Time - Tempo

Beginning of Sonata K. 331 by Mozart , with two types of tempo indication . Andante grazioso includes the adjective funny to specify the character. The metronomic indication specifies that 120 eighth notes must be played per minute, that is, 2 per second.

Tempo ( plural , tempi ), movement or air in musical terminology refer to the speed with which a piece of music must be played. It is an Italian word that literally means "time." In the scores of a work the tempo is usually represented at the beginning of the piece above the staff . [ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ] [ 4 ]

Throughout the history of Western music , two ways of indicating tempo have emerged . Until the invention of the metronome , certain words such as andante , allegro , etc. were used . that provided a subjective idea of ​​the speed of the piece [ 3 ] and at the same time provided information about the character or expression that had to be given to the music. The invention of the metronome brought greater precision and gave rise to metronomic indications. [ 4 ]

In modern Western music it is usually indicated in beats per minute ( ppm ), also abbreviated as bpm, from the expression beats per minute in English. This means that a certain figure (for example, a quarter note or eighth note ) is set as a pulse and the indication means that a certain number of beats per minute must be executed. [ 5 ] The higher the tempo , the greater the number of beats per minute that must be played and therefore the faster the piece must be played. Depending on the tempo, the same musical work has a durationmore or less long. Similarly, each musical figure (a black or a white) does not have a specific and fixed duration in seconds, but depends on the tempo .


In Europe , around the first third of the 16th century, Luis de Milan indicated the tempo in his collection of music for vihuela El Maestro , with indications such as "algo apriessa" or "compass in space". In the seventeenth century , the practice spread and composers wanted to leave indications on the score related to the speed at which they wanted their music to be interpreted. These indications have been of various types according to the moments and musical traditions, but there is a moment of important change when in 1812 the metronome was invented , patented by Johann Maelzel in1816.[6]

Regarding the graphic representation of these indications, both the textual and the metronomic ones, they are frequently placed immediately above the staff when it is a single staff score , or the upper staff when it is a piece with several staves. .

Before the invention of the metronome

In classical music , until the invention of the metronome, the usual thing was to describe the tempo of a piece using one or more words, usually adjectives that described the speed of the piece of music and its performance as andante , allegro , etc. Most of these words are Italian during the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries , regardless of the nationality of the author and the place where this music was produced. This was so because many of the most important composers of the seventeenth centurythey were Italian, and this period was when tempo cues were first widely used and encoded. Its use became progressively general throughout Europe throughout the 18th century, especially that of the most common words ( adagio, andante, allegro and presto ).

Sometimes these expressions also provided information about the character or expression to be given to the music. This blurs the traditional distinction between the tempo and character indicators. For example, andante (walker in Italian) gives a certain sense of movement, however allegro is indicative of speed but above all of character. Another example is the case of presto and allegro , both indicate a fast execution being presto faster. For its part, allegro also connotes joy due to its original meaning in Italian; while presto indicates the speed as such. In the expressionAllegro agitato that appears in the last movement of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is an indication of tempo certainly faster than a regular allegro ; but also an indication of character by the adjective agitato ("agitated").

Starting the Wedding March from Wagner , with indication of tempo in German ( Mäßig bewegt : moderately lively)

Especially in the second half of the 18th century, the music preserved in music boxes and musical clocks, and in general in all kinds of gadgets capable of reproducing music mechanically, are a tool of first importance to know the real speeds to which music was played. After the invention of the metronome, they have continued to be used and towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th , with the emergence of nationalisms , their corresponding translations into the languages ​​of the authors who used them tended to be used.

After the invention of the metronome

Traditional metronome.
Digital metronome.

The invention of the metronome with which you could both set the speed to a certain number of beats per minute, as well as hear these beats while playing music, allowed for much greater accuracy than had previously been the case. From that moment on, the author could express which figure (usually black, but also the white or the eighth note, or the dotted black depending on the type of time signature) was the one taken as the unit of measure, which was the equivalent one press. At the same time, an adaptation of the previous system -which did not disappear- to the new one was carried out, establishing, for example, that an errantit corresponded to between 60 and 80 beats per minute. Thus, each of the Italian textual prompts corresponds to a range of metronome numeric prompts.

These kinds of mathematical tempo markings were increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century , once the metronome was invented by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel although the first metronomes were somewhat inconsistent. The first composer to use the metronome was Beethoven, and in 1817 he published metronomic indications for his (then) eight symphonies. Some of these brands are the subject of controversy today, such as his Piano Sonata "Hammerklavier" and his Ninth Symphony , as for many it seems almost impossibly fast. The same is the case with many of Robert Schumann's works . [ 7 ]As an alternative to the metronome prompts, some 20th century composers such as Béla Bartók and John Cage would provide the total playing time of a work, from which the relevant tempo could roughly be deduced .

With the advent of modern electronic music , beats per minute became an extremely accurate measurement. Also, music sequencers use this bpm system to indicate tempo . The tempo is so essential in contemporary music and classical. In electronic dance music , knowing the exact ppm of a song is essential for DJs for beatmatching purposes . In general, over the last few centuries the tempoit has been indicated with an increasing degree of precision by the creators of the music. This does not prevent various elements, among which we can count the technical capacities of the interpreter , the size of the group, the acoustics of the room, etc. may induce to apply tempo criteria not entirely coinciding with those proposed by the author.

Tempo beyond speed

There is a certain relationship between the tempo indications and the time signature used, a holdover from medieval notation . Thus, a 3/2 measure usually designates a slower tempo than a 3/4; while a 3/8 takes us to a faster tempo . A similar relationship is also established between measures 4/4 and 2/2 ( alla breve ). So the beat also becomes a way of providing information about the tempo .

Epstein has pointed out that tempo , however, is not only the result of establishing how many tenths of a second a quarter note lasts but is the result of complex interactions between many elements that come together in a musical work such as thematic work , rhythms , the articulation, respiration, harmonic progressions , tonal movement , contrapuntal activity , etc. The tempo is a reduction of this whole concept of globality speed, [ 8 ] when it is actually much more a concept of movement in the broadest sense of the word. Hence to find theCorrect tempo , the most suitable, is one of the most subtle and most difficult tasks a performer faces .

The tempo understood

In some cases (quite often until the end of the Baroque ), the conventions governing musical composition were so rigid that no tempo had to be specified . For example, the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Bach does not contain indications of tempo and character. When providing the names of the movements, the editors of the recordings resort to ad hoc measures such as marking the Brandenburg movement as Allegro, (Allegro) , (No indication) and so on.

In Renaissance music almost all music was understood to flow at a rhythm defined by the tactus , roughly like the rhythm of the human heartbeat. The figure corresponds to the tactus indicated by the mensural compass.

Often a certain musical form or genre involves its own tempo , so no more detailed explanations are needed in the score. Consequently, musicians expect a minuet to be played at a rather majestic pace, slower than a Viennese waltz ; a perpetuum mobile that is quite fast, and so on. Musical genres can be used to imply certain tempos , which is why Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In Tempo d'un Menuetto" on the first movement of his Piano Sonata op. 54, even though that movement is not a minuet. Popular music charts they use terms like "bossa nova", "ballad" and "Latin rock" in much the same way.

It is important to keep in mind when interpreting these words that the tempos have varied throughout the different stages of history and even in different places, but sometimes even the order of the terms has changed. Thus, a current feature length is slower than an adage , however in the Baroque period it was faster. [ 9 ]

Indication by expressions

By historical convention, dating back centuries, most expressions used to indicate tempo in sheet music are in Italian .

Indicators of a given time

Listed below are various expressions that refer to a given tempo, ordered from slower to higher speed.

  • Larghissimo : extremely slow (less than 20 ppm ); used rarely.
  • Long : very slow (20 ppm).
  • Slow to moderate : (20 - 40ppm).
  • Slow : slow (40 - 60 ppm).
  • Severe : slow and solemn (≈40 ppm).
  • Larghetto : more or less slow (60 - 66 ppm)
  • Adagio : slow and majestic (66 - 76 ppm); for Clementi , the longest movement was not the long one but the adage . [ 10 ]
  • Adagietto : a little less slow than the adage (70 - 80 ppm); little-used.
  • Don't worry : don't worry.
  • Quietly .
  • Affectionate : (72 ppm).
  • Andante : walking , calm, a little lively (76 - 108 bpm).
  • Andante moderato : with a little more speed than the andante (92 - 112 ppm).
  • Andantino : more alive than the moderated andante ; however, for some it means less alive than the errant .
  • Moderate expressive
  • Moderate : moderate (80 - 108 ppm).
  • Graceful allegretto .
  • Allegretto : a little lively; however, in some pieces it is played as allegro and in others as andante .
  • Allegro moderato .
  • Allegro : lively and fast (110 - 168 ppm).
  • Lively : vivaz.
  • Alive : fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo : faster than allegro ; little-used.
  • Presto : very fast (168 - 200 ppm).
  • Vivacissimo : faster than vivace ; little-used.
  • Vivacissimamente: Faster than Vivacissimo .
  • Prestissimo : very fast (more than 200 ppm ).
  • Allegro prestissimo with fuoco : extremely fast (over 240 ppm).

Indicators of a change of time

Gradual increase in speed
Gradual decrease in speed
At the interpreter's will
Returning to the original tempo

Other expressions used

  • Sustauto : holding and neglecting time a bit.
  • Morendo : turn off the sound and slow down .
  • Not too much : no demasiado. (Ejemplo: Cheerful but not too lively)
  • With motorcycle : with movement.
  • Molto : a lot.
  • Little by little : little by little.
  • Tempo di ... : it is accompanied by the name of some type of composition to indicate that it should be played as is common in that genre. For example, "Tempo di Valzer" indicates that the velocity should match that used in most waltzes .
  • Almost : cases.
  • Assai : so much, very, enough or quite.
  • Lo stesso tempo : at the same speed.
  • Right time : at a consistent speed.

Metronomic indication

Metronomic indication. About this sound Play

Almost always, the Italian word for the tempo is accompanied by the metronomic indication . This is an expression that indicates the exact speed most suitable for a piece of music, indicating how many figures of a certain value must be played in a minute (or measure). Thus, the indicationblack= 60 translates into playing a piece at such a speed that sixty quarter notes can fit in one minute. In practice, a device called a metronome is used to achieve this accuracy . The metronomic indication is used to homogenize the determined velocity since, otherwise, there could be different interpretations about how, for example, an allegro should be played . However, it is often placed by the reviewer, so occasionally it does not match the original author's interpretation. This unit is generally used to measure tempo in music as well as heart rate .

The beats per minute indication of a piece of music is conventionally represented on the score as a metronome indication , as illustrated in the image to the right. This indicates that there must be 120 pulses black per minute.

  • In simple or binary subdivision measures , in which each of its beats or beats can be subdivided into halves, the tempo is usually displayed according to the musical figure in the denominator of the measure. Thus, for example, a 4/4 time signature would show a quarter note, while a 2/2 would show a half note .
  • In compound or ternary subdivision bars , in which each of its beats or beats can be subdivided into thirds, so a dotted figure is used . The most common compound bars are 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. For example, in the 6/8 measure there are six eighth notes per measure, so two dotted quarter notes will be used to indicate each bpm in each measure.

Exotic beats and in particular slow measures can indicate their tempo in bpm by other musical figures. The wpm indication became the common terminology in disco music due to its usefulness to DJs and is still important in the same genre and other dance music.

See also



  1. London, Justin: «Tempo». New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, 2001 [1980].
  2. Fallows, David: «Tempo and expression marks». New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, 2001 [1980].
  3. ^ A b Abromont, Claude et al .: Music theory . Economic Culture Fund, 2005, pp. 148-153.
  4. a b Pérez Gutiérrez, Mariano: Dictionary of music and musicians . Akal, 1985, vol. 3 p. 260.
  5. ^ Grabner, Hermann: General Theory of Music . Akal, 2001, pp. 36-39.
  6. Michels, Ulrich: Atlas of Music . Alliance, 2009, vol. 1 p. 67.
  7. Apel, Willi: The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Harvard University Press, 1969, p. 523.
  8. Epstein, David: Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance. Schirmer Books, 1995, p. 99.
  9. «Music Theory Online: Tempo». Dolmetsch Online Music Dictionary.
  10. Fallows, David: «Adagio». New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. Macmillan, 2001 [1980].



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