Tempo: How Fast Should You Play a Song

Posted on September 20, 2022

When describing a piece of music, we often tell how fast or slow it is. Alongside time signatures, tempo is a useful concept for understanding how fast or slow a song is. Remembering the names of all different tempo markings may be a challenge, but it’s worth learning at least the most common ones. If you’re not yet familiar with tempos, read on.

 

What is tempo in music?

The word tempo originates from the Italian word for time. In the context of music, tempo refers to how fast a piece of music is. Because of the term’s origins, different speeds are named after Italian words, such as allegro, allegretto, lento, largo, and andante. Another way to describe tempo is by indicating its BPM or beats per minute.

To put it simply, the faster the song’s tempo, the faster the song. Understanding tempo is particularly useful when a single song or composition includes changes in speed or time signatures. A great way to gain a better understanding of different tempos is to use a metronome.

 

What is BPM (beats per minute)?

One helpful concept for understanding different tempos is BPM or beats per minute. Simply put, BPM indicates how many beats there are in a minute. So a fast tempo of 120 BPM would have 120 beats every minute, whereas a slower tempo of only 80 BPM would have 80. In Italian terms, these two would translate to allegro and andante. A beat is the basic unit of time in music.

 

Different tempos

There are numerous tempos named after Italian words. The meaning of these may change when a specific ending, or suffix, is added, such as “-etto” or “-issimo.” This way we can refer to a faster or a slower tempo. By adding words, such as “moderato,” we can also change the meaning of a tempo. Here are some well-known examples of different tempos.

Allegro and allegretto

Let’s begin with a fast tempo marking. Allegro is between 120 and 156 BPM and translates to “fast, quick, and bright.” By adding the suffix “-etto” (for allegretto), we can specify that we are referring to a tempo that is close to the slower 120 BPM of allegro. Understanding how BPM works comes in handy when using a metronome.

Andante (at a walking pace)

The tempo marking andante is somewhere between 76 and 83 BPM. Again, we can add an ending to the word to indicate a slightly slower or faster tempo. For example, the word andantino refers to a tempo that is slightly faster than andante.

 

Other well-known tempo markings

The list of Italian names of different tempo markings goes on. Here are just a few more to keep in mind from slowest to fastest.

  • Grave (20-40 BPM)
  • Lento (40-60 BPM)
  • Adagio (66-67 BPM)
  • Moderato (108-120 BPM)
  • Presto (168-200 BPM)
  • Prestissimo (over 200 BPM)

 

Learn about tempo and other music terminology

Whether you want to play music fast or slow, you can visit Yousician’s Musician’s Glossary to learn more about different concepts in music. Start learning and expanding your musical vocabulary.

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