How do musicians know how fast to play a piece? And 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.

Mathematical tempo markings of this kind became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century after Johann Nepomuk Mälzel invented the metronome. A metronome is a device that produces a sound at regular intervals. Musicians use metronomes to practice playing at different tempos. Beethoven was the first composer to use the metronome, and in 1817 published BPM tempo indications for all of his symphonies. Early metronomes were rather inconsistent, but modern electronics make BPM markings extremely precise.

Musical pieces do not always have a mathematical time indication. In classical music, it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively and codified.

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). Additional Italian words also indicate a specific mood that adds to the interpretation. For example, a marking of Allegro agitato has both a tempo indication (faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication (agitated). These words at times become used as the composition’s title, with perhaps the most famous example being Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

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 bright (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)

Although Italian has been the prevalent language for tempo markings throughout most of classical music history, many composers have naturally written tempo indications in their own language—most notably, French, German, and English. The composer using the most elaborate combined tempo and mood markings was probably Gustav Mahler. For example, the second movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb, indicating a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution. Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his sixth symphony, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig (Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous). One can easily see that with instructions being given in so many different languages, an orchestral musician must become something of a linguist!