Section 3.5: Tempos and Style (2023)

OFFTONIC THEORY
   Part I: Preliminaries
      Chapter 3: Notation


3.5 Tempos and Style

All right, this will be lots of fun. Or not. Actually, probably not. For historical reasons, the language of music is Italian. As a result, a lot of the written instructions are in Italian. You didn't expect that music had so much verbal shit, did you? Now, I don't use a lot of Italian terms in my music. I give directions in English, which the people I'm writing for understand. But back when music notation was a thing only Europeans did, it was useful for them to agree on a language. Not all of them did. You try playing Schumann, and he's got instructions in German all over the place. Nicht schnell, Schumann, nicht schnell. I think that means "not fast". I don't know German. I believe in forgiveness, but what the Germans did to us was unforgivable.

You realize the Nazis are gone, right? Germany has actually banned being a Nazi. They're nice, friendly people today. Do you seriously hold this historical grudge against modern Germany?

The fuck you talkin' 'bout Nazis for? I'm bitter over the 2014 World Cup. Fuck you, entire nation of Germany. Fuck you.

(Video) Tempo di Menuetto - in the style of Pugnani

Ah, right, you're Brazilian. OK, that's completely understandable.

Thank you. So let's get right on it. These are basic tempo directions. Tempo markings are not even close to suggestions. You can totally disagree with them. What does the composer really mean when he says "Very Slowly"? Who knows. Does the music feel very slow to you? If not, then maybe you should slow down?

In all of this, keep in mind some of the basic Italian connecting words: con means "with"; senza means "without". Più means "more"; meno means "less". Molto means "a lot"; poco means "a little". Quasi means "almost". And, of course, the suffix -issimo means "very", as does the word assai, and generally -ando, -endo, and -indo mean "-ing", depending on the verb form (I don't actually know Italian either, but it's similar enough to Portuguese in these respects). Ma non troppo means "but not too much", and ma non tanto means "but not so much". Poco a poco means "little by little", useful in very gradual changes; sempre means "always". If you at least know this basic grammar stuff, music will be much more readable. Anyway, tempo markings:

Largo, lento
Very slow (like, 40-60 BPM); means "broadly" and "slowly", respectively. Larghissimo means "very largo", so slower still. Larghetto is just weird Italian, and it's basically "largo-ish", presumably somewhat less largo than largo itself.
Adagio
Slow (like, 60-80 BPM); means "at ease". Adagissimo, of course, is "very adagio", and adagietto is "adagio-ish". Whatever that means.
Andante
Walking speed (like, 80-110 BPM). Andantino is "andante-ish" and nobody is quite sure whether this is faster or slower than Andante. This is why you use metronome markings instead of vague Italian terms, people.
Moderato
Moderately (like, 110-140 BPM). It can be used as a modifier, like "allegro moderato".
Allegro
Fast (like, 140-170 BPM); means "cheerful". Allegrissimo is "very allegro" and allegretto is "allegro-ish".
Presto, rapido
Very fast (like, 170-200 BPM). Prestissimo is "very presto"; if you see this, just play as fast as you can.

Sometimes, the tempo changes. Here are the basic tempo changes:

Ritardando or Ritenuto (rit.)
Slow down gradually, generally until told otherwise. A lot of music has a dotted line for the duration of the ritard. For dramatic slowdowns you might see "molto rit."; for slight ones, "poco rit.". Wikipedia tells me that the ritenuto is more sudden than the ritardando, but you can safely ignore this difference.
Rallentando (rall.)
Broaden gradually, generally until told otherwise. A lot of music has a dotted line for the duration of the rallentando. For dramatic slowdowns you might see "molto rall."; for slight ones, "poco rall.". I personally use the rallentando at big pauses, like at the end of a piece, and I use the ritardando for more functional changes in tempo. This distinction is arbitrary, though. Both terms are basically synonymous.
Allargando, meno mosso
Broadening and less motion (slower), respectively.
Accelerando (accel.)
Speed up gradually; same rules as for the rit. or rall. You might see "poco accel." or "molto accel." as well.
Stringendo (string.), affretando
Tighten gradually. Same as accelerando, but possibly more subtle?
Più mosso
More motion (faster).
Meno mosso
Less motion (slower).
a tempo
When a ritard or accelerando, or something else, changes the tempo, a tempo brings the tempo back.
Tempo I or tempo primo or come prima
When there's a tempo change in a middle section, Tempo I brings the first section's tempo back. The difference between a tempo and Tempo I is that a tempo is to restore the current tempo that has been slowed down or sped up for whatever reason, while Tempo I is to restore an old tempo after a different one was in effect. Come prima just means "like the first part", whether in tempo or anything else.
L'istesso Tempo
Same tempo. Used in a metric modulation when the new tempo is the same as the old one even though the beat may change.

The above are strictly tempo-based markings with no meaning other than communicating tempo. There's a whole host of other directions that mix tempo with style.

(Video) Taylor Swift ft. Lana del Rey - Snow On The Beach (Official Lyric Video)

Agitato
Agitated. Fast.
Tempo di Marcia/alla marcia; Tempo di Polacca/alla polacca; Tempo di Menuetto, etc.
In the tempo or manner of the specified musical style. In Europe there used to be some courtly dances people would do, a kind of "elevated" form of folk dancing for the aristocrats, and composers would write music for them. Eventually, they started using the dances as merely inspiration for the music instead of the actual setting: nobody actually dances the waltz to Chopin's waltzes! Still, they assume that you know how fast they're supposed to go and just tell you "go at the tempo of a mazurka" or whatever. If you're an expert in dancing the mazurka you may be OK with this instruction (or you may find it incredibly shallow and disrespectful of the noble art of the mazurka; I don't know because I'm not a mazurka expert), but for the rest of us... just pick a tempo that sounds good. That usually goes for everything, actually.
Animato
Animated. Fast.
Appassionato
Passionately. Maybe with inconstant tempo.
Con brio
With fervor. Fast.
Calando, morendo, perdendosi, smorzando (smorz.), etc.
Quieting or dying, respectively; usually indicates slowing down and getting quiet.
Cantabile
Singingly. This one is a bit tough to describe, but it's one of the most important descriptors of music. When you sing a cantabile melody, you should sing out, project, make notes long, exaggerate dynamics, that sort of thing. It's actually a big change from singing a background part, where your main goal is not standing out of the texture but blending in. We'll talk more about singing later, but when you see cantabile on the music, you need to bring that character to it, even if you're not actually singing. You can play a piano melody cantabile if you bring the right sensibility to it. In your own music, whatever genre it might be, knowing how to perform a melody cantabile makes the difference between a whatever and a real melody. Not all melodies work this way, but when one does, if you don't do it cantabile you will disappoint the listener. For examples, just listen to any great singer in any genre sing anything.
Dolce, teneramente, con amore
Sweetly, tenderly, with love.
Doloroso
Painfully.
Espressivo (espr.)
Expressively. Exaggerate dynamics!
Con forza, con tutta forza
Strongly, or with all possible strength, respectively. Loud!
Con fuoco
With fire. Heavy and fast.
Furioso
Furiously. Sometimes seen as a tempo descriptor: "allegro furioso". Much more rarely, it means "epic", as in "Orlando Furioso".
Grave
Slowly, seriously. Sometimes this is a tempo marking in the neighborhood of lento or largo.
Grazioso
Gracefully. Probably lightly too.
Leggiero
Lightly. Quick, with short notes and light articulations.
Maestoso
Majestically. Usually this is fairly slow.
Con moto, con slancio
Moving, or with momentum, respectively.
Pesante, stentando
Heavily. Usually involves slow heavy bass stuff, as opposed to light short flute stuff.
Risoluto
Resolutely. Usually quite martial.
Ritmico
Rhythmically. How do you not play things rhythmically, you may ask? By being loose with the rhythm or deemphasizing it. If the piece is marked ritmico, then the thing to do is make the listener quite aware of the rhythms, the pulse, etc. by using clear articulation.
Rubato
Literally means "stolen", but in music it means that the tempo is not strict. So if you want to take a bit longer here or go a little faster there, that's desirable. It's obviously the total opposite of ritmico. In non-solo works, the leader of the ensemble should guide everyone on how to vary the tempo. That's one of the conductor's main jobs, in fact!
Scherzando
Playfully. Usually quick and light.
Secco
Dry. It might involve separation of notes, staccatos, etc.
Sostenuto
Sustained. Very slowly, generally.
Tranquillo
Calm. Slow.
Vivace, vivo
Lively. Fast.

How do these apply? Like, if the piece is marked "pesante", how is that different from if it's written "leggiero"?

They're really more about feel than anything specific, and they're also not independent from the music. Some music is written in a way that's obviously pesante (lots of long low sounds, for example) and some is written in a way that's obviously leggiero (lots of quick high sounds). You can get a tuba to play lightly, but you can't really get a piccolo to play heavily! Generally, you'll want to have the feeling in mind when you play.

Just... have it in mind? How the hell does that work?

It's magic. Human nature magic, I guess. If you smile with your eyes, you will sound happier (if you smile with your lips, you will sound like an idiot). If you think heavy thoughts, your music will sound heavier. You kind of subconsciously make those adjustments in timing, expression, and articulation.


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