Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (2023)

Table of Tempo Markings ::

Key words:
tempo markings

Table of Tempo Markings

We mentioned in lesson 2 that musical notation is an example of proportional notation. The relationship between notes and rests is formalised but the duration or time value of any particular note is unquantified. Until the invention of a mechanical device called the metronome, the performance speed of a piece of music was indicated in three possible ways:

  • through the use of tempo marks, most commonly in Italian;
  • by reference to particular dance forms whose general tempi would have been part of the common experience of musicians of the time;
  • by the way the music was written down, in particular, the choice of note for the beat and/or the time signature employed.

    The most common tempo related marks are listed below with, in some cases, suggestions as to the number of beat per minute equivalent to those markings.

    Tempo MarkingsDefinitionBeats per minute (bpm)
    setting the tempo
    gravevery slow and solemn40 bpm or slower
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 44 bpm)
    larghissimoextremely slow40 bpm or slower
    lentissimoextremely slow, but not as slow as larghissimo
    adagissimoextremely slow, but slower than largo
    largobroad, very slow and dignified42-66 bpm
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 40 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 46 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 50 bpm)
    larghettoless slow than largo60-66 bpm
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 50 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 60 bpm)
    adagioslow, but not as slow as largo58-97 bpm (some sources suggest 66-76 bpm while others suggest 48-66 bpm)
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 60 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 54 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 70 bpm)
    adagiettoslow, but less slow than adagio
    lentoslow52-108 bpm
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 52 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 52 bpm)
    andantinoa little slower than andante but sometimes a little faster than adagio(a 1950 metronome suggests 66 bpm)
    andantemoving along - walking pace56-88 bpm (some sources suggest 76-108 bpm)
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 69 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 80-100 bpm)
    con motowith movement, or a certain quickness
    moderatomoderate speed66-126 bpm (some sources suggest 120-168 bpm)
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 84 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 80 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 110 bpm)
    allegrettopretty lively(a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 100 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 100 bpm)
    vivacequick and lively~140 bpm
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 144 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 126 bpm)
    allegroquick, lively and bright84-144 bpm
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 120 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 116 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 120-160 bpm)
    prestovery quick100-152 bpm (some sources suggest 168-208 bpm)
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 160 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 144 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 180 bpm)
    allegrissimovery quick, between presto and vivacissimo
    vivacissimovery quick, faster than vivace
    prestissimovery quick - as quickly as possible
    (a nineteenth-century Maezel metronome suggests 184-240 bpm)
    (a 1950 metronome suggests 184 bpm)
    (a modern electronic metronome suggests 200 bpm)
    velocewith velocity, speedily
    changing the tempo
    doppio movimentotwice as fast
    accelerando, accel.getting steadily faster
    stringendogetting faster
    affrettandoto increase speed gradually
    incalzandoto increase speed gradually
    meno mossoslower
    ritardando, rit., ritard.getting gradually slower
    rallentando, rall.getting gradually slower
    tardandogetting gradually slower
    slentandogetting gradually slower
    slendendoslowing down
    strascinandogetting gradually slower
    allargando, allarg.getting slower, and maybe also louder
    calandogetting slower as well as softer
    deficiendogetting slower as well as softer
    mancandogetting slower as well as softer
    morendogetting slower as well as softer
    sminuendogetting slower as well as softer
    smorzandogetting slower as well as softer
    ritenuto, rit., riten.holding back tempo - sometimes suddenly taking a slower tempo
    più mossotake the new section at a faster steady pace than the preceding section
    più mototake the new section at a faster steady pace than the preceding section
    velocetake the new section at a faster steady pace than the preceding section
    ritenutotake the new section at a slower steady pace than the preceding section
    meno mossotake the new section at a slower steady pace than the preceding section
    meno mototake the new section at a slower steady pace than the preceding section
    a temporeturning to a previous tempo
    tempo primoreturning to tempo at beginning
    lunga pausaa long pause
    l'istesso tempothe same tempo but where the meter changes, for example from 2/2 to 6/4
    rubatoa direction related to rhythmic shape rather than tempo - the overall tempo remains unchanged but the rhythmic division within one or more bars is freer than the notes as they are notated
    geschwindermore rapid, swift
    grossemlarge, big
    grandelarge, great
    graveslow, solemn, deep slow
    gravementgravely, solemnly


  • Metrónomo from which some of these metronome markings have been taken
  • 2

    Contemporary Evidence

    Georg Muffat (1653-1704), though of French birth and of Scottish ancestry, considered himself a German and was instrumental in bringing the musical styles of the French and Italian courts into German-speaking countries. As a boy he studied with Lully and others in Paris and so was familiar with the musical style of les Vingt-quatre violins du Roi. With regard to tempo, Muffat, writing in his Auserlesene Instrumentalmusik (pub. 1701), describes the Italian manner which he favours, "in which passages marked with the words Adagio, Grave, Largo, etc. are taken much more slowly than our [German] musicians would play [...]. However, those marked Allegro, Vivace, Presto, Piú Presto, and Prestissimo are taken much livelier and faster."

    Pasquini, an Italian violinist/composer who worked in England in about 1740-50, gave suggested tempi for the performance of Corelli's Concerto da chiesa in G minor fatto per la notte di Natale Op. 6 No. 8, which have come down to us through a publication of 1785 by the English publisher Robert Bremner. These, too, offer guidance on the association between Italian markings and metronome marks for Italian music written in the first half of the eighteenth century.

    Tempo MarkingsTime SignatureBeats per minute
    Movement 1. Vivace3/4crotchet (quarter note) = 96 bpm
    Movement 1. GraveC (4/2)minim (half note) = 60 bpm
    Movement II. AllegroC (4/4)crotchet (quarter note) = 107/108 bpm
    Movement III. AdagioC (4/4)quaver (eighth note) = 60 bpm
    Movement III. AllegroC (4/4)crochet (quarter note) = 160 bpm
    Movement III. AdagioC (4/4)quaver (eighth note) = 60 bpm
    Movement IV. Vivace3/4crotchet (quarter note) = 160 bpm
    Movement V. Allegro2/2minim (half note) = 120 bpm
    Movement V. Pastorale : Largo12/8dotted crotchet (dotted eighth note) = 68/69 bpm

    While it might seem useful to ascribe a particular metronome mark to each tempo mark, you will notice that there is a wide variation associated with each mark and as Andantino demonstrates, not a little confusion. In general, these markings should be used carefully. Very often, the style of the piece of music or the skill of the musician, dictates the range of tempi within which a performance can be convincing and it is this, the 'conviction of the performance' which should be the judge, not rigorous attention to particular tempo markings, which are guides more to 'mood' than to 'speed'.



    Charles Rosen has written an illuminating article on the tempo sign Andante. We quote from it below.

    Andante over the years was the most malleable, the most changeable of musical directions. It might almost seem to have meant at different times all things to all men. Literally it signified simply "going". For a while, in the eighteenth century, it meant "play straightforwardly" - that is, the piece was to be played cleanly in very strict time, and without any of the fancy French stylistic manner of dotted rhythms (the French liked to play the rhythms unevenly, with a pronounced lilt). Handel's andantes in the 1730s and 1740s seem to have been attached most often to pieces which needed a relatively brisk tempo. When he wanted a slower andante, he wrote "Andante larghetto." When he wished the andante faster than his usual relatively quick interpretation of the term, he even noted "Andante allegro" (for example, in Medoro's aria, Vorrei poetrii amar, at the opening of the third act of Orlando). For Handel, andante meant moving forward with a sense of pace and no lingering.

    Mozart's employment of Andante was more moderate than Handel's but it was faster than is sometimes thought today. When his sister mentioned an Adagio in one of his concertos, he corrected her firmly, remarking that all of his recent concertos had andantes, not adagios (for a while in the middle of the eighteenth century, adagio meant not only "slow," but was an invitation to the performer to add many ornaments). Andante was a favorite designation of Mozart, used many hundreds of times.

    Musically, things slowed down in the nineteenth century. Symphonies and operas and quartets became longer; even longer phrases became the rule. Andante, too, slowed, and the tempo mark now signified something more ruminative, more reflective. The real puzzle - and this started in the late eighteenth century - is what is meant by molto andante (very andante) or più andante (more andante): was "more andante" faster or slower than "andante"? Beethoven was not sure and consulted others. Finally he decided that more andante was faster, but then he had to write out an explanation. He was explicit in the variation finale of the Sonata in E Major Op. 109 : the fourth variation is marked "a little but less andante, that is, a little bit more adagio than the theme".

    In my experience, it is one of the most difficult tempos to set; even in the nineteenth century it implies that the listener should not feel the tempo was either fast or slow, but nevertheless with a pace that does not have the bland and dawdling impression of a moderato. Andante generally demands that the music look forward, and move without stumbling or impediment. It neither lingers nor hurries.

    Andante is basically a tempo today which signifies a free movement, continuously progressive, unconstrained and unforced.

    Fermata, Fetura & Caesura ::

    Key words:
    bird's eye
    railroad tracks


    The fermata (also called hold or bird's eye) is a semicircle containing a dot which may lie above or below a note or rest or over a barline.

    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (3)
    there are three uses for the fermata:
    to extend the duration of a notea fermata placed over a note (regardless of note duration) signifies that the performer is to extend the duration of that note by an amount left to the player's or conductor's discretion
    to extend the duration of a resta fermata placed over a rest (regardless of duration) signifies that the performer is to extend the duration of that rest by an amount left to the player's or conductor's discretion
    to insert a silencea fermata placed over a barline signifies that the performer ceases to perform for a period left to the player's or conductor's discretion

    In the article on Performance of Bach's Vocal works, Ton Koopman's discussion with Bradley Lehman includes consideration of the meaning of the fermata mark in the music of J. S. Bach:

    "Take the issue of how to perform fermatas in the chorales - should the note under the fermata be held longer? For a long time the conventional view was not to hold these notes; and then Harnoncourt started to extend them. For years, everybody followed him in extending the fermatas, and then he reverted to the previous practice. And now everybody is following him again! Nobody is thinking why it's being done. So with these things, I (TK) do my own research, and I'm very independent. In the case of the fermatas, I think the earlier practice is the right one - they should not be held. I see no reason to do that. David Schildkret wrote an article about this in the Riemenschneider Bach journal in 1989; after examining many chorale books, he concluded quite clearly that the fermata is just an indication of the transition from one line of the chorale to the next. There's also another indication that you should not slow down at a fermata - and you should be an organist to know that: in the Orgelbüchlein, there are lots of fermatas at the end of individual lines of the chorale melody, but there are semiquavers still going on in one of the other parts. You can see something simililar in some of the early cantatas - the part with the chorale has a fermata, while at the same time the violin obbligato part is still going on, without a pause. So I think nobody can honestly maintain, after having done research, that you should keep the fermatas. Yes, the fermata does mark a cadenza in some arias. But if you want to make cadenzas at those points in the chorales, you should recall that there's one text about Bach's organ playing, where one of his students - I don't remember who it is, I think it was Agricola but I'm not certain - said that Bach didn't like organists who introduced runs and ornaments at the end of chorale lines. So you have corroborating evidence, from several sides, proving that you should not hold fermatas in chorales."


    Fetura & Caesura

    Sometimes the fermata may be followed by a pair of oblique lines, //, lying through the top line of the staff. This is called a fetura or caesura although some conductors may also call them tramlines, railroad tracks or a cut-off. The sign means that there is a silent pause in the onward flow of the musical line. We illustrate the sign below.

    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (4)

    If the passage immediately following a fetura is to be played by a single instrument in free tempo, then it will be marked with the words Colla voce (It.: with the voice) or Colla parte (It.: with the part) meaning that the accompanying instruments should take their tempo from the solo voice or part. A horizontal line will extend above the whole passage to be treated thus.

    In poetry, a caesura is a pause somewhere in the middle of a verse often marked with two vertical lines ||. Some lines of poetry have strong (easily recognizable) caesurae, which usually coincide with punctuation, while others have weak ones.

    Pope was able to keep his heroic couplets interesting by varying the position of the caesurae, as here:

    Alas how changed! || What sudden horrors rise!
    A naked lover || bound and bleeding lies!
    Where, where was Eloise? || her voice, her hand,
    Her poniard, || had opposed the dire command.

    Dance Tempi ::

    Key word:

    Dance Tempi

    If one wants to rely on a dance name to indicate tempo, you must remember that the same dance could have have been danced at different tempi at different times in history. In addition, there is good evidence that when accompanying dancers the tempo should be strict and unvarying.

    The dancing master, Kellom Tomlinson, in 'The Art of Dancing' explained by reading and figures; whereby the manner of performing the steps is made easy by a new and familiar method: being the original work, first designed in the year 1724 ... , tells us:

    "… it may perhaps be objected and at first View with great Show of Reason, that the Time in Dancing is various and liable to be changed to faster or slower, according to the Performer's Fancy ...

    This caused the Ancients to say, the Gods gave a Genius to Music and Dancing; and it is of that Importance in the latter as to render it impossible to please without Keeping Time, nor is it to be called Dancing without it."

    Purely instrumental dance pieces generally have faster tempi than if they were to be used to accompany dancing although there are cases where the instrumental version is actually slower than when danced. Tempi may alter at appropriate moments during the performance, for example, in the last two bars there might be a slight retard. We give below general guidance to the character of the more popular early dance forms.

    Dance NameExpected Speed
    Almana heavy dance
    in 1676 England: 'ayrey and Lively'
    J. S. Bach's time: the Allemande no longer reflected a particular dance form. In a study of allemandes of this period, neither clear choreographic roots nor distinguishable recurring rhythmic patterns have been found; nor do any choreographies survive
    BoureeQuantz (eighteenth century): merry
    Branslemany different tempi, sometimes quick, sometimes slower
    ChaconneQuantz (eighteenth century): played with majesty
    Chichonain 1679 England: a Grave kind of Humour
    in 1679 England: quick, 'full of Sprightfulness, and Vigour, Lively, Brisk and Cheerful'
    Quantz (eighteenth century): played with majesty
    Pierre Rameau (1725): it is a "very solemn dance with a nobler style and grander manner than the others, is very varied in its figures, and has dignified and distinguished movements"
    CorrenteItalian corrente (early eighteenth century): a virtuoso piece for violin or keyboard. It usually consists continuous elaboration in quavers (eighth notes) or semiquavers (sixteenth notes) over a bass in fast triple meter, with simple textures, slow harmonic rhythm, and phrases of varying length. Techniques of elaboration include arpeggiation, sequential repetition, two melodic parts combined into a single line, figures resembling an Alberti bass, and passage-work covering several octaves
    Galliardin the sixteenth century, a spirited danceThomas Mace 1676 "Gailiards, are Lessons of 2, or 3 Strains, but are perform'd in a Slow, and Large Triple-Time; and (commonly) Grave, and Sober"
    the Italian Galliard is sometimes called a salterello
    GavotteQuantz (eighteenth century): more moderate than a Bouree
    GigueQuantz (eighteenth century): quick and merry, lightly
    the most distinctive feature of this characteristically French dance is its graceful lilt, produced by the almost constant use of the sautillant figure: [dotted quaver (dotted eighth note), semiquaver (sixteenth note), quaver (eighth note)]
    Gigathe Giga is, by the Baroque period, no longer a dance form but an instrumental piece
    Groundin 1679 England: 'Slow Notes, very Grave and Stately'
    Lourein moderate 6/4 time and with dotted rhythms leaning heavily on the strong beats
    Menuetin 1703 France: very merry dance originating from Poitou
    in 1750 France: it is noble and elegant, moderate rather than fast
    MarcheQuantz (eighteenth century): played seriously
    Passacaille, Passacagliasee Quantz (eighteenth century): similar to a Chaconne but a little quicker
    Pavannein 1507 London: a 'staide musicke'
    in 1676 England: grave and sober
    RigaudonQuantz (eighteenth century): merry
    Sarabandein 1679 England: Toyish, and Light
    at the same time in France it was slow and pathetic
    the sarabands of Handel and Bach are generally slow movements
    TambourinQuantz (eighteenth century): a little faster than a Bouree
    Tattle de Moyin 1679 England: like a [quicker] Saraband only 'It has more of Conceit in It .. and Humour'

    Early dance is a very specialist field and we recommend two pioneering books for further reference:

  • Mabel Dolmetsch, Dances of England and France from 1450 to 1600 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul [1949])
  • Mabel Dolmetsch, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400 to 1600 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul [1954])


  • Baroque Dance and the Bach Cello Suites by Tim Janof from which we have drawn some of the information in the table above
  • Dance History Archives - an excellent resource about the history and character of dance
  • Tempo through Notation ::

    Key words:

    Tempo through Notation

    In his Interpretation of Music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Arnold Dolmetsch wrote:

    The proper tempo of a piece of music can usually be discovered by an intelligent musician, if he is in sympathy with its style, and possesses sufficient knowledge of the instrument for which it is written. But here agin we must guard against prejudices and so-called tradition, for many a musician who would be sensitive enough to the tempo of modern music, will not hesitate at committing the most glaring absurdity when old music is concerned.

    Dolmetsch was writing early in the twentieth century when there was little knowledge about early music, early dance or of the characteristics of the instruments on which it might have been played. Even today almost a hundred years later, many of us have never danced a Pavan or Polka and a piece of music bearing such a title would have us none the wiser as to the way it was danced nor how it might be performed.

    At the end of the fifteenth century, the Italian musical theorist Franchinus Gaffurius (1451-1522) commented that the tactus, the tempo of a semibreve (whole note), is equal to the pulse of a man who is breathing quietly — presumably about 72 beats per minute. Today, in order to make early music easier for modern musicians to read, many modern editors replace all the notes in a work with notes half their time value. Where the principal beat might originally have been a minim (half note), it is now rewritten as a crotchet (quarter note). This 'modernisation' of notation makes it impossible to use the fact that in the sixteenth century 'white music', that filled with breves (double whole notes), semibreves (whole notes) and minims (half notes) was generally played much faster than 'black' music, that filled with crotchets (quarter notes), quavers (eighth notes) and semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

    There is good evidence from tutors published in the early eighteenth century that time signatures could indicate tempi. Some are given in the table below. The two sources are 'The Compleat Flute Master' (London c.1700) and 'The Compleat Tutor for the Violin by Mr. Dean' (London, 1707).

    time signatureexpected speed (Flute Master - c.1700)expected speed (Violin Master - 1707)
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (7)very slow motion

    from John Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Musick (London 1694), Christopher Simpson's A Compendium of Practical Musick (London 1667) and Thomas Mace's Musik's Monument (London 1676), Ephraim Segerman has estimated this to be about MM=60

    very solid or slow movement
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (8)somewhat fasterquicker
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (9)brisk and light Ayres

    Ephraim Segerman has estimated this is equivalent to MM=120

    as quick again as the first, and are called 'retorted time', shown, in French music, with a large number two sometimes crossed with a vertical line
    some writers maintained that, reading from top to bottom, the three signs above indicated exact proportions of (4:2:1)
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (10)grave movementmuch quicker
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (11)fast, for jiggs, paspies, etc.
    Dolmetsch Online - Music Theory Online (12)much quicker

    Here again, considering only two methods published within a few years of each other, there is a certain amount of disagreement and it is a wise musician that uses this information carefully. Certainly, what evidence it provides can only be applied very narrowly to music performed in London at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

    Metronome Marks ::

    Key words:

    Metronome Marks

    Ascribing accurate tempi to music was something many musicians sought. In his Harmonie Universelle published in 1636, Mersenne gives the time value of a 'Minim' as that of a beat of the heart.

    The first metronome was invented by Étienne Loulié in 1696. His device was rather tall; 2 metres high (almost 7 feet). A number of mechanical improvements lead to the modern (spring-operated) portable metronome. These were carried out by Ditrich Nikolaus Winkel (1780-1826) and Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838). As they worked independently there was some dispute as to which had arrived first at the various technical improvements. In the end, Maelzel, the better business-man, made the metronome available to a larger public and, as a result, it is his name that figures in the famous tempo sign: MM=120 - MM is short for 'Maelzel's Metronome'.

    Composers who insisted on their music being performed at exactly the right tempo welcomed the metronome because now they could give an exact number of beats per minute (bpm). They supplied recommended metronome markings above the published music so that everybody knew what they wanted. However, we must approach such marks with a degree of caution. We know, from a letter he wrote to a publisher, that Beethoven's metronome marks were only valid for the opening bars - it was not his intention that they persist through the movement as a whole. In addition, we know that many of the early metronomes were inferior and did not always run reliably. In other cases, the editors or publishers added their own marks with no regard as to the composers' intentions. These mechanical devices have now been superceded by solid state electronic devices that are more reliable and much cheaper to manufacture. Metronome marks should be treated just like any other tempo marking - as a guide, to be ignored if the result is impractical or unmusical. Brahms insisted on great tempo flexibility. One of his most famous statements on tempo relates to the metronome. He said, "I have never believed that my blood and a mechanical instrument go together".


  • A Short History of Metronomes
  • Download Your Own Metronome
  • How many BPM is that tune?
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