What is Tempo in Music?

Tempo describes the speed of the pulse/beat of a piece of music.

The choice of tempo (speed) of a piece of music has a crucial bearing on its feel and even the genre it sits in. For example, there are some styles of music which have specific tempos – e.g. romantic ballads tend to have a fairly slow tempo, whilst disco music tends to have a fast tempo.

To work out the tempo of a piece of music you are listening to you need to have a clear sense of the beat.
Have a listen to the following example of 3 different short extracts of music.
The extracts sound different, but the tempo of each piece is the same:

Three Tempo Pieces

Be careful not to confuse tempo with the number of beats in a bar – this is described by the time signature.
Also, be careful not to think that tempo is a description of how “busy” or short the rhythms are.
The rhythms in the 3 audio examples above are very different, but the beat/pulse remains the same.

When you’re reading a piece of sheet music there are 2 main things you need to look out for at the start of the piece in order to work out the tempo:

Tempo Markings and/or Metronome Markings

Tempo Markings

The speed/tempo of a piece in traditional music notation is given with an Italian word called a tempo marking.
Tempo markings are written above the stave at the start of a piece of music.
Here are some examples of tempo markings that you will commonly find in sheet music:

  • Grave means Slow and Solemn
  • Lento/Largo means Very Slow
  • Adagio means Slow
  • Andante means Walking Pace
  • Moderato means Quite Quickly
  • Allegro means Fast
  • Presto means Very Fast

The tempo markings give a description of the tempo of the piece rather than an exact bpm (beats per minute).
As a result, the actual speed of each tempo marking is open to interpretation.
However, over time musicologists have agreed general ranges of bpm which the tempo markings refer to.
For example, the bpm of andante (walking pace) is recognised as being between 76 and 108 bpm.

Here is a summary chart of the most common tempo markings with their definitions and bpm ranges:
Tempo Markings BPM Summary Chart

Tempo Markings Examples

Let’s have a look at some common tempo markings in the context of a worked example.

Have a look at the following piece of music (it is a traditional folk song called “Country Gardens”).
You can see that the tempo marking Allegro has been written at the start of the piece.
The definition of Allegro is fast and so the piece should be played at a fast tempo.
Have a look at the sheet music and listen to the allegro tempo example:
Tempo Markings Definitions Sheet Music Example

Allegro tempo example


The piece of music works well at an allegro tempo.
However, we could change the tempo marking at the start of the piece to Presto.
The musical definition of Presto is Very Fast and so the performer would play the piece at a very fast tempo.
The bpm range for presto is 168-200bpm.
Presto Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Presto tempo example


We could choose to have the piece played even faster by using the tempo marking Prestissimo. Prestissimo means very very fast!
The bpm range for prestissimo is over 200 bpm!!
Have a listen to how the piece sounds with a prestissimo tempo:
Prestissimo Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Prestissimo tempo example


Alternatively, we could choose to have the piece played slower.
The marking Moderato means moderately quick.
The bpm range for moderato is 108-120 bpm.
Moderato Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Moderato tempo example


We can slow it down further by using the word Andante.
The definition of Andante is walking pace.
The bpm range of Andante is 76-108 bpm.
Andante Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Andante tempo example


Here is the piece with a tempo marking of Adagio.
Adagio means slowly.
The bpm range of Adagio is 66-76 bpm.
Adagio Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Adagio tempo example

Lento and Largo

The words Lento and Largo both mean very slowly.
The bpm range of Lento/Largo is 40-60 bpm.
Here is the piece played with the tempo marking Lento:
Lento or Largo Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Lento or Largo tempo example


Finally we could slow the piece down to a very slow tempo using the marking Grave.
The music definition of Grave is slow and solemn.
The bpm range of Grave is 20-40 bpm.
You can here that this is indeed a very slow tempo!
Grave Tempo Marking Sheet Music Example

Grave tempo example

You can hear from these examples how the choice of tempo makes a huge difference to the feel and performance of a piece of music.

Metronome Markings

In recent years the tempo of a piece has more commonly been given through an indication of the bpm or beats per minute. You may see something like this….

Sheet Music Metronome Marking

This would mean that the quarter note (crotchet) pulse/beat of the piece is 120 beats per minute.
In other words, there are 120 quarter note (crotchet) beats in a minute.
This is called a metronome marking.
A metronome marking could also be written using an eighth note (quaver), sixteenth note (semiquaver), etc..
Have a look at this example of a metronome marking that uses an eighth note:
Metronome Marking Example Eighth Note
In this example the eighth note (quaver) pulse of the piece is 60 bpm.
This means that there are 60 eighth note (quaver) beats in a minute.

The metronome marking method is a very precise way in which a composer can specify which tempo a piece should be played at.
It is particularly useful in the contemporary music world where significant amounts of technology are used and effects such as delay pedals sometimes need to be synchronised to a specific tempo.

Changing Tempo in Music

Sudden Tempo Changes

If a composer wants a piece of music to change immediately to a new tempo then they will insert a new tempo marking or metronome marking at the relevant point. Have a look at this example:

tempo change

At the beginning of this example the composer has written Adagio (meaning slowly). Therefore, the piece should be played slowly.
However, at the beginning of the new line they have written Allegro (meaning fast). This means that they want you to play the next 4 bars at a fast tempo.

Slowing Down/Speeding Up

Alternatively, a composer may want to introduce subtle changes in the tempo to help inject life into a piece.
These can be shown by using various words:

accelerando (accel.) this means get quicker

rallentando (rall.) or ritardando (rit.) means slow down.

After one of these markings, the phrase a tempo is written to tell the performer to return to the original tempo.

Have a look at/listen to the example below.
Can you see how the tempo of the music is Andante (walking pace) at the start of the piece.
The piece then slows down during the 4th bar with the tempo marking rall. (which means slow down).
The tempo marking a tempo at the start of the new line tells us to return to the original tempo (andante) at this point. The slowing down is quite subtle in the 4th bar, but it adds some life to the performance.

gradual tempo change

Subtle Tempo Change Example


If you see the tempo marking Rubato at the start of a piece this means that the composer is encouraging you to vary the tempo as you play it. This is a great technique for bringing more expression into the piece particularly by slowing dow the ends of phrases. However, be careful that you don’t over do this – less is often more!!