Terms and Symbols for Tempo

Tempo is the speed of a piece of music. The tempo is generally indicated at the beginning of a piece and can be presented in two ways: a metronome marking in beats per minute and/or textually. A musical work can have multiple tempos that change throughout the piece.

Metronome Markings

Metronome markings indicate the tempo in terms of the number of beats per minute, or BPM. This is a more modern method of indicating tempos. It consists of a note value, such as a quarter note, and a number. The number specifies how many of the indicated note value occur per minute. The following example indicates that there are 120 quarter notes per minute:

Metronome marking

The note value can be any rhythm. The number will generally be between 40 and 200, but there is music that falls outside this range.

Textual Tempo Indications

Italian Tempo Indications

Textual indications are generally found in older music, particularly classical music. Here is a list of some of the most common Italian tempo markings and their meanings:

Word Meaning
grave slow, solemn
largo very slow
adagio slow
andante walking speed
moderato moderately
allegro fast
vivace quick and lively
presto very fast

All of these tempo markings are somewhat vague. Different composers may mean different things when they use one of these tempo indications. The relative order of the tempos from slow to fast has also changed over time. Attempts have been made to specify a metronome speed for certain textual tempo indications, but these may vary widely depending on the source and are of limited use. The tempo should be considered within the context of a given piece, interpretation, player, and style. For example, a tempo of quarter note = 100 used for Presto in a work with many 32nd notes may feel too slow if the same tempo is used in a piece that features mostly 16th notes.

Modern Indications

Many modern pieces of music include textual indications such as 'fast rock' or 'slow blues'. These are often used with metronome markings to give a very precise indication of the style and tempo required for the music.

Changing Tempos

The tempo can change throughout a work. The change can be a gradual speeding up or slowing down or it can be a sudden change from one tempo to another.

Gradual Changes

Gradual changes are indicated most commonly by the Italian words accelerando and ritardando. Accelerando means to gradually speed up. Ritardando indicates to gradually slow down. Either of these tempo changes can be used anywhere in a work of music, but ritardando is most commonly found at the end of the music.


Ritardando is usually abbreviated as 'rit.' and a dotted line is used above the notes affected.


Note that the word rallentando is used interchangeably with ritardando to indicate that the tempo should decrease gradually. It appears less frequently than ritardando and is usually abbreviated as 'rall.'


Accelerando is abbreviated as 'accel.' and may include a dotted line above the notes affected by the indication.


Sudden Changes of Tempo

A sudden change from one tempo to another can be indicated in the same way that the tempo at the beginning of a piece of music is indicated. The new tempo is indicated over the staff in the measure where the change occurs.

Textual Tempo Change

Tempo changes with text

Tempo Change with Metronome Markings

Tempo change indicated with metronome markings

Double Time and Half Time

The markings double time and half time are specific tempo indications that mean to double the tempo (double time) or cut it in half (half time). These indications are frequently found in jazz, although they regularly appear in other styles such as rock and heavy metal. If these markings are used, the music will generally return to the original tempo before the end of the piece.

Returning to the Original Tempo

The Italian word 'a tempo' indicates a return to the original tempo of the music. This is the tempo specified at the beginning of the music.

a tempo

The textual indications mentioned in this lesson are only a small portion of the tempo markings in use. There are many more indications in Italian and other languages. A music dictionary is useful for looking up any unfamiliar markings.