What is Tempo?

Making Sense of Tempo Markings

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Image courtesy of Hibernate via Wikimedia commons

Most sheet music provides a tempo marking, which is how fast or slow you should sing a song. The marking is located at the very top of the sheet music, just below the composer and arrangers’ names and just above the written music. Deciphering the tempo marking can be confusing. First, there are a lot of ways composers indicate tempo. You may come across an Italian word representing a particular speed, a marking with a particular kind of note (like a quarter or half note) with an equal sign followed by a number, and sometimes there is a little saying like, “brightly,” or “slowly, tenderly.” If you do not understand the markings, you may be tempted to ignore them.

That would be a mistake. Here is what you need to know about tempo markings.

Why is Tempo Important? Most composers realize singers have a limit on how long of phrases they can reasonably sing, so they write music accordingly. If you sing a piece too slowly, it might make a phrase impossible to sing. Tempo also changes the mood of music. Sad topics tend to be slower, while inspiring and joyful ones tend to be faster. In fact, composers sometimes change speeds within a song in order to alter the mood during a particular passage or passages. Singing a song at an arbitrary speed may even cause you to dislike a song you would otherwise love, because tempo makes that much of a difference.

Metronome: First and foremost, you need to know tempo markings are most helpful if you have a metronome available. There are on-line metronomes, but owning your own is ideal. I prefer a good digital metronome with an earphone jack and some Italian tempo markings.

If you can’t get to a computer or a metronome, the speed of seconds indicates the metronome marking 60. Twice as fast as seconds is 120 and so on.

Numeric Tempo Markings: Tempo markings are indicated in beats per minute; that is why 60 BPM is the same speed as seconds. Lower numbers mean the song is sung slower, and higher numbers mean the tempo is faster.

When numbers are used to indicate tempo, it will look like the picture to the right. In this case the quarter note gets the beat and the tempo is 120 BPM. So, set your metronome to 120 and every quarter note gets the beat.

A Note on Rubato, Rushing, and Dragging: A nice way to say a singer is not keeping a steady beat is to say they are singing a bit rubato, which means they are a singing with rhythmic freedom. When rubato is used inappropriately, the singer is either rushing or dragging. To rush means you are speeding up the tempo and to drag means you are slowing it down. If you want to develop a steadier beat, then use a metronome during part of your practice time each day. Practice singing simple vocal warm-ups on the beat first, and then work your way up to entire songs.

Terminology: In addition to numeric markings, quite common are words indicating a tempo marking; often in Italian and sometimes in another language. Many words are used to indicate tempo, but here are the most common you may come across. If one of these terms has the suffix ‘-issimo’ then it intensifies the word’s meaning. For instance, prestissimo is even faster than presto (fast), but larghissimo is even slower than largo (slow).

The suffix ‘-etto’ or ‘-ino’ has an opposite effect. So, larghetto is a bit faster than largo (broadly meaning slow), and allegretto is slower than allegro (fast).  My tempo markings are based on my current digital metronome.

Terminology for Slow Tempos: Terms listed from slow to fast.

Larghissimo – very, very slow (20 BPM or lower)

Grave – slow and solemn (20-40 BPM)

Lento (French: Lent, German: Langsam) – slowly (40-45 BPM)

Largo – broadly (40-60 BPM)

Larghetto – rather broadly (60-66 BPM)

Adagio – slow and stately (66-76 BPM)

Terminology for Moderate Tempos: Terms listed from slow to fast.

Andante – at a walking pace (76-108 BPM)

Moderato (French Modéré, German Mäßig) – moderately (108-120 BPM)

Terminology for Fast Tempos: Terms listed from slow to fast.

Allegro (French Rapide or Vif, German: Rasch, or Schnell, English fast) – fast, quickly and bright (120-168 BPM)

Vivace – lively and fast (138-168 BPM)

Presto (French Vite, English brisk) – extremely fast (168-200 BPM)

Prestissimo – even faster than Presto (200 BPM and up)