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What is a Tempo?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tempo is the speed at which music is played. It defines the rhythm and pace of a piece of music, and is often indicated by beats per minute. Beats per minute are measured through a metronome, which is a tool that establishes a pulse to determine different paces of varying speeds. The tempo of a piece may change throughout, and determines the difficulty and mood of the piece. It is thought of in many forms of music as the beat.

Tempo is the Italian word for “movement.” It is usually indicated in one of two different ways at the beginning of a piece of music. One method to indicate tempo is through musical notes or numbers. Each note or number represents a different speed, with different variations for each combination. A 4 over another 4 represents a four four time, which is 88 beats per minutes, or 88 quarter notes per minute.

Tempo can also be indicated through a set of words often used to describe the tempo at the beginning of a piece. These words are generally Italian or Latin, and come from the 17th century Italian composers who were so important to the rise of classical music. These words represent the composer’s idea of how the music should feel. They depend on the genre of music, past performances of the music, the decision to divide the beat into faster notes, and the musician’s interpretation.

Among the tempo terms commonly used are: grave, played slowly and solemnly; adagio, another slow variation; vivace, played lively and briskly; presto, played very fast; moderato, played at a medium speed; and prestissimo, played more quickly than any other, at a very fast pace. These words are often complimented by other Italian words to further instruct the musician on the tempo. These are, among others: piu, for more; meno, for less; and molto, for a lot.

Another complication of tempo is found in altering the speed through markings and changes of pace in the middle of a piece. These changes, like tempo at the beginning of a piece, are instructed through a series of notes or words. The words, though, differ from beginning notes, and include: accelerando, for speeding up; piu mosso, for faster; ritardando, for slowing down; and allargando, for decreasing speed at the end of a piece.

Tempo notes remain consistent throughout the world, while tempo terms can differ around the globe. Though Italian is the standard and used in many countries without Italian speakers, many countries have developed their own language terms. These countries include Germany, Spain, and the United States, each with a strong musical heritage. Tempo terms in English emerged with the birth of jazz, and include some unique terms, includin laid back, steady rock, and ballad.

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Discussion Comments

By robert13 — On May 08, 2011

It's also important to recognize how tempo can inform different styles of music in the modern era, not just classical or jazz. If you consider electronic/dance music, specific subgenres usually stick around the same tempo. The best example of this is the aptly named downtempo. typical club songs are usually around 120-130 beats per minute, while Drum and Bass can be as high as 170 to 180 BPM. Hip Hop on the other hand is usually around 80 to 100 BPM. If you consider these different styles it might help you to get a better understanding of what tempo is.

By softener — On May 06, 2011

Erik Satie, a Romantic period pianist, actually came up with his own poetic ways of describing the tempo of his famous Gnossiennes. Instead of commonly used tempo terms like grave or adagio he distanced himself from these this and instead relied on a kind of descriptive or abstract poetry to describe the tempos of his pieces. For example, he would use phrases like "lightly, with intimacy" or "don't be proud". I think his intention was to allow other pianists to interpret his piano pieces in a more flexible way with fewer restrictions.

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