In all music, tempo plays its part. Often a very significant one. Tempo is the word we often use when discussing the speed of a piece of music. It is an Italian word meaning time. There are an awful lot of words that describe the tempo of a piece of music, be they fast or slow; however, I am going to answer the question, “What is the musical term for slow?”
Fast or Slow
Hardly an adequate description when deciding the tempo of a piece. It has to be defined in terms of how fast or slow. We can determine the exact tempo of music by giving a range of beats per minute(BPM) that the piece is played at.
There are twelve terms, all of them Italian, that give us the tempo of a ‘slow’ piece of music. We shall name them all and the suggested beats per minute later.
Tempo as a formal description hasn’t always existed…
Not exactly true, of course. Every piece of music has its speed. But it was at a certain point in musical history that it took on an added significance. Mozart, for example, composed in the era known as “tempo giusto.”
Most modern music is written in a fixed tempo. This was not the case in Mozart’s time, and its speed was sometimes at the discretion of the conductor. As the timing or tempo changes in a piece, “tempo giusto” simply means a return to the principle timing of the piece.
There were no beats per minute in those days. The Italian names for musical tempo arose because of the lack of a formal system. They acted as descriptors regarding the speed of a piece. They are still used today, of course, as are many terms and descriptions from hundreds of years ago.
The Arrival of the Metronome
This changed things. Invented by a German, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, it made tempo and timing more popular. Beethoven was one of the first to use it. Now the beats could be counted to set the tempo.
Is Tempo That Important?
The answer is yes, for many obvious reasons. When you are composing or playing something, there are plenty of things to consider. For the musicians, there are the dynamics and the phrasing. And how can it actually be played?
And if there are singers?
Most composers will know that singers have limits. Especially of how long the phrases can be. How long a vocalist can reasonably be expected to sing or hold a note. If the piece is very slow, it will make it impossible to sing if the phrasing is too long. Music is written with these things in mind.
And finally, of course, tempo sets the mood. An emotional setting for the music needs the correct tempo for impact. Likewise, a piece like the “William Tell Overture” would hardly have been so effective and uplifting at a slow speed.
What is Tempo in Music
Let us just clarify. It is quite simply the definition of tempo in music is the speed of a piece. It should not be confused with the “beat” of the music, which is a modern-day idiom. That is something different. Tempo refers to speed.
Today we can use terms like beats per minute (bpm) to set the tempo. A metronome is available to work it out. But as we have already discussed, before the metronome, there were just those Italian words.
So, among those Italian words, what is the musical term for slow? Well, let’s look at the words that are musical terms for slow.
|Larghissimo||as slowly as possible||Less than 24 bpm|
|Adagissimo||very slowly||20-40 bpm|
|Grave||solemn and slow||25-45 bpm|
|Largo||slowly and with dignity||40-60 bpm|
|Larghetto||fairly slowly||60-66 bpm|
|Adagietto||not as fast as Andante||70-80 bpm|
|Andante||walking pace||76-108 bpm|
|Andantino||a little faster than Andante||80-108 bpm|
|Marcio Moderato||a moderate march||83-85 bpm|
|Moderato||at a moderate speed||108-120 bpm|
The beats per minute are included for information purposes only as an indicator. You will see that most beats per minute overlap each other. The most commonly used terms for tempo are probably Largo and Andante, but all are used.
Tempo is Key to Performance
In many ways, it is just as important as getting the harmony and the lyrics correct. It will set the tone of the piece and create the right amount of room to allow dynamics. Furthermore, it will create the mood in which the piece will be heard at its best.
Conductors working on classical music works will sometimes put their own interpretation on a piece. They will do that by changing the tempo. Some will encourage a faster or a slower rendition than the norm. Others will make subtle tempo changes during the performance.
A good example…
An example of this can be seen and heard with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performance of the “William Tell Overture.” It was a prominent performance to celebrate their 100th anniversary.
Conducted by Myung-Whun Chung at a ferocious pace. Faster than most other orchestras perform this masterpiece. In doing so, he impresses his own character on the piece. But also allows the technical prowess of his orchestra to shine. It is available on YouTube.
Tempo is Vital in Film Scores
Perhaps it is no more evident than in today’s film music. Tempo is used to reinforce the mood of what people are viewing on the screen. It must reflect and even create the mood to go with the actions and the dialogue. Hans Zimmer and John Williams are masters of this.
It is also interesting to note that a rather disproportionate amount of popular music has been written between 120-130 bpm. This matches the average number of heartbeats per minute, quite outside of what is termed slow for music. Nevertheless, an interesting observation.
Some further studies that will help are The Rhythm Book: Studies in Rhythmic Reading and Principles and Musical expression, accents, nuances, and tempo, in vocal and instrumental music. And just like Beethoven, you can utilize the creation of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel with the Tempi Metronome for Musicians.
Interested in Learning About Music?
Our experts can give you a hand. Take a look at our handy guides on What is Strophic Form In Music, What is Texture In Music, Relative vs Parallel Minor, The Minor Scales, Musical Ornaments, The Scale Degree Names Explained, and What Is The Musical Term For Fast for more useful information.
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What Is The Musical Term For Slow? – Conclusion
As I have already said, the tempo is as important as many of the elements that go into making successful music. But the slower tempos are usually the ones that create the atmosphere and the mood.
In answer to an earlier question, is tempo important? The answer is simple. Very. It can make or break a piece of music or a performance.
Until next time, let your music play.