From the previous pages, we now understand that:
- Rhythm tells us how the length of one note compares to the length of other notes
- We use beats as a unit of measure for the length of a note
- Measures or bars divide music into sections that contain a designated number of beats (often equal number of beats, if the time signature does not change)
- The time signature tells us how many beats are in the measure (top number) and what kind of note gets 1 beat (bottom number)
But how do we know how long or short we should make a beat sound? In other words, how do we know how fast or slow to play a piece of music?
There are many words that are used to describe the tempo of a piece of music that may be placed at the beginning of the piece above the staff, or later in the piece if there is a tempo change. These words are called tempo markings.
Some examples of tempo markings can be seen in the image below:
Sometimes tempo markings are in English, other times you will encounter words from other languages (often Italian) to describe tempo. Let’s explore some of these terms.
The following sections list some basic tempo markings in order of slow to fast. They are divided into three sections – slow tempo markings, medium tempo markings and fast tempo markings.
See the Glossary for definitions of each tempo marking.
Suffixes – Adding Subtle Variation
Tempo markings can be altered with suffixes to make slight variations between tempo markings. Some common suffixes are:
- -etto: This suffix literally means “smaller”, which you can think of as “less than” – it makes a tempo less fast, or less slow, depending on the starting tempo. So, when added to a slow tempo (Largo) it makes the tempo (Larghetto) less slow (i.e., faster). When added to a fast tempo (Allegro) it makes the tempo (Allegretto) less fast (i.e., slower). In other words, this suffix moves a tempo more toward the middle.
- -issimo: This suffix literally means “extremely” – it makes a word more intense. It does the opposite of -etto, it makes a slow tempo marking slower and a fast tempo marking faster. So, Lentissimo is slower then Lento, while Prestissimo is faster than Presto. This suffix moves a tempo more toward the extreme.
Tempo can also be indicated by a metronome marking. This marking indicates that a specified note should receive a specified value on the metronome. Some examples appear below.
Online metronome has a good page that correlates metronome markings to tempo markings. This way when you have a tempo marking, you have some idea where to set the metronome when you are practicing.