What Is Tempo in Music and the Words That Set Tempo?

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Tempo is an Italian word at the beginning of a piece of music that indicates how slow or fast the music should be played in order to convey a feeling or set the mood. Think of tempo as the speed of the music. Tempo comes from the Latin word tempus meaning "time." Once set, the tempo is effective throughout the duration of the music unless the composer indicates otherwise.

Tempo is usually measured in beats per minute. A slower tempo has fewer beats per minute or BPM. Conversely, a faster tempo has more BPMs.

One of the slowest tempos is grave, which as the name suggests, sets a solemn mood. It is in the 20-40 BPM range. On the opposite end of the tempo scale is prestissimo, which indicates the music should be played incredibly fast, at 178-208 BPM.

The tempo markings are the composer's way of letting the musician know how to play a passage or the entire piece to create the mood intended. Sostenuto, for example, indicates the notes should be sustained, or played just a bit longer than their values indicate, giving emphasis to the indicated passage.

Modifiers and Mood Markers

Tempo markings are refined by modifiers and mood markers. The composer adds modifiers to the tempo markings to indicate how fast or slow the piece should be played. For example, allegro is a very common tempo that means "fast and lively." If the composer wants to ensure the musician doesn't get carried away with the tempo, he might add non troppo, which means "not too much." The tempo, therefore, becomes allegro non troppo. Other examples of modifiers include: meno (less), piu (more), quasi (almost), and subito (suddenly). 

Mood markers, as the name suggests, indicate the mood the composer wants to convey. For example, if the composer wants the music to be both fast and furious, he would write allegro furioso as the tempo. Other examples of mood markers include appassionato (passionately), animato (animated or lively), dolce (sweetly), lacrimoso (sadly), and maestoso (majestically).

Here are the most common tempo marks used in music:

Words Used to Signify Tempo
Word Definition
accelerando play faster
adagio play slowly
allargando slow down and grow louder
allegretto moderately fast, merrily
allegro play fast and lively
andante play moderately slow
andantino moving moderately
a tempo play at the original speed
conmodo leisurely
con moto with movement
grave very, very slow
largo play very slow
larghetto fairly slow
l'istesso tempo play at the same speed
moderato play at a moderate speed
non troppo not too fast
poco a poco gradually
presto play fast and lively
prestissimo extremely fast
ritardando play gradually slower
ritenuto play slower
sostenuto sustained
vivace lively

History of Tempo

In the 1600s, musical composers began using tempo markings to indicate how they envisioned the musicians should play the passages. Prior to then, the composer had no way of letting the musicians know what he had in mind for tempo.