Music Theory

What is Tempo in Music?

By Jesse Preis
What is tempo in music? Definition & examples.

Have you ever wondered “What is tempo in music?” or “Why is tempo in music important?” In this article, we are going to define tempo, give examples of different types of tempi (plural for tempo), and help you utilize them in your own music making!

What is tempo in music, and how do you explain it?

Tempo is the Italian word for the speed of a song or piece of music. Italian words are most commonly used to indicate tempo, but sometimes you may see tempi written with English, French, or German words.

Why is tempo in music important?

Tempo is important because a song or piece of music won’t sound like you expect it to without the proper speed. Can you imagine the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven played super quickly or the “Maple Leaf Rag” by Joplin played extremely slowly? They wouldn’t sound quite right, would they?

How do you measure tempo in music?

Tempo is measured by beats per minute (or BPM), so a moderato tempo (moderate pace) is measured as 80-100 beats per minute. Every tempo marking has a relative range that it fits with, so some moderato tempi may be faster or slower than others. Nowadays, music is often written with the BPM indicated along with the Italian (or other language) tempo direction.

What are tempo markings in music?

Here is a list of the most common Italian tempo markings along with their beat per minute (BPM) equivalents and some examples of pieces that use these markings:

  • Larghissimo: extremely slow (24- BPM) 
  • Grave: very slow and solemn (25-45 BPM) 

– the beginning of the 1st movement of the “Pathetique” Sonata, Op. 13 by Beethoven

  • Largo: slow and broad (40-60 BPM)
  • Adagio: slow, with great expression (60-70 BPM)
  • Andante: at a walking pace (70-80 BPM) 

“Clair de lune” by Claude Debussy

  • Moderato: moderate pace (80-100 BPM) 

“Walking the Dog” by George Gershwin

  • Allegretto: medium fast (100-110 BPM) 
  • Allegro: fast, quick, and bright (120-156 BPM)

1st movement of Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 by Mozart

  • Vivace: lively and fast (156-168 BPM)
  • Presto: very fast (168-200 BPM) 

– 3rd movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 no. 2 

  • Prestissimo: very, very fast (200+ BPM) 

– 4th movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2 no. 1

By attaching one of the following words, the composer can indicate variation, including a quicker or slower speed:

  • Molto: very
  • Meno: less
  • Più: more
  • Poco: a little
  • Subito: suddenly
  • Con moto: with motion
  • Con brio: with fire
  • Maestoso: majestically
  • Con grazia: gracefully

The tempo can change in the middle of a piece as well! Some of these indications that you may see can include:

  • Ritardando: gradually slow down
  • Accelerando: gradually speed up
  • A tempo: return to original tempo
  • Rallentando: gradually slow down, but plan to return to original speed
  • Stringendo: “tightening” and speeding up
  • Stretto: in a faster time
  • Meno moto: less motion
  • Meno mosso: less movement
  • Più mosso: more movement
  • Rubato: “stolen” tempo, or freer tempo used for expression

How can I practice the tempo markings in my music?

You can practice getting the right tempo at home by investing in and using a metronome. If you prefer an old fashioned metronome, you can buy one online or at a music store. You can also download a free metronome app on your phone or iPad, such as the Metronome Beats App.  

When you practice with a metronome, set it to the correct metronome marking first. For an example: if you are practicing at moderato, set it to 1 click (beat) = 80 to 100. If you are using an app, you may be able to indicate the time signature you are practicing with as well, by setting the clicks to four, three, or two beats per measure. This way, the first beat of each measure will sound a little different than the others, which makes it easier to feel the beat and play along. Certain physical metronomes can do this as well. 

Now, make sure that you feel the beat that you want to practice in your body before playing. To do this, you can tap along with the metronome on the piano lid, pat the beat on your knee or chest, or even dance around the room to the beat! Once you have felt the beat, you can play along with the metronome. Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t play perfectly with the metronome the first time. If it feels impossible to play at the correct speed, slow the metronome down to a comfortable speed and practice playing it faster as you become more comfortable. Give yourself time to learn the music first! Another thing to remember is to master playing smaller groups of measures at the desired speed before going on to longer phrases or the full piece. Have fun and be patient! This takes time and consistent practice.

Now that you know what tempo in music is, why it’s so important, and how to practice playing at the correct speed, I hope you have a lot of fun practicing and playing music in your own home! 

If you are interested in learning more about music, try out Hoffman Academy by clicking here!

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