How do you know how fast to play? Why are the terms in Italian?
One of the most basic and important aspects of interpreting a piece of music is determining the speed, or tempo. A composer’s most accurate way to indicate the desired tempo is to give the beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute.
Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. After the metronome’s invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece, thus blurring the traditional distinction between tempo and mood indicators. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian).
Musicians typically use Italian terms to denote the tempo of a certain piece. Some of the more common Italian tempo indicators, from slowest to fastest, are:
- Grave - slow and solemn (20–40 BPM)
- Lento - slowly (40–45 BPM)
- Largo - broadly (45–50 BPM)
- Adagio - slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (55–65 BPM)
- Adagietto - rather slow (65–69 BPM)
- Andante - at a walking pace (73–77 BPM)
- Moderato - moderately (86–97 BPM)
- Allegretto - moderately fast (98–109 BPM)
- Allegro - fast, quickly and joyous (109–132 BPM)
- Vivace - lively and fast (132–140 BPM)
- Presto - extremely fast (168–177 BPM)
- Prestissimo - even faster than Presto (178 BPM and over)