What is tempo marking and its importance explained 2023

In order to learn a piece of music, we need to take into account a number of factors. The piece should be loud, the beats should be counted, and the notes should be articulated. A piece of music’s character is strongly influenced by its speed, one of the most important factors. 

Western classical, jazz, and pop music call the speed of a piece the tempo in music, and we use a variety of terms to communicate what the tempo should be. Other terms describe speed as an approximate range of beats per minute (bpm), while others state speed as a specific number. Expressions of tempo can also take the form of expressive descriptions.

A common tempo term, allegro, means “cheerful” or “lively,” which, while not explicitly defining speed, implies the piece should be taken quickly. Due to centuries of performance and composition practices, performers today have a fairly specific idea of an allegro speed. 

We’ll examine some of the most common methods for describing the tempo of music in this article. In this section, we’ll explain how and why they work.

What is Tempo Marking?

A tempo marking indicates when a piece of music should be played at a certain speed (called tempo). In tempo markings, there is usually a word that corresponds to a number, as shown below, or a beat per minute (bpm) value. In music, Allegro means fast, which is a tempo between 120 bpm and 168 bpm. It is possible for the composer to write Allegro or 120bpm. Tempo markings typically encompass a range between 120 and 168 beats per minute, which is very common in tempo markings. There is no restriction on where in this range a piece should be performed by a musician or conductor.

The composer will show you the note value that is receiving the beat if the tempo is written as beats per minute. Common time, for example, gave the beat to the quarter note. The tempo is normally notated as 120 bpm for quarter notes.

It is most common to see tempo markings written in Italian. These are some of the most common metronome mark ranges and tempo markings. There are a lot of words with -issimo or -etto at the end. -issimo means “extremely” and -etto meaning a “lesser version” of. As an example, Largo (slow) is extremely slow; Larghissimo is faster, while Larghetto is slower.

Where to Find Tempo Markings

In musical notation, tempo markings can be found anywhere speed needs to be changed or established. Tempo markings are most commonly found at the beginning of a piece, above the time signature and key signature:

The tempo markings for changing tempos are placed either next to the notes they’re changing on a single staff (usually above) or on the grand staff for piano music:

The speed of the piece can also be indicated by different tempo markings throughout the piece. An accelerando or ritardando might land in a new established tempo, which needs to be marked accordingly:

Similarly, tempo markings can be used to signal a return to the original tempo after speeding up or slowing down:

It is possible to use a brief pause in tempo as an expressive or practical tool. There is a common way to indicate a pause in tempo on a beat called a fermata, which is a symbol:

Several guidelines exist for how long a fermata should last, but in general the length is determined by the value of the note and the conductor’s preference.

Classifying Tempo Types With Tempo Markings

In addition to tempo markings, tempos can also be classified within specified ranges. Tempo markings are usually accompanied by a word in Italian, German, French, or English, which helps to indicate speed and mood.

These are some of the more traditional tempo indications, but keep in mind that different tempo expressions can be mixed and matched. The compositions of Gustav Mahler are a great example of classical music. To create a more descriptive direction, this composer sometimes combined German and Italian tempo markings.

Music is a universal language, so it’s important to understand each of these terms so you can play a piece the way it was intended with a speedy tempo execution.

Italian Tempo Markings

It’s important to note that some of the traditional Italian tempo markings correspond to a specific range. Music Tempo refers to the quality of the tempo rather than a set speed in other musical terms. It’s important to keep in mind that tempo markings music can refer not only to ranges, but also to the overall quality of the tempo.

Slow Tempo Markings

Tempo MarkingTranslation
LarghissimoVery, very slow
Solenne/GraveSlow and solemn
LentissimoAt a very slow tempo
LarghettoRather broadly
AdagioAt ease, slow and stately
AdagiettoRather slow
TranquilloTranquil, calmly, or peaceful
Andante moderatoA bit slower than Andante

Moderate Tempo Markings

Tempo MarkingTranslation
AndanteAt a walking pace, moderately slow
AndantinoSlighlty faster and more light-hearted than Andante
AllegrettoModerately fast, but less than allegro

Fast Tempo Markings

Tempo MarkingTranslation
Allegro moderatoModerately quick, almost Allegro
AllegroFast, quickly and bright
VivaceBriskly, Lively and fast
VivacissimoVery fast and lively, faster than Vivace
Allegrissimo or Allegro vivaceVery Fast
PrestoVery, very fast
PrestissimoFaster than Presto

Sometimes the composer will write the tempo in his or her native language (usually French, German, or English).

French Tempo Markings

Tempo Translation
Au mouvementplay the original or main tempo
Grave slowly and solemnly
Largement slowly
Lento slowly
Moderemoderate tempo
Vif  lively
Vite lively

German Tempo Markings

Tempo Translation
Kraftigvigorous or powerful
etwas breit lively
Lebhaftlively (mood)
Schnell fast
Bewegt animated, with motion

Additional Terms

Tempo Translation
A PicareAt pleasure
AgitatoIn an agitated manner
Con MotoWith movement
Assai Very much
Energico With energy
L’istessoAt the same speed
Ma non troppoNot too much
MarciaIn the style of a march
MenoLess quickly
Mosso Animated rapid
PocoA little
Tempo comodoAt a comfortable speed
Tempo DiAt the speed of
Tempo Giusto At a consistent speed
Tempo Semplice Regular speed

For more information watch the video

Video credit: Mikayla Feldman

Ending Lines

When practicing music, students make the mistake of setting their metronome to the tempo marking and playing it. Using a metronome at a slower speed might work if the passage is simple (but then why are you practicing it? ), but a better approach is to slow the metronome by at least 20 bpm.

Play the passage at this slower tempo and see if you can play it perfectly. Play it through again after increasing the tempo by 2 to 4 BPM. The passage can be played perfectly 12 BPM faster than the tempo marking in the music by repeating this process. Playing through it confidently during a performance will require dexterity.