For other uses, see Tempo (disambiguation).
"Beats per minute" redirects here. It is not to be confused with Beats Per Minute (website).

In musical terminology, tempo [ˈtɛmpo] ("time" in Italian; plural: tempi [ˈtɛmpi]) is the speed or pace of a given piece or subsection thereof, how fast or slow. Tempo is related to meter and is usually measured by beats per minute, with the beats being a division of the measures, though tempo is often indicated by terms which have acquired standard ranges of beats per minute or assumed by convention without indication. Tempo may be separated from articulation, or articulation may be indicated along with tempo, and tempo contributes to the overall texture. While the ability to hold a steady tempo is a desirable skill, tempo is changeable, and often indicated by a conductor or drummer. While practicing, an electronic or mechanical device, a metronome, may indicate the tempo, as one usually works one's way up to being able to perform at the proper tempo. In other words it is the speed at which a passage of music is or should be played.

Measuring tempo

Electronic metronome, Wittner model

A piece of music's tempo is typically written at the start of the score, and in modern Western music is usually indicated in beats per minute (bpm). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note, or crotchet) is specified as the beat, and that the amount of time between successive beats is a specified fraction of a minute. The greater the number of beats per minute, the smaller the amount of time between successive beats, and thus faster a piece must be played. For example, a tempo of 60 beats per minute signifies one beat per second, while a tempo of 120 beats per minute is twice as rapid, signifying one beat every 0.5 seconds. Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, although early metronomes were somewhat inconsistent. Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome; in the 1810s he published metronomic indications for the eight symphonies he had composed up to that time.[1]

With the advent of modern electronics, bpm became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the bpm system to denote tempo.

Instead of beats per minute, some 20th-century composers (e.g., Béla Bartók, Alberto Ginastera, and John Cage) specify the total playing time for a piece, from which the performer can derive tempo.

Tempo is as crucial in contemporary music as it is in classical. In electronic dance music, accurate knowledge of a tune's bpm is important to DJs for the purposes of beatmatching.

Musical vocabulary for tempo

Some musical pieces do not have a mathematical time indication. In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively and codified.[2]

Before the metronome, it was difficult to specify the tempo of a composition; attempts were made using pendulums or the human pulse.[3] Yet, after the metronome's invention, musicians continued to use these words, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece. This blurred the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, simply indicates speed. Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication ("agitated").

Understood tempo

In some cases (quite often up to the end of the Baroque period), the conventions that governed musical composition were so strong that composers didn't need to indicate tempo. For example, the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. To provide movement names, publishers of recordings resort to ad hoc measures, for instance marking the Brandenburg movement "Allegro", "(Allegro)", "(Without indication)", and so on.

In Renaissance music, performers understood most music to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus (roughly the rate of the human heartbeat).[4] The mensural time signature indicated which note value corresponded to the tactus.

Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so composers need place no further explanation in the score. Thus, musicians expect a minuet to be at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a perpetuum mobile quite fast, and so on. Genres imply tempos. Thus, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, though that movement is not a minuet. Popular music charts use terms such as bossa nova, ballad, and Latin rock in much the same way.

Note that not only did tempos change over historical time and even in different places, but sometimes even the ordering of terms changed. For example, a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster.[5]

Beats per minute

A bpm of 120

Beats per minute (bpm) is a unit typically used as a measure of tempo in music and heart rate. The bpm tempo of a piece of music is conventionally shown in its score as a metronome mark, as illustrated to the right. This indicates that every one minute there should be 120 beats (or crotchets). In simple time signatures, it is conventional to show the tempo in terms of the note duration on the bottom. So a 4
would show a crotchet (or quarter note), as shown to the right, while a 2
would show a minim (or half note).

In compound time signatures, the beat consists of three note durations (so there are 3 quavers (eighth notes) per beat in a 6
time signature), so a dotted form of the next note duration up is used. The most common compound signatures: 6
, 9
, and 12
, therefore use a dotted quarter note to indicate their bpm.

Exotic time and particularly slow time signatures may indicate their bpm tempo using other note durations. bpm became common terminology in disco because of its usefulness to DJs, and remain important in the same genre and other dance music.

120 bpm tempo
120 bpm tempo

Problems playing this file? See media help.

In this context the beats measured are either quarter notes in the time signature (sometimes ambiguously called down-beats), or drum beats (typically bass-drum or another functionally similar synthesized sound), whichever is more frequent. Higher bpm values are therefore achievable by increasing the number of drum beats, without increasing the tempo of the music. House music is faster around 120–128 bpm (from regular house music to UK garage), trance music ranges from 125 to 150 bpm,[6] and drum and bass generally ranges between 150–180 bpm. Psytrance is almost exclusively produced at 145 bpm, whereas Gabber can exceed 180–220 bpm. Speedcore can exceed 200 -1000+ bpm.

Extreme tempos

More extreme tempos are achievable at the same underlying tempo with very fast drum patterns, often expressed as drum rolls. Such compositions often exhibit a much slower underlying tempo, but may increase the tempo by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempos. The use of extreme tempo was very common in the fast bebop jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. A common jazz tune such as "Cherokee" was often performed at quarter note equal to or sometimes exceeding 368 bpm. Some of Charlie Parker's famous tunes ("Bebop", "Shaw Nuff") have been performed at 380 bpm plus. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was performed at 374 bpm.


Main article: Beatmatching

Beat-matching is a technique DJs use that involves speeding up or slowing down a record to match the tempo of a previous track so both can be seamlessly mixed.

DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict bpm value suggested by the kick drum, particularly when dealing with high tempo tracks. A 240 bpm track, for example, matches the beat of a 120 bpm track without slowing down or speeding up, because both have an underlying tempo of 120 quarter notes per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75–90 bpm) mixes well with a drum and bass beat (from 150–185 bpm).

When speeding up or slowing down a record on a turntable, the pitch and tempo of a track are linked: spinning a disc 10% faster makes both pitch and tempo 10% higher. Software processing to change the pitch without changing the tempo, or vice versa, is called time-stretching or pitch-shifting. While it works fairly well for small adjustments (± 20%), the result can be noisy and unmusical for larger changes.

Measures per minute

The speed of a piece of music can also be gauged according to measures per minute (mpm) or bars per minute, the number of measures of the piece performed in one minute. This measure is commonly used in ballroom dance music.

Italian tempo markings

"Andante" redirects here. For other uses, see Andante (disambiguation).
"Vivace" redirects here. For other uses, see Vivace (disambiguation).

The definitions of the Italian tempo markings mentioned in this section can be found in the Harvard Dictionary of Music and/or the online Italian-English dictionary, both of which are listed in Sources.

Basic tempo markings

By adding an -issimo ending, the word is amplified. By adding an -ino or -etto ending, the word is diminished. The beats per minute (bpm) values are rough approximations.

From slowest to fastest:

Terms for tempo change:

Additional terms

Common qualifiers

Note: In addition to the common allegretto, composers freely apply Italian diminutive and superlative suffixes to various tempo indications: andantino, larghetto, adagietto, and larghissimo.

Mood markings with a tempo connotation

Some markings that primarily mark a mood (or character) also have a tempo connotation:

Terms for change in tempo

Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:

While the base tempo indication (such as allegro) appears in large type above the staff, these adjustments typically appear below the staff or (in the case of keyboard instruments) in the middle of the grand staff.

They generally designate a gradual change in tempo; for immediate tempo shifts, composers normally just provide the designation for the new tempo. (Note, however, that when Più mosso or Meno mosso appears in large type above the staff, it functions as a new tempo, and thus implies an immediate change.) Several terms, e.g., assai, molto, poco, subito, control how large and how gradual a change should be (see common qualifiers).

After a tempo change, a composer may return to a previous tempo in two different ways:

These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers typically use them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.

Tempo markings in other languages

Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have written tempo indications in their own language. This section lists tempo markings from in the Harvard Dictionary of Music or the online foreign language dictionaries listed in Sources.

French tempo markings

Several composers have written markings in French, among them baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel and Alexander Scriabin. Common tempo markings in French are:

Erik Satie was known to write extensive tempo (and character) markings by defining them in a poetical and literal way, as in his Gnossiennes.[29]

German tempo markings

Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:

One of the first German composers to use tempo markings in his native language was Ludwig van Beethoven. The one using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a slowish folk-dance-like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his sixth symphony, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig (Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous[31]).

English tempo markings

English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, among many others. In jazz and popular music charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", "brisk", "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear.

Tom Lehrer's anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, uses fake English tempo markings to humorous effect. For example, Lehrer specifies that the song National Brotherhood Week should be played "fraternally," We Will All Go Together be played "eschatologically," and Masochism Tango be played "painstakingly."

Tempo markings as movement names and compositions with a tempo indicator name

Often, composers (or music publishers) name movements of compositions after their tempo (or mood) marking. For instance, the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an Adagio.[32]

Some such movements may start to lead a life of their own, and become known with the tempo/mood marker name, for instance the string orchestra version of the second movement of Barber's first string quartet became known as Adagio for Strings. A similar example is the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Sometimes the link between a musical composition with a "tempo" name and a separate movement of a composition is less clear. For instance, Albinoni's Adagio is a 20th-century creative "reconstruction" based on an incomplete manuscript.

Some composers chose to include tempo indicators in the name of a separate composition, for instance Bartók in Allegro barbaro ("barbaric Allegro"), a single movement composition.

See also


  1. Some of these markings are today contentious, such as those on his "Hammerklavier" Sonata and Ninth Symphony, seeming to many to be almost impossibly fast, as is also the case for many of the works of Schumann. See "metronome" entry in Apel (1969), p. 523.
  2. Randel, D., ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1986, Tempo
  3. Randel, ed., 1986, Metronome
  4. Haar, James. The Science and Art of Renaissance Music. Princeton University Press. p. 408. ISBN 1-40-086471-2.
  5. music theory online: tempo, Dolmetsch.com
  6. Snoman (2009), p. 251.
  7. American Symphony Orchestra League (1998). Journal of the Conductors' Guild, Vols. 18–19. Viena: The League. p. 27. ISSN 0734-1032
  8. William E. Caplin; James Hepokoski; James Webster (2010). Musical Form, Forms & Formenlehre: Three Methodological Reflections. Leuven University Press. p. 80. ISBN 905-867-822-9.
  9. Apel (1969), p. 42; for the literal translation see the online Italian–English dictionary at WordReference.com.
  10. "Istesso tempo" entry in Sadie (2001).
  11. For a modern example of L'istesso, see measures 4 and 130 of Star Wars: Main Title, Williams (1997), pp. 3 and 30.
  12. Apel (1969), p. 505.
  13. Apel (1969), p. 834.
  14. Apel (1969), p. 61.
  15. Online Italian–English dictionary at WordReference.com.
  16. Apel (1969), p. 112.
  17. The American History and Encyclopedia of Music, W.L. Hubbard (ed.); c. 1908
  18. Apel (1969), p. 334.
  19. Apel (1969), p. 520.
  20. Apel (1969), p. 537.
  21. Apel (1969), p. 680.
  22. Apel (1969), p. 683.
  23. Apel (1969), p. 763.
  24. "Brillante" entry in Sadie (2001).
  25. "Bravura" entry in Sadie (2001).
  26. "Ritenuto" entry in Sadie (2001).
  27. Apel (1969), p. 809.
  28. David Fallows. "Ritardando". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  29. Gnossiennes music sheet, IMSLP Music Library
  30. Apel (1969), p. 92.
  31. Italian translation, WordReference.com; German, Apel (1969).
  32. Heyman, Barbara B. (1994-05-12). Samuel Barber: the composer and his music. Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 0-19-509058-6.


Books on tempo in music:

Music dictionaries:

Examples of musical scores:

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