Speed: The Language of Tempo in Music

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It takes more than a beautiful piano, like this early 1900 Heintzman baby grand piano, to play a complicated piano piece. Copyright photo by Emily-Jane Hills Orford, all rights reserved.

For anyone who, as a child, had the fortune to learn how to play a musical instrument, there will be fond memories of learning that one special musical melody and then trying to play it as fast as possible.

Is that really the purpose of music? Does music really sound better if we play it as fast as possible? Actually, the answer to both questions is “no.”

‘Fast’ is not what music is all about. However, speed, or tempo as we call it in musical language, does affect the mood and the overall impression of the composition.

And there are quite a number of terms used to determine the tempo (speed) at which a musician plays a specific composition.

Companies popularize some of these words as names for automobiles like the Austin Allegro and the Ford Tempo, all adopting musical expressions to suggest speed.

So, what are these musical terms for tempo? And how does the performer know which tempo to play a specific musical composition?

The Language of Tempo (Speed) in Music

Music is a language. Even the famous mathematician/scientist, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) said as much in several discourses with his scientific acquaintances. Music is a language that communicates without words – and yet, at the same time, it uses words on the printed page of music to explain how a composer wants a musician to play piece of music.

These explanatory words are musical terms, expressly created and universally understood to mean how fast to play a piece, how loud to play a piece, and how expressively to play a piece.

How Does the Performer Know the Tempo of a Piece of Music?


The composer records an expected tempo of a piece of music on the music for the benefit of the performer. As evidenced in his original manuscripts, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), like other early Baroque composers, did not always indicate the tempo (or any other musical instructions) on the music manuscript – intending the performer to make his own interpretations of the appropriate tempo and musical expression of a given piece.

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) demonstrated multiple interpretations of many Bach compositions, recording some of them as fast as possible and then again at a slightly slower tempo. In his experimenting with tempo, he never lost the Bach-ness of his performance, but he did give music aficionados something else to consider when studying Bach’s works.

By the Classical era of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), musical terms to instruct the performer on important things like tempo were just as important as the musical notation itself.

And the list of terms (mostly in Italian; later, in the Romantic era of the nineteenth-century, composers used terms in French, German and English depending on the composer’s nationality) grew substantially to not only describe the tempo, but also the mood of the tempo.

Take, for example, the musical term Grave (pronounced not as one would pronounce the ones in the local cemetery, but rather with a soft “a”). It means very slow and, given the spell-alike cemetery-related version, it also means solemn.

I mentioned the term Allegro earlier in this article, a term associated with an automobile. As one might suspect, Allegro does mean fast and lively. One might assume that its automobile namesake might also be fast and lively.

Some of the musical terms for tempo make sense. The term Largo means slow and broad, meaning to drag out the melodrama of the notation at such a slow tempo that the sounds fade and blend into other sounds. The word itself suggests something large, so its meaning comes as no surprise.

When teaching musical terms for tempo to young music students, I always have them create a list of tempo terms, starting with the slowest terms and working towards the fastest. Not only does it make it easier to remember the tempo terms, but it also provides the student with a clear appreciation of the wide range of tempo. The list might go something like this: Grave, Lento, Largo, Moderato, Allegretto, Allegro, Presto, Prestissimo…

There are, of course, considerably more tempo terms in music than the ones listed above. Grave and Largo we’ve already defined. Lento also means slow. Moderato is at it sounds: a moderate tempo. Allegretto means a little fast. Allegro, as we learned, is fast and lively; Presto is very fast; and Prestissimo is as fast as possible.

Notice that all of the musical tempo terms use the capital form of the first letter. The tempo is as important as the title of a composition and the composer needs to identify it as such.

Changes in Speed? Why Not?

One speed all the way through a piece of music? Not a chance. Every composer enjoys a bit of variety just as much as the audience. Perhaps one of the best examples of multiple tempos in one composition is the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata (no. 8 in C minor).

The composition starts with a very dramatic Grave, then transforms into Allegro di molto e con brio (quickly, with much vigour). There are changes between the Grave and the Allegro throughout the movement and sections of ritardando (or rit. – meaning to slow down).

Another example that highlights expressive and multiple tempo changes is Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) very famous piano piece, Clair de lune (from his Suite Bergamasque which he finished and published in 1905. The work starts off with a very expressive Andante (pronounced ahn-dahn-té), which means a moderately slow pace, like a walking speed. Then the piece moves into Tempo rubato, which is a Romantic term often associated with the composer, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849).

It means, literally, robbed time, or, more thoroughly, rhythmic freedom to speed up and slow down as the mood dictates. The Tempo rubato flows into un poco mosso, which means a little movement, fast, rapid; then it becomes Animato, animated, lively, followed by Calmato, which means tranquil, calm.

I’ve mentioned ritardando (rit.) to indicate that the performer should slow down. There is also a term for increasing the tempo: accelerando.

Besides terminology, composers construct music much like a mathematical equation. There are different types of notes: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc., all of which receive a specific time value. The music indicates the time value at the beginning with a time signature.

Musical note scale

This illustrates the relative time values of musical notes. Give all notes the correct measure so that a piece of music will play properly. Copyright image by Emily Jane Hills Orford, all rights reserved.

This tells the performer how to count the piece. There are two numbers in the time signature. The top number tells the performer how many beats are in a measure, while the bottom number tells the performer which note will receive one beat note.

For example, the time signature for the  first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata is:

4: four beats in every measure
4: the quarter note is considered the one-beat note. Therefore the half note will receive two beats and so on.

The second example, Debussy’s Clair de lune, has the following time signature:

9: 9 beats in every measure
8: The eighth note receives one beat.

Everything in a piece of music must be equal. Every measure (which is clearly marked by bar lines) is measured to equal the time signature at the beginning of the piece. This determines how the performer will count the piece of music so that the fast and slow notes are properly identifiable.

Speed Notations are Important to Musicians

From the time values of the notes to the time signature that measures the music to the many musical terms that indicate the tempo, or the varying tempo, of a piece, speed is very important in music. But, not in the sense that young performers may think. Speed, actually tempo in music, is not about how fast a musician can play a piece. Tempo is the appropriate speed that helps formulate the overall musical expression that the composer intended when he/she wrote the piece.