentionally, that is.

If the composer wants you to speed up or slow down in a section, there will be an instruction in the music. Here are some of the words used for that purpose.

  • Accelerando – speed up.
  • Allargando – slow down, is usually used at the end of a piece for effect.
  • Doppio più mosso – double the speed.
  • Doppio più lento – half speed.
  • Lentando – slowing gradually while also getting softer.
  • Meno mosso – less movement, meaning slower.
  • Meno moto – less motion.
  • Più Mosso – more movement, meaning quicker.
  • Rallentando – slowing gradually.
  • Rubato – vary the tempo as you play the notes.
  • Tempo Primo – return to the original tempo.
  • A Tempo – go back to the previous tempo.

I think that is probably enough. As you can see, there is much more to tempo than you may have thought. There are a lot of words and four languages to learn, but it all pays dividends if you want to be a professional musician.

Music Theory is daunting and, at times, very confusing, so these might help…

And this Metronome for Piano Guitar Drum Violin might be a useful addition to your music room. With some of the descriptive words for tempo we have looked at printed on the scale, it’s a superb option and will help you with the learning process.

Interested in Learning More about Music?

Our experts can help with that. Have a look at our handy articles on What is a Refrain in MusicWhat Is Timbre In MusicWhat is Melody in MusicWhat Is Homophonic Texture In MusicWhat is Strophic Form In Music, and What Is AABA Form In Music for more useful musical information.

An instrument upgrade could make learning easier as well. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best Digital Grand Piano, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Flute, and the Best Cremona Violins you can buy in 2023.

What Is Tempo In Music – Final Thoughts

Don’t take Tempo for granted. That is something you must never do. Tempo doesn’t just happen by accident. It is set the way it is for a reason. And that reason is to help to add expression and meaning to the music.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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