Common Tempo Markings In Music

how to read time signatures in music

Andrew Swinney

10/09/2020

What is a tempo marking?

A tempo marking lets you know the speed (called tempo) at which the composer wants a piece of music performed. Tempo markings are usually written as a word that corresponds with a number, which you will see below, or in beats per minute (bpm). For example, Allegro means fast and is a tempo between 120 bpm and 168 bpm. The composer could write Allegro or 120bpm. Notice that I wrote "between 120 and 168 beats per minute," as it is very common for tempo markings to encompass a range. The musician or conductor is free to choose where in this range the piece is performed.

If the tempo is written just as beats per minute, the composer will show you which note value is receiving the beat. For example, in common time, the quarter note received the beat. Composers would notate the tempo as Quarter note = 120bpm.

You'll see tempo markings most often written in Italian. Here is a list of common tempo markings and their metronome mark range. You'll notice that many of the words end with -issimo or -etto. -issimo means "extremely" and -etto meaning a "lesser version" of. A great example of this is with Largo (slow); Larghissimo is extremely slow and Larghetto is less slow (or faster) than Largo.

Italian Tempo Marking

Slow Tempo Markings

Tempo Marking Translation Beats Per Minute
Larghissimo Very, very slow 20 bpm or slower
Solenne/Grave Slow and solemn 20 - 40 bpm
Lento Slowly 40 - 60 bpm
Lentissimo At a very slow tempo 48 bpm or slower
Largo Broadly 40 - 60 bpm
Larghetto Rather broadly 60 - 66 bpm
Adagio At ease, slow and stately 66 - 76 bpm
Adagietto Rather slow 70 - 80 bpm
Tranquillo Tranquil, calmly, or peaceful 80 bpm
Andante moderato A bit slower than Andante 92 - 98 bpm

Moderate Tempo Markings

Tempo Marking Translation Beats Per Minute
Andante At a walking pace, moderately slow 72 - 76 bpm
Andantino Slighlty faster and more light hearted than Andante 73 - 83 bpm
Moderato Moderately 108 - 120 bpm
Allegretto Moderately fast, but less than allegro 100 - 128 bpm

Fast Tempo Markings

Tempo Marking Translation Beats Per Minute
Allegro moderato Moderately quick, almost Allegro 116 - 120 bpm
Allegro Fast, quickly and bright 120 - 156 bpm
Vivace Briskly, Lively and fast 156 - 176 bpm
Vivacissimo Very fast and lively, faster than Vivace 172 - 176 bpm
Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace Very Fast 172 - 176
Presto Very, very fast 168 - 200 bpm
Prestissimo Faster than Presto 200+ bpm

Sometimes you will see the tempo written in the native language of the composer (typically French, German, or English).

French Tempo Markings

  • Au mouvement - play the original or main tempo
  • Grave - slowly and solemnly
  • Largement - slowly
  • Lento - slowly
  • Modere - moderate tempo
  • Rapide - fast
  • Vif - lively
  • Vite - fast

These two words are modifiers for tempos. You'll see them before the tempos defined above.
Moins - less Tres - very
Take the tempo marking of vif, which means lively. Tres vif would mean very lively. Moins vif would mean less lively.

German Tempo Markings

  • Kraftig - vigorous or powerful
  • Langsam - slowly
  • etwas breit
  • Lebhaft - lively (mood)
  • MaBig - moderately
  • Rasch - quickly
  • Schnell - fast
  • Bewegt - animated, with motion

Terms for Changes in Tempo

Tempos will usually vary during a piece of music. This can happen gradually or all of a sudden. Here are some musical terms you might see that indicate a change in tempo:

  • Accelerando - gradual speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
  • Allargando - growing broader or decreasing in tempo
  • Calando - going slower (and usually also softer)
  • Doppio movimento / doppio piu mosso - double-speed
  • Doppio piu lento - half-speed
  • Lentando - gradually slowing, and softer
  • Meno mosso - less movement; slower
  • Meno moto - less motion
  • Piu mosso - more movement; faster
  • Mosso - movement, more lively; quicker, much like piu mosso, but not as extreme
  • Precipitando - hurrying; going faster/forward
  • Rallentando (often written as rall.) - a gradual slowing down
  • Ritardando (often written as rit.) - gradual slowing down
  • Ritenuto - slightly slower, but achieved more immediately
  • Rubato - free adjustment of (slowing) the tempo for expressive purpose
  • Stringendo - pressing on faster, literally "tightening"
  • Tardando - slowing down gradually (same as ritardando)
  • Tempo Giusto - very strict tempo
  • Tempo Primo - resume the original tempo