Measuring Music Tempo ~ How fast is fast?

Music tempo is important to a practicing musician because although they are all relative, they give you some idea about how fast you are to play a piece. The best bands I play with hand out set lists that include meter markings. Practicing effectively is easier if you know how fast a conductor wishes to play a piece. As Beats per minute (BPM) is a unit typically used as a measure of tempo in music, we’ll use them to help us figure this out. I’m assuming that any really serious musician has a metronome. (I recommend the Dr. Beat metronomes.)

Basic tempo markings

All of these markings are based on a few root words. By adding an -issimo ending the word is amplified/made louder, by adding an -ino ending the word is diminished/made softer, and by adding an -etto ending the word is endeared. The metronome marks are broad approximations. Note: Metronome markings are a guide only and depending on the time signature and the piece itself, these figures may not be appropriate in every circumstance. 

  • Larghissimo— very, very slow (20 bpm and below)
  • Grave— slow and solemn (20-40 bpm)
  • Lento— slowly (40–60 bpm)
  • Largo— broadly (40–60 bpm)
  • Larghetto— rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
  • Adagio— slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (66–76 bpm)
  • Adagietto— rather slow (70–80 bpm)
  • Andante— at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
  • Andante Moderato — a bit faster than andante
  • Andantino– slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato— moderately (101-110 bpm)
  • Allegretto— moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato— moderately quick (112–124 bpm)
  • Allegro— fast, quickly and bright (120–139 bpm)
  • Vivace— lively and fast (˜140 bpm) (quicker than allegro)
  • Vivacissimo— very fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo— very fast
  • Presto— very fast (168–200 bpm)
  • Prestissimo— extremely fast (more than 200bpm)

Additional Terms:

  • A piacere— the performer may use his own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally “at pleasure”[3]
  • L’istesso tempo— at the same speed
  • Tempo comodo— at a comfortable (normal) speed
  • Tempo di…— the speed of a … (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march))
  • Tempo giusto— at a consistent speed, at the ‘right’ speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo semplice— simple, regular speed, plainly

Common qualifiers

  • alla— in the manner or style of, as in:
    • alla breve— in short style, i.e., duple time, with the half note (minim) rather than the quarter note (crotchet) as the beat; cut time; 2/2 instead of 4/4; often marked as a semicircle with a vertical line through it.
    • alla marcia— in the manner of a march (e.g., Beethoven, op. 101)
    • all’ ongarese— in Hungarian style
    • alla (danza) tedesca— in the style of the Ländler (ca. 1800), and similar dances in rather quick triple meter (see Beethoven, 79. op 130
    • alla turca— in the Turkish style, that is, in imitation of Turkish military music (Janizary music), which became popular in Europe in the late 18th century (e.g., Mozart, K. 331, K. 384)
    • alla zingarese— in the style of Gypsy music
  • assai— much, as in allegro assai, quite fast
  • ben— well, as in ben marcato (well marked or accented)
  • con bravura— with skill
  • con brio— with vigor and spirit
  • con fuoco— with fire
  • con moto— with motion
  • deciso— decidedly, decisively
  • fugato— in fugal style, usually part of a non-fugal composition; such passages often occur in the development sections of symphonies, sonatas, and quartets
  • in modo— in the manner of, in the style of: in modo napolitano (in Neapolitan style),in modo di marcia funebre (in the manner of a funeral march)
  • meno— less, as in meno mosso (less quickly)
  • mena— almost none, as in mena forte (almost not at all loud)
  • misterioso— mysterious
  • molto— much, very, as in molto allegro (very quick) or molto adagio (very slow)
  • non troppo— not too much, e.g. allegro non troppo (or allegro ma non troppo) means “fast, but not too much”
  • non tanto— not so much
  • più— more, as in più allegro (more quickly); used as a relative indication when the tempo changes
  • piuttosto— rather, as in piuttosto allegro (rather quick)
  • poco— slightly, little, as in Poco adagio
  • poco a poco— little by little
  • polacca— generic name for Polish dances, usually the polonaise, as in tempo di polacca; note, however, that the “Polacca” in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 shows little resemblance to the polonaise
  • primo— principal or early, as in tempo primo, the same tempo as at the beginning
  • quasi— almost, nearly, as if (such as Più allegro quasi presto, “faster, as if presto”)
  • senza— without, as in senza interruzione (without interruption or pause), senza tempo or senza misura (without strict measure)
  • sostenuto– sustained, prolonged
  • subito— suddenly

Note: In addition to the common allegretto, composers freely apply Italian diminutive and superlative suffixes to various tempo indications:  andantino, larghetto, adagietto,and larghissimo.


Mood markings with a tempo connotation

Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:

  • Affettuoso— with feeling/emotion
  • Agitato— agitated, with implied quickness
  • Appassionato— to play passionately
  • Animato— animatedly, lively
  • Brillante— sparkling, glittering, as in Allegro brillanteRondo brillante, or Variations brillantes; became fashionable in titles for virtuoso pieces
  • Cantabile— in singing style (lyrical and flowing)
  • Dolce— sweetly
  • Energico— energetic, strong, forceful
  • Eroico— heroically
  • Espressivo— expressively
  • Furioso— to play in an angry or furious manner
  • Giocoso— merrily, funny
  • Gioioso— joyfully
  • Lacrimoso— tearfully, sadly
  • Grandioso— magnificently, grandly
  • Grazioso— gracefully
  • Leggiero— to play lightly, or with light touch
  • Maestoso— majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow march-like movement)
  • Malincònico— melancholic
  • Marcato— marching tempo, marked with emphasis
  • Marziale— in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases
  • Mèsto— sad, mournful
  • Morendo— dying
  • Nobilmente— nobly (in a noble way)
  • Patètico— with great emotion
  • Pesante— heavily
  • Sautillé/ Saltando— jumpy, fast, and short
  • Scherzando— playfully
  • Sostenuto— sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo
  • Spiccato— slow sautillé, with a bouncy manner
  • Teneroso— tenderness
  • Tranquillamente— adverb of tranquillo, “calmly”
  • Trionfante— triumphantly
  • Vivace— lively and fast, over 140 bpm (which generally indicates a fast movement)

Terms for change in tempo

Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:

  • Accelerando— speeding up (abbreviation: )
  • Allargando— growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece
  • Calando— going slower (and usually also softer)
  • Doppio movimento— double speed
  • Meno mosso— less movement or slower
  • Mosso— movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme
  • Più mosso— more movement or faster
  • Precipitando— hurrying, going faster/forward
  • Rallentando— gradual slowing down (abbreviation: )
  • Ritardando— less gradual slowing down (more sudden decrease in tempo than rallentando)(abbreviation:  or more specifically, ritard.)
  • Ritenuto— slightly slower; temporarily holding back. (Note that the abbreviation for ritenuto can also be  Thus a more specific abbreviation is riten. Also sometimesritenuto does not reflect a tempo change but a character change instead.)
  • Rubato— free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes
  • Stretto— in faster tempo, often near the conclusion of a section. (Note that in fugal compositions, the term stretto refers to the imitation of the subject in close succession, before the subject is completed, and as such, suitable for the close of the fugue. Used in this context, the term is not necessarily related to tempo.)
  • Stringendo— pressing on faster

While the base tempo indication (such as allegro) appears in large type above the staff, these 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., assaimoltopoco,subito, control how large and how gradual a change should be.

After a tempo change, a composer may return to a previous tempo in two different ways:

  • a tempo– returns to the base tempo after an adjustment (e.g. “ritardando … a tempo” undoes the effect of the ritardando).
  • Tempo primoor Tempo I – denotes an immediate return to the piece’s original base tempo after a section in a different tempo (e.g. “Allegro … Lento … Moderato …. Tempo I” indicates a return to the Allegro). This indication often functions as a structural marker in pieces in binary form.

These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers typically use them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.



Books on tempo in music:

  • Epstein, David (1995). Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028733207.
  • Marty, Jean-Pierre (1988). The tempo indications of Mozart. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300038526.
  • Sachs, Curt (1953). Rhythm and Tempo: A Study in Music History. New York: Norton. OCLC 391538.

Music Dictionaries:

  • Apel, Willi, ed., Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. ISBN 9780674375017
  • Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. NewYork: Grove’s Dictionaries. ISBN 1561592390.