Music, the universal language of emotion, speaks to us through a symphony of notes. But how fast should these notes be played? The answer lies in the composer’s instructions, known as tempo markings. Let’s delve into the world of tempo markings and understand their significance in musical composition and performance.
Tempo markings, primarily communicated in Italian, French, or German, are the pulse of musical compositions. They guide musicians toward the composer’s intended speed and, as a result, the emotional intensity of the piece. The tempo spectrum ranges from the serene Larghissimo to the frantic Prestissimo, each encapsulating a unique mood and character.
Historically, Italian has been the language of choice for musical indications. As such, most tempo markings we encounter are Italian, each term reflecting a specific beats per minute (bpm) range. Let’s dissect some commonly used Italian tempo markings.
|Tempo Marking||Translation||Beats Per Minute|
|Larghissimo||Very, very slow||20 BPM or slower|
|Solenne/Grave||Slow and solemn||20 – 40 BPM|
|Lento||Slowly||40 – 60 BPM|
|Lentissimo||At a very slow tempo||48 BPM or slower|
|Largo||Broadly||40 – 60 BPM|
|Larghetto||Rather broadly||60 – 66 BPM|
|Adagio||At ease, slow and stately||66 – 76 BPM|
|Adagietto||Rather slow||70 – 80 BPM|
|Tranquillo||Tranquil, calmly, or peaceful||80 BPM|
|Andante moderato||A bit slower than Andante||92 – 98 BPM|
|Andante||At a walking pace, moderately slow||72 – 76 BPM|
|Andantino||Slighlty faster and more light-hearted than Andante||73 – 83 BPM|
|Moderato||Moderately||108 – 120 BPM|
|Allegretto||Moderately fast, but less than allegro||100 – 128 BPM|
|Allegro moderato||Moderately quick, almost Allegro||116 – 120 BPM|
|Allegro||Fast, quickly and bright||120 – 156 BPM|
|Vivace||Briskly, Lively and fast||156 – 176 BPM|
|Vivacissimo||Very fast and lively, faster than Vivace||172 – 176 BPM|
|Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace||Very Fast||172 – 176 BPM|
|Presto||Very, very fast||168 – 200 BPM|
|Prestissimo||Faster than Presto||200+ BPM|
While Italian terminology prevails, composers often employ French or German terms to denote the tempo, particularly when the musical pieces originate from these regions. These native tempo markings offer a more personal touch to the composition.
|Au mouvement||Play the original or main tempo|
|Grave||Slowly and solemnly|
|Moins vite||Less fast|
|Vif||Lively or brisk|
These French tempos often incorporate modifiers like ‘Moins’ (less) and ‘Très’ (very) for further specification.
|Kraftig||Vigorous or powerful|
In musical compositions, the tempo is not rigid. It fluctuates to create a dynamic soundscape. Certain terms indicate these shifts in tempo, adding another layer of complexity to the musical piece. These changes may occur abruptly or gradually, steering the emotion and intensity of the performance.
|Tempo Change Term||Meaning|
|Accelerando||Gradually speed up the tempo|
|Allargando||Slowing of tempo, usually with increasing volume; becoming broader|
|Rallentando||Gradually slow down the tempo|
|Ritardando||Slow down gradually; often used interchangeably with rallentando|
|Ritenuto||Immediate reduction in tempo|
|Tempo I||Return to the original tempo|
|Tempo Primo||Return to the original tempo, identical to Tempo I|
|Meno mosso||Less movement; slow the tempo down|
|Più mosso||More movement; speed the tempo up|
|Stringendo||Pressing; speed the tempo up gradually|
|Poco a poco||Little by little; incrementally change the tempo|
Understanding tempo markings is just the first step. The real challenge lies in executing them accurately. Setting your metronome to the prescribed tempo and trying to keep up can be tempting. However, this approach often leads to limited success and a lot of frustration.
Instead, musicians should start their practice at a pace at least 20 BPM slower than the prescribed tempo. This slower pace allows for a better understanding of the notes and their relationships. Once you’re comfortable at this slower pace, gradually increase the tempo in small increments, say 2-5 BPM at a time, until you can play the piece at the desired tempo.
This strategy ensures not only the development of the dexterity required for the performance but also a better understanding of the musicality and expressiveness of the piece. Remember, the goal is not to play fast but to play well. Speed is just a byproduct of efficiency and control.
To conclude, tempo markings serve as the heartbeat of music, setting the pace and mood for every piece. Mastering tempo enhances your technical skills and deepens your musical expression. So the next time you see a tempo marking, don’t just see it as a speed instruction. Rather, consider it an insight into the composer’s mind, an invitation to explore the emotional landscape of the music.