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In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for "time") is the speed or pace of a given piece. It is an extremely crucial element of sound, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece.
The plural of tempo in Italian is tempi. Some writers employ this plural when writing in English. Others use the native English plural tempos. Standard dictionaries reflect both usages.
The tempo of a piece will typically be written at the start of a piece of music, and in modern music is usually indicated in beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note or crotchet) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute.
Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented, although early metronomes were somewhat inconsistent. Beethoven's metronome markings, in particular, are notoriously unreliable.
With the advent of modern electronics, BPM became an extremely precise measure. MIDI files and other types of sequencing software use the BPM system to denote tempo.
As an alternative to metronome markings, some 20th century composers (such as Béla Bartók and John Cage) would give the total execution time of a piece, from which the proper tempo can be roughly derived.
Musical vocabulary for tempo
Whether a music piece has a mathematical time indication or not, in classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, a result of the fact that many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were used extensively for the first time.
Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. Yet after the metronome's invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece, thus blurring the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, indicates speed as such (while possibly connoting virtuosity, a connotation it did not acquire until the late 18th century).
Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication ("agitated").
In some cases (quite often up to the end of the Baroque period), conventions governing musical composition were so strong that no tempo had to be indicated. For example, the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. To provide movement names, publishers of recordings resort to ad hoc measures, for instance marking the Brandenburg movement "Allegro", "(Allegro)", "(Without indication)", and so on.
In Renaissance music most music was understood to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus, roughly the rate of the human heartbeat. Which note value corresponded to the tactus was indicated by the mensural time signature.
Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so no further explanation is placed in the score. Thus musicians expect a minuet to be performed as a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a Perpetuum Mobile to be quite fast, and so on. The association of tempo with genre means that genres can be used to imply tempos; thus Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, although that movement is not a minuet. Popular music charts use terms such as "bossa nova", "ballad", and "latin rock" in much the same way.
Italian tempo markings
See also Italian musical terms.
Basic tempo markings
The most common Italian tempo markings, in approximate order of speed, are:
- Adagio - very slowly
- Largo - slowly and broadly - ready, wide, broad
- Grave - very slowly and almost solemn - unsmiling, grave, earnest, serious
- Lento - "slow" but usually only moderately so
- Andante - [andare, ~ a corsa] - at a walking pace, go, ride - riding
- Moderato - at a moderate tempo, neither fast nor slow - temperate
- Allegretto - "a little allegro", understood to be not quite as fast as allegro
- Allegro - moderately quickly ("lively, frisky")
- Vivace - very fast, lively and brisk
- Presto - very fast, quickly, swiftly
- Prestissimo - very, very fast (or as fast as possible).
- assai - very, as in Allegro assai (but also understood by some as "enough")
- con brio - with vigor
- 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
- molto - very, as in Molto Allegro or "Adagio Molto"
- poco - slightly, as in Poco Adagio
- più - more, as in Più Allegro; used as a relative indication when the tempo changes
- meno - less, as in Meno Presto
- In addition to the common "Allegretto," composers freely apply Italian diminutive and superlative suffixes to various tempo indications: Andantino, Larghetto, Adagietto, Larghissimo, Prestissimo.
Mood markings with a tempo connotation
Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:
- Vivace - lively (which generally indicates a rather fast movement)
- Maestoso - majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow movement)
- Sostenuto - Sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo.
Terms for change in tempo
Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:
- Accelerando - speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
- Ritardando - delaying (abbreviation: rit., or, better, "ritard.")
- Meno Mosso - less movement or slower
- Più Mosso - more movement or faster
- Rallentando - slowing down, especially near the end of a section (abbreviation: rall.)
- Ritenuto - slightly slower; temporarily holding back. (Note that the abbreviation for ritenuto can also be "rit". Thus a more specific abbreviation is "riten.")
- Stretto - rushing ahead; temporarily speeding up
- Rubato - free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes
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 instrument) 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 control how large and how gradual this change is:
- poco a poco - bit by bit, gradually
- subito - suddenly
- poco - a little
- molto - a lot
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 Primo or Tempo I - denotes an immediate return to the piece's original base tempo after a section in a different tempo (e.g. "Allegro ... Lento ... 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.
Tempo markings in other languages
Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have written tempo indications in their own language.
French tempo markings
Several French composers have written markings in French, among them baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Common tempo markings in French are:
- Grave - slowly and solemnly
- Lent - slowly
- Modéré - at a moderate tempo
- Vif - lively
- Vite - fast
- Très - very, as in Très vif (very lively)
- Moins - less, as in Moins vite (less fast)
German tempo markings
Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:
- Langsam - slowly
- Mäßig - moderately
- Lebhaft - lively (mood)
- Rasch - quickly
- Schnell - fast
One of the first German composers to use tempo markings in his native language was Ludwig van Beethoven. The one using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a folk-dance–like movement, with some vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings.
Tempo markings in English
English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten, amongst many others. In jazz and popular music charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", and similar style indications may appear.
Rushing and dragging
When performers unintentionally speed up, they are said to rush. The similar term for unintentionally slowing down is drag. Both of these actions are undesirable; dragging can often indicate a hesitance in the performer due to lack of practice; rushing can likewise destroy the pulse of the music. Because of their negative connotation, neither rush nor drag (nor their equivalents in other languages) are often used as tempo indications in scores, Mahler being a notable exception: as part of a tempo indication he used schleppend ("dragging") in the first movement of his Symphony No. 1, for example.
Can tempo terms be defined with the metronome?
Most musicians would agree that it is not possible to give beats per minute (BPM) equivalents for these terms; the actual number of beats per minute in a piece marked allegro, for example, will depend on the music itself. A piece consisting mainly of minims (half notes) can be played much more quickly in terms of BPM than a piece consisting mainly of semi-quavers (sixteenth notes) but still be described with the same word.
Metronome manufacturers usually do assign BPM values to the traditional terms, but these values are by no means correct for every piece.
Tempo markings as movement names and compositions with a tempo indicator name
Generally, composers (or music publishers) will name movements of compositions after their tempo (and/or mood) marking. For instance the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an "Adagio".
Some such movements may start to lead a life of their own, and become known with the tempo/mood marker name, for instance the string orchestra version of the second movement of Barber's first string quartet became known as Adagio for Strings. A similar example is Mahler's most famous work - the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5. Another is Mozart's Alla Turca (here indicating the Janissary music type of mood of the final movement of Mozart's 11th Piano Sonata, K. 331)
Sometimes the link between a musical composition with a "tempo" name and a separate movement of a composition is less clear. For instance Albinoni's Adagio, a 20th century creative "reconstruction" based on an incomplete manuscript.
Some composers chose to include tempo indicators in the name of a separate composition, for instance Bartók in Allegro barbaro ("barbaric Allegro"), a single movement composition.
- Research group specializing in rhythm, timing, and tempo, University of Amsterdam
- Tempo indications in Mozart's music
- Tempo Terminology, Virginia Tech department of music
- Tempo variation among 300+ recorded performances of Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony