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What Is an Adagio in Music?

Posted on December 18, 2023

How fast a song or composition is performed, or its tempo, has a notable impact on how a piece of music sounds and what it feels like for the listener. Different tempos are traditionally indicated with Italian words, one of which is adagio. Read on to learn more about different tempos and how fast you need to play when you encounter the term adagio.

What Is Tempo in Music?

As mentioned, tempo refers to the speed at which a piece of music is played. In addition to using Italian words to indicate tempo in music, you can measure tempo more specifically in beats per minute, or BPM. The higher the BPM, the faster the music is played. Meanwhile, a lower BPM indicates a slower tempo.

For a songwriter and the musician who performs the piece, choosing the song’s tempo is crucial to accomplishing the desired mood and impact on the listener. Everyone in the band or orchestra should know what tempo a piece of music is played at. Otherwise, different instruments are played at a different pace, and everything sounds off and disorganized.

What Is the Adagio Tempo?

Musicians use various Italian terms to denote tempo, such as largo, andante, moderato, allegro, presto, and the star of this blog post, adagio. Each of these terms represents a specific speed range, making them a less accurate way to indicate and measure tempo than a specific BPM.

The term adagio is used in music to describe a slow tempo and translates to “at ease” in English. In terms of BPM, adagio typically falls between 55 and 76 beats per minute. Thanks to its mellow, slower pace, adagio evokes a sense of calmness, serenity, or melancholy in the listener. Adagio is commonly used in classical music, particularly in movements of sonatas, symphonies, and concertos.

Other tempos from slow to fast include (with the BPM range):

  • Grave (20-40 BPM)
  • Lento (40-60 BPM)
  • Andante (76-108 BPM)
  • Moderato (108-120 BPM)
  • Allegro (120-156 BPM)
  • Presto (168-200 BPM)
  • Prestissimo (over 200 BPM)

 

In this list, adagio would fall between lento and andante. Adagietto, on the other hand, would be slightly faster than adagio but still slower than andante.

The Italian terms for different tempos aren’t limited to just these. On top of that, there are separate terms to indicate changes in tempo, such as accelerando for speeding up and ritardando for slowing down.

Examples of Adagio in Music

Luckily, identifying compositions played in adagio is not as difficult as you might think. Many composers have named compositions after the tempo marking, such as adagio. There are numerous examples of adagio tempo in music, especially within the realm of classical music. Here are a few notable ones:

“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber: This is arguably one of the most famous adagio pieces, known for its profound emotional depth. It’s often used in film and television to underscore tragic moments. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was famously played at Albert Einstein’s funeral.

“Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5: This fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th is well-known to contemporary audiences for being used in the film Death in Venice. Mahler’s Adagietto was scored only for the string section and a solo harp. It stands as one of the most iconic adagiettos in the orchestral repertoire.

“Adagio in G minor” attributed to Tomaso Albinoni: The history of this piece can be somewhat confusing. Although the Adagio in G minor was composed by Remo Giazotto, a musicologist and biographer of Albinoni, the work is often associated with Albinoni. There is much debate about this adagio’s origin, some going as far as to call Giazotto a fraud. Nonetheless, Adagio in G minor has become one of the most popular adagios in classical music.

Learn More about Tempo and Music Terminology

The leisurely adagio tempo might have its place for slowing down in our fast-paced and often scattered, chaotic everyday life. If you want to learn more about different tempos and other music terminology, check out Yousician’s full Musician’s Glossary.

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