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The terms for popular music tempo markings come from the Italian language. You are probably wondering: Why is this the case? Well, at the time the tempo indications were defined in the 17th and 18th centuries, the most popular composers were Italian (Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, and many more).
As you'll notice, the indications below are not standardized, and always subject to interpretation. This is what makes music an art and not a perfect science. The interpretation of a score starts from the tempo marking found at the beginning of the score, and the legend below may help you to better understand those markings and how you might interpret them.
Here is a list of the most common tempo markings with English translation and bpm ranges for your reference:
Larghissimo - In Italian, this literally means "very wide," and in music, "larghissimo" means a very slow tempo. Even though regular metronomes start from 40 bpm, Larghissimo may mean an even slower tempo, as low as 24 bpm or even less.
Grave - in Italian, this means "heavy and solemn," and it also defines a very slow tempo, usually faster than Larghissimo. On a metronome, a Grave tempo ranges from 40 to 60 bpm.
Largo - In Italian, its meaning is "wide," and as you may notice, largo still refers to a "slow" tempo. On a metronome, it shares the same tempo range as Grave, with a range of 40-60 bpm. Which one to use is usually up to the composer!
Lento - This word litterally means "slow" in Italian, even though in music this tempo is a little bit faster than Grave or Largo. Lento ranges between 45-60 bpm on a metronome.
Adagio - Similar to Lento, Adagio means "slow," but is more specifically defined as "slowly and easily." Think of Adagio as a Lento tempo with a little bit more flexibility. Its range, in fact, is between 55 and 76 bpm, and can vary a great deal between metronomes.
Larghetto - This marking is definitively faster than Largo, and in Italian, larghetto means something like "a little wide." Its range is usually between 60 and 66 bpm on a metronome (some metronomes don't even show this marking and use Adagio instead).
Adagietto - This tempo is similar to the Adagio tempo, but with a "lighter" meaning, which results in a faster-paced tempo. On a metronome, Adagietto usually falls between 66 and 76 bpm.
Andante - From the Italian verb "andare," which means "going," Andante expresses the feeling of "movement," thus a faster tempo than all the previous ones. Andante is often used in music to differentiate a "slow" piece from a "faster" piece (not too fast though!). On a metronome, Andante ranges between 72 and 108 bpm.
Andantino - This tempo is usually a little faster than Andante, even though it can also be interpreted as "slower" than Andante. On a Metronome, it usually ranges between 80 and 108 bpm.
Maestoso - In Italian, this word means "majestic," and its pace is not too slow but not fast (think about it like a slow march). This tempo marking is not always found on metronomes, but it can often be found in music. Its range is usually between 88 and 92 bpm.
Moderato - From the Italian for "moderate," this is the most common tempo marking in music. It is right in the middle of the metronome and it is often associated with the value of 100 bpm. Despite that its range can actually be between 93 and 120 bpm.
Allegretto - From the Italian for "pretty happy," it is the first tempo on the metronome that can be considered "fast," but not too fast of course. On metronomes, Allegretto can range between 104 and 132 bpm.
Animato - From the Italian for "with movement," this tempo is not found on all metronomes, but it is often indicated on scores. It can range between 120 and 131 bpm.
Allegro - From the Italian for "happy," this is the superstar of the tempo markings, and is very often found in music, denoting a fast-moving pace. On a metronome, it can range between 120 and 168 bpm, even though its most common tempo is set to 120 bpm.
Allegro Assai - From the Italian for "very happy," it is usually faster than Allegro, with a bpm ranging between 144 and 168. It actually overlaps with the standard Allegro, but if found on a score where an Allegro is also set, it is sure to be faster.
Vivace - From the Italian for "lively," it is usually faster than Allegro, and on a metronome, it ranges between 160 and 183 bpm.
Vivacissimo - From the Italian for "very lively," it is not always found on metronomes, but denotes a tempo faster than
Presto - From the Italian for "fast, quick," it is a very fast paced tempo, ranging between 168 and 200 bpm. Presto can overlap with Vivace and Vivacissimo.
Prestissimo - From the Italian for "very fast," it is at the top speed of the metronome, with a bpm over 200.
In music repertoire, you can also find combinations of the above markings such as Allegro Vivace or Allegro Moderato, denoting combinations of different (but similar) tempos.
It is important to understand that, despite the overlap of some tempo markings in terms of bpm ranges, we have tried to distill the most common tempos for each one in the metronome we are presenting on this page.
If you have any questions or need any help to understand this chart, please post your questions in the comments section below.
Accent - The accent of a bar (or measure) is usually the downbeat (the first beat, also known as "main beat"). In a piece with a 4/4 time signature, the accent occurs every 4 beats. In a piece with a 3/4 time signature, the accent occurs every 3 beats, and so on.
Bar or Measure - A bar (or measure) is composed of multiple beats. Bars in music notation are separated by "bar lines." The time signature defines how many beats are included in each measure.
Beat - The beat is the basic unit of a measure, or bar. For example, if a piece of music has a 4/4 time signature (or C - compound time signature), there are measures of 4 beats each. The first beat of each measure is called the "downbeat" (also known as "main beat").
bpm - Beats Per Minute. This is the number of beats in a minute of music, and it is the number displayed on any metronome. A bpm of 60 means 60 beats in a minute (1 beat every second). A bpm of 120 means 120 beats per minute, which corresponds to 2 beats per second.
Common Time - The Common Time (marked with C at the beginning of a music staff) is the same as the 4/4 time signature.
Pick-up Notes (upbeats or anacrusis) - One or more notes that precede the first downbeat in a bar.
Rhythm - The rhythm is defined by how the notes are put in succession over time. Music usually has regular patterns of rhythm, and in notation, rhythm is organized through the use of time signature and bars.
Tempo - From the Italian for time, it is the speed or pace of a piece of music. The higher the tempo, the faster the piece. The lower the tempo, the slower the piece.
Time Signature - It is notated at the beginning of the staff, right after the clef, and specifies how many beats are in each measure and which note value constitutes one beat.
Brief History of the Metronome
Even the metronome, a simple device used by millions of musicians, is not without its storied past, colorful characters, and controversies.
The word "metronome" comes from the Greek: "metron," meaning "measure," and "nomos," meaning "regulating." This, then, is a perfect label for a device that musicians, composers, and recording engineers can set to audibly beat at regular intervals as they learn, practice, and create music.
Metronomes began with the pendulum. Galileo Galilei, in the late 17th century, discovered that pendulums, regardless of length or amplitude, vibrated in the same time. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, inventors added calibrations, weights, and "escapements" to pendulums in an attempt to create a device that musicians could set to continually oscillate anywhere from 40 to 208 beats per minute ( bpm). The long pendulums needed for very slow tempi (40 - 60 bpm), however, rendered most of these early metronomes rather impractical.
In the early 19th century, Dietrik Nikolaus Winkel added double weights to the pendulum - one that remained fixed, and the other that could be slid along the rod of the pendulum to either speed up or slow down the tempo. This seemed to be the best idea yet, but unfortunately, Winkel is not the person glorified as the "inventor of the metronome."
While Winkel was developing his double-weighted device, Johann Nepemuk Maelzel, a trained musician and developer of world-famous music-making and chess-playing automatons, among other gadgets and quirky amusements, was also dabbling in metronome development. When Maelzel got wind of Winkel's double-weighted pendulum idea and realized Winkel's device was superior to his own, he met with Winkel and tried, unsuccessfully, to coax Winkel into selling him his idea. No matter - Maelzel simply added a scale to indicate where to place the weight to achieve a certain tempo, patented the device as "Maelzel's Metronome," and, today, is still credited with the invention.
Beethoven was acquainted with Maelzel, who created Several ear trumpets to help with Beethoven's mounting hearing loss. As they established somewhat of a friendly relationship, Maelzel suggested some ideas for music that Beethoven would later compose (music that Maelzel tried to pass off as his own, which, understandably, did not sit well with Beethoven). Perhaps in an attempt to patch things up with an angered Beethoven, Maelzel provided him with one of his metronomes. Some speculate, however, that some of the erratic time signatures in Beethoven's music may owe to a malfunctioning metronome, or possibly to Beethoven's improper use of a device with which he was not entirely comfortable. Regardless, Beethoven may have been one of the first composers to use a metronome in his craft.
The advent of electricity meant that metronomes could include features like flashing lights to indicate beats or beginnings of measures. With the discovery of alternating current, metronomes like the Franz Electric Metronome (1938) emerged, in which an electric motor "drives a tempo-beating hammer through a mechanical reduction." Even with electricity, improvements to and use of the pendulum-style metronome continued into the mid-to-late 20th century, including mechanisms to enable the pendulums to level themselves even if not on a flat surface, and mechanisms to prevent the escapement from jamming accidentally.
The 1970s also brought forth improvements in digital electronics, which became applicable to metronomes. As microprocessors became small and affordable, other features were added besides keeping time, like tuning notes and accented beats.
Today, computer software applications for smartphones and other devices have all but eliminated the need for pendulums or little battery-powered devices with beeps and flashing lights. Regardless, there remains controversy over whether musicians should use metronomes at all. While some raise concerns that metronomes make music sound too mechanical, others hold the metronome - whoever may have invented it - in the highest regard as an essential tool for growth and mastery in music.
- Free Stuff