Musical Terms and Their Definitions:
This list of musical terms is rather extensive and geared more towards the pianist although any musician could find most of their answers from this list (for an example of how this is geared more towards pianists, see "pizzicato"). Please E-mail any suggested additions or corrections.
A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - K - L - M - N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W
8va, 8vb – 8va instructs the performer to play the notes one octave away from where they are notated. Generally if the “8va” is located above the written notes, the performer should play the notes one octave higher than where they are written. Likewise if “8va” is written below the notes, then the performer should play them one octave lower than where they are written. Some composers use “8vb” to indicate one octave below. These indications are also often accompanied by dotted lines to indicate the duration of the octave change. At the conclusion of the octave change, composers often indicate to start playing the notes exactly where written with the term “loco”. See also: “loco”.
15ma – in the same way that “8va” instructs performers to play the written notes one octave higher or lower, “15ma” is used to indicate a change of two octaves. See also: “8va”.
a piacere – see “piacere”.
a tempo – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music at the previous tempo. This sort of indication often appears after a “ritardando” or other temporary “tempo” altering indication.
absolute music – music that contains no extra-musical references. This kind of music usually does not contain any kind of descriptive titles. Examples of pieces of this type would include most sonatas and concertos. See also: program music.
accelerando – becoming faster (usually abbreviated: accel.). See also: “stringendo”.
accent – emphasizing a tone by playing it louder than the tones around it. See also: “articulation”.
acciaccatura – literally: to crush. A type of “ornament” (usually in 17th and 18th century keyboard music) in which a “dissonant” note is played at the same time as a “consonant” note. See also: “ornament”, “mordent”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “trill”, “Nachschlag”.
accidental – in musical notation, any of the symbols used to raise or lower a pitch by one-two “half steps” that are not placed in the “key signature”. See also: “flat”, “sharp”, “natural”, “half step”, “key signature”.
accompaniment – the part of a musical “texture” that plays a supportive role usually in order to accompany a “melody”. See also: “melody”, “texture”, “homophonic texture”.
ad libitum – at the pleasure of the performer. Usually it is used to indicate that a part of a piece may be omitted (in a piece with several instruments or voices) or it can indicate that the performer can “improvise” “ornamentation” or brand new material (such as a “cadenza”) or it could indicate that the performer can vary the “tempo”. See also” improvisation”, “ornamentation”, “cadenza”, “tempo”.
adagio – tempo indication. Slow. Faster than largo and slower than lento. See also “tempo”.
affettuoso – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music “affectionately” or “tenderly”.
affrettando – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music in a hurried manner.
agitato – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music in an agitated or excited manner.
alla – “in the style of”. This term usually comes before another word. Example: “alla marcia” is a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music in the style of a march.
allargando – broadening and becoming slower. This slowing down in tempo is usually accompanied by a crescendo. The idea is to produce the overall effect of the feel of the music becoming more broad.
allegretto – tempo indication. Not as fast as allegro. Also usually with a sense of a light character. See also “tempo”.
allegro – tempo indication. Fast. See also “tempo”.
amabile – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music in a sweet (amiable) style. See also: “dolce”.
amoroso – a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music “lovingly”. See also: “amabile”, “dolce”.
andante – tempo indication. Literally "walking", a medium slow tempo. See also “tempo”.
ancora – “again” (Italian). The French version is: “encore”. Besides the typical usage in English for this word, it can also be used in combination with other Italian words: “ancora più forte” essentially meaning to perform even louder.
animato – “animated”. A performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music more animated or becoming more animated. This usually refers to playing in a faster tempo.
animé – animated (French). See also: gravement, lent, vif, vite.
appassionato – impassioned.
appoggiatura – a type of “ornament” consisting of two notes: the “appoggiatura” itself is most often a “dissonance” (most often a “note” one step above the principle “note”) happening on a rhythmically strong “beat” followed by the principle “note” on a rhythmically less strong beat. It is usually indicated in the same manner as a “grace note”. See also: “ornament”, “mordent”, “turn”, “trill”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
arioso – in piano music, it refers to an “arioso” style. This means that the music is songlike (with a clear singing melody) and therefore reminiscent of an “aria”. The most well-known example of this is found in Beethoven’s Op. 110 Piano Sonata.
arpeggio – a “chord” whose “notes” are sounded one at a time rather than simultaneously. See also: “chord”.
articulation – this term refers to the various different ways that tones are performed according to their initial “attack” and the decay of the tone. See also: “staccato”, “legato”, “accent”, “marcato”, “sforzando”.
assai – literally means “much” or “very much”. One common usage is “allegro assai” meaning very fast.
augmented triad – a “triad” composed of four half-steps between the bottom two “pitches” and four half-steps between the upper two “pitches”. This chord can be indicated as such the following ways: Aug, +. See also: “triad”, “minor”, “diminished”, “Major”.
authentic cadence – a type of “cadence” involving two “chords”: “dominant” progressing to “tonic”. See also: “cadence”, “chord”, “phrase”, “dominant”, “tonic”.
bar line – a vertical line used to mark off measures.
Baroque Era – in "Western Art Music, the style period lasting from roughly 1600-1750. For more details on its characteristics, see “Description of Four Style Periods”. See also: "Classical Era", "Romantic Era", Modern Era", "Western Art Music".
bass clef – a symbol placed at the beginning of the staff indicating the specific names of the lines and spaces for the staff on which it is placed. The bass clef is also called the “F clef” since it indicates that the fourth line (counting up from the bottom) is the “F” below “middle C”. See also “clef”, “treble clef”, “staff”.
beat – regular, recurrent pulsation that divides music into equal units of time.
ben, bene – literally means “well”. The most common usage is “ben marcato” meaning well marked. See also “marcato”.
binary form – a 2-Part form: AB. Usually each section is set apart by repeats. See also: “form”
brillante – literally means “brilliant”. This usually refers to a manner of playing that should be very vivacious or excited.
brio – literally “spirit”. Typically found with “allegro con brio” meaning “fast with spirit”.
cadence – a resting place at the end of a phrase. See also: “authentic cadence”, “plagal cadence”, “half cadence”, “deceptive cadence”, “tonic triad”, “dominant triad”, “phrase”.
cadenza – most often found during a concerto, this is a point in the music during which the orchestra stops playing for several minutes and the soloist performs material from earlier in the piece usually presented in a showy, flashy manner. This was originally improvised during the “classical era”. Also typical of “classical era” “concertos”, when it is time for the orchestra to come back in, the soloist performs a “trill”. The cadenza was typically located at the end of the first movement during the “classical era”. See also: “concerto”, “double exposition”, “classical era”, “trill”.
calando – decreasing in speed and getting softer.
cantabile – literally “singable” or in a song-like manner. It refers to a manner of playing that emphasizes the lyrical qualities of a passage.
capriccio – a humorous or bizarre piece. “a capriccio” indicates to perform in a humorous style.
chamber music – music that is generally designed to be performed in the intimate setting of a room, rather than in a large, public concert hall (though chamber music is often performed in large concert halls these days). It is usually performed by a small group of 2-9 musicians, with one player per part.
chord – a combination of 3 or more tones sounded together. See also: “harmony”, “triad”, “tonic”, “dominant”.
chromatic scale – a “scale” consisting entirely of “half steps”. See also: “half step”, “scale”.
Classical Era – in "Western Art Music", the style period lasting from roughly 1750-1820. For more details on its characteristics, see “Description of Four Style Periods”. See also "Baroque Era", "Romantic Era", "Modern Era", "Western Art Music".
clef – a symbol placed at the beginning of a staff to indicate the names of the lines and spaces. See also “treble clef”, “bass clef”, “staff”.
coda – literally “tail”. A coda is the “end” of the piece. Usually this term is used with “DC al coda” which instructs the performer to return to the beginning of the piece, then go to the coda (when another symbol or text indicates to do so). It is also often found with “DS al coda” meaning to return to “the sign” then to the coda.
compound meter – a meter in which the basic rhythmic pulse (or beat) is divided into groups of three. The best way to determine if a meter is a compound meter is by looking at the top number of the time signature. If the top number is a 6, 9, 12, 15, etc. then you have a compound meter. Examples of compound meters include: 6/8, 6/4, 9/8, 12/8, and 6/16. See also “meter”, “simple meter”, “measure”, “beat”, “measure”.
Compound Ternary Form – (often called "Minuet and Trio Form") This is a very large “ternary form” in which each of the “A” and “B” sections contains its own “binary form”. It can be diagrammed as follows: a,b; c,d; a,b. In this way “a,b” is the first main section followed by “c,d” (2nd main section) which is then followed by an exact repeat (most often) of the first main setion. See also: “form”, “binary form”, “ternary form”.
comodo – (also “comodamente”) literally “comfortable” or “easy”. Usually referring to tempo, it indicates that the tempo should produce the effect of the music sounding comfortable or easy (not rushed or hurried).
con – literally “with”. Typical usages include “con moto” (with motion – meaning that the tempo should move along and not drag), “con sordino” (with mutes – see “con sordino”), “con brio” (with spirit – see “brio”), “con dolore” (with sorrow), “con forza” (with force), “con fuoco” (with fire), “con giusto” (with taste), “con passione” (with passion), “con spirito” (with spirit – similar to “con brio”).
con sordino – “with mutes”. In piano music, this term can be used to mean that the performer should use the left pedal. See also: “senza sordini”, “una corda”, “tre corde”.
concerto – the solo concerto features a soloist accompanied by an entire orchestra. For example, a piano concerto would feature a pianist on stage with an orchestra behind him/her. Concertos are usually three movements long: the first movement is usually fast and in “sonata form”, the second movement is usually slow and in “ternary form”, and the third movement is usually fast and in “rondo form”. See also: “sonata form”, “ternary form”, “rondo form”, “movement”, “double exposition”, “cadenza”.
consonance – the perceived stability of two or more “tones”. See also: “dissonance”, “chord”, “triad”, “tone”.
Contemporary Era – in "Western Art Music", the style period lasting from roughly 1900-present day. For more details on its characteristics, see “Description of Four Style Periods”. See also "Baroque Era", "Classical Era", "Romantic Era", "Western Art Music".
counterpoint – see “polyphonic texture”.
crescendo – becoming louder. See also “dynamics”.
da capo, D.C. – literally “to the head” meaning to return to the beginning of a piece (usually abbreviated “DC”).
dal segno, D.S. – literally “to the sign” meaning to return to the sign (looks like a sideways “S” with a slash through it). This term is usually used with “DS al coda” indicating to return to the sign then proceed to the coda at the indicated time or “DS al fine” meaning to return to the sign then “finish” the piece at the “fine”.
decrescendo – becoming softer. The same as diminuendo. See also “dynamics”.
delicato – literally “delicately” meaning to perform the music in a delicate manner.
diminished triad – a “triad” composed of three half-steps between the bottom two “pitches” and three half-steps between the upper two “pitches”. This chord can be indicated as such the following ways: dim., o. See also: “triad”, “minor”, “Major”, “Augmented”.
diminuendo – becoming softer. Generally considered the same as decrescendo. See also “dynamics”.
dissonance – the perceived instability of two or more tones. See also: “consonance”, “chord”, “triad”, “tone”.
dolce – (also dolcissimo). “sweetly” This is a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music in a sweet manner. See also: “amabile”.
dolente – literally “sad” meaning to perform the music in a sad-sounding manner.
dominant chord – the “chord” built upon the fifth “scale degree”. It is “Major” in a “Major” “key” and “minor” in a “minor” “key” although it is almost always altered to be “Major” in a minor key. It has a tendency to gravitate towards the “tonic chord”. See also: “chord”, “scale degree”, “authentic cadence”, “Major”, “minor”.
doppio movimento – indicates a sudden change in tempo that is twice as fast. See also: “tempo”.
double bar line – a “bar line” (see “bar line”) that have two vertical lines with the second one being thicker. The double bar line indicates the end of a piece of music.
Double Exposition – a type of sonata form most often found in the first movement of “classical era” concertos. It features two expositions: the first is performed entirely by the orchestra and the second includes the soloist. See also: “concerto”, “sonata form”, “cadenza”, “movement”, “classical era”.
downbeat – the first, or stressed beat of the measure. See also “beat”, “rhythm”.
dynamics – the relative loudness and softness of sound. From loudest to softest, the most common dynamic indications are: fortissimo, forte, mezzo forte, mezzo piano, piano, pianissimo. Other terms indicate changes in loudness or softness such as decrescendo and crescendo.
eighth note – a kind of “note” that looks like a black oval with a stick attached vertically to it and then one flag attached to the far end of that stick. The name is derived from the fact that its duration is 1/8 that of a “whole note”. In 4/4 time, the “eighth note” receives half a beat of duration. See also “note”, “rest”, “beat”.
espressivo – literally “expressively” meaning to play in an expressive manner. I have often found this term to be somewhat strange (Why should composers have to indicate when we should play “expressively”? Shouldn’t we always do that?). Exactly how one should realize this term in the performance of any given piece depends upon the situation. Your teacher should be able to help you decide how to best interpret this term in a specific situation.
facile, facilmente – literally “simple” meaning to play the music in a manner that sounds simple. See also “semplice”.
feroce – literally “ferocious” or “fierce” meaning to play the music in a manner that sounds ferocious.
fine – literally “finish”. This term is used to indicate the end of a piece (usually found at a double bar line). See also “da capo” and “dal segno”.
flat – a symbol placed to the left of a “note” indicating to perform the “pitch” one “half step” lower than the “natural” “pitch” that is notated. The symbol itself looks like: b. A double flat (bb) indicates to perform the pitch two half steps lower. See also: “interval”, “sharp”, “natural”, “half step”.
form – the organization of musical ideas in time. Form usually deals with the organization of music on a larger scale. See also: binary form, ternary form, sonata form, compound ternary form, rondo form, theme and variations.
forte – loud. (often abbreviated: “f”) This instructs the performer to play loudly. This is louder than mezzo forte and softer than fortissimo. See also “dynamics”.
fortissimo – very loud (often abbreviated: “ff”) This instructs the performer to play very loudly. This is louder than forte. See also “dynamics”
frequency – the number of vibrations per second produced by a sound (Hertz – Hz.)
furioso – literally “furious” or “violent” meaning to perform the music in a furious manner.
geschwind – quick, fast (German). See also “langsam”, “mäßig”, “schnell”, “lebhaft”, “rasch”.
giocoso – literally “playful” meaning to play the music in a playful manner.
grace note – a type of “ornament” indicated with smaller type than the notes around it (often crossed out as well). The “grace note” is not a rhythmically precise “note” and it takes its time from one of the notes around it. See also: “ornament”, “mordent”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “trill”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
Grand Staff – the resulting combination of the two (treble on top and bass below) staves (plural for staff) placed next to each other and connected with a brace on the far left side and bar lines that run the full height of both staves.
grandioso – literally “grandly” meaning to play the music in a grand manner.
grave – tempo indication. Very slow and solemn, serious. Usually slower than adagio though sometimes roughly equivalent.
gravement – gravely, solemnly (French). See also: lent, vif, animé, vite.
grazioso – literally “graceful” meaning to perform the music in a graceful manner.
half note – a kind of “note” that looks like an oval with a stick (stem) attached vertically to it. The name is derived from the fact that its duration is half that of a “whole note”. In 4/4 time, the “half note” receives two beats of duration. See also “note”, “rest”, “beat”.
half step – the “interval” from one pitch to the very next. On the piano, it is the distance from one piano key to the very next white or black key. See also: “interval”, “whole step”, “sharp”, “flat”, “natural”, “accidental”.
harmony – refers to the relationships of two or more tones sounded simultaneously and the way such relationships are organized in time. See also: “chord”, “tonic”, “dominant”, “cadence”.
homophonic texture – one main melody accompanied by chords. See also: “texture”, “monophonic texture”, “polyphonic texture”, “melody”, “accompaniment”.
impetuoso – literally “impetuous” or “raging” meaning to play the music in an impetuous manner.
improvisation – the process in which the performer creates original material during performance. Often improvisation must happen within certain guidelines such as following a particular progression of chords.
inquieto – literally “restless” or “anxious” meaning to perform the music in a restless manner.
instrument – ANY mechanism, other than the voice, that produces musical sounds.
interval – the distance between two tones.
Key – the way in which the pitch relationships indicate the central tone about which the harmonic scheme of the piece revolves. Music that is in a “key” is usually either in a Major Key or a minor key. This kind of music is also described as being “tonal”. See also: “Major Key”, “minor key”, “tonality”, “atonality”.
Key Signature – an arrangement of sharps or flats located at the far left of every staff. This collection of sharps or flats indicates the “pitches” to be used during the given piece of music. For example, if an F# is indicated in the “key signature”, then every “F” encountered in the piece must be played as F# unless otherwise indicated. See also: “key”, “tonal”, “sharp”, “flat”, “accidental”.
langsam – slowly (German). See also “mäßig”, “schnell”, “lebhaft”, “rasch”.
larghetto – tempo indication. Not quite as slow as largo. See also “tempo”.
largo – tempo indication. Slow and broad. See also “tempo”.
leading tone – the 7th note in a scale located one “half step” below “tonic”. In a “minor key”, the leading tone must be altered with an “accidental” in order to be a true leading tone. See also: “scale degree”, “scale”., “Major key”, “minor key”.
lebhaft – lively (like the Italian “vivace”). (German) See also “langsam”, “mäßig”, “schnell”, “rasch”.
Ledger Line – a short line running parallel to the lines of the staff and located above or below the staff as needed when the staff itself does not posses enough lines and/or spaces to notate the desired pitch. The line represents a continuation of the lines of the staff.
legato – a manner of playing (a kind of “articulation”) in which the means of connecting one not to another produces the effect of sounding smooth and connected. In the most literal sense, legato is holding one note until the next is sounded without any silence in between the two. See also “articulation” and “staccato”.
leggiero – lightly, delicately.
lent – slow (French). See also: gravement, vif, animé, vite.
lento – tempo indication. Slow. Faster than adagio and slower than andante. See also “tempo”.
l'istesso tempo – an indication used when the "meter" of a piece of music changes, but the speed of the beat stays the same. For example, when changing from 4/4 to 2/2, the quarter note pulse in 4/4 will equal the half note pulse in 2/2. See also: “beat”, “meter”, “tempo”.
maestoso – literally “majestic” meaning to perform the music in a majestic manner.
Major Key – a “key” in which the collection of notes is based upon the “Major Scale”. See also: “key”, “Major Scale”.
Major Scale – a type of “scale” in which the pattern of “whole steps” and “half steps” is as follows: WWhWWWh. See also: “scale”, “whole step”, “half step”, “key”, “Major Key”.
Major Triad – a “triad” composed of four half-steps between the bottom two “pitches” and three half-steps between the upper two “pitches”. This chord can be indicated as such the following ways: Maj., M. See also: “triad”, “minor triad”, “diminished”, “Augmented”.
marcato – (marc.) marked or emphasized.
martellato – hammered. To play with a hammered touch.
marziale – literally “martial”. This usually refers to a “march” when found in music and is often interpreted as meaning “march-like”.
mäßig – moderately (German). See also “langsam”, “schnell”, “lebhaft”, “rasch”.
measure – a group containing a fixed number of beats.
melody – a series of single notes which add up to a recognizable whole. Usually a tune that lends itself to singing. See also: “accompaniment”, “texture”, “homophonic texture”, “monophonic texture”, “polyphonic texture”.
meno – literally “less”. It is often paired with the term “mosso” meaning motion. “Meno mosso” therefore indicates a change in tempo: less movement or slower. Literally: less motion. This change is usually sudden, as if indicating a new tempo. See also “più mosso”.
mesto – literally “sad” or “melancholy” meaning to perform the music in a sad manner.
meter – the organization of beats into regular groups. The same as “time signature”. A meter is classified according to how many beats there are in each measure and how the beat is divided (into two parts in simple meters and three parts in compound meters). Meters with two beats per measure are usually called duple (such as 2/4, 2/2, 6/4, 6/8, and 6/16). Meters with three beats per measure are usually called triple (such as 3/4, 3/8, 9/8, and 9/16). Meters with four beats per measure are usually called quadruple (such as 4/4, 12/8, and 12/16). See also “simple meter”, “compound meter”, “beat”, “measure”, and “rhythm”.
mezza voce – (“half voice”) To play with a restrained sound – half voice. See also: “sotto voce”.
mezzo forte – moderately loud (often abbreviated: “mf”) This instructs the performer to play moderately loud. This is louder than mezzo piano and softer than forte. See also “dynamics”.
mezzo piano – moderately soft (often abbreviated: “mp”) This instructs the performer to play moderately soft. This is louder than piano and softer than mezzo forte. See also “dynamics”.
Minor Chord - see "Minor Triad".
Minor Key – a “key” in which the collection of notes is based upon the natural “minor scale”. See also: “key”, “minor scale”, “scale”, “relative keys”, “parallel keys”.
Minor Scale – a “scale” in which the “half step” between the 2nd and 3rd “scale degrees” is characteristic. There are three types of minor scales: natural (the notes are derived from the “minor key” signature and have the following pattern: WhWWhWW), harmonic (characterized by a raised 7th “scale degree” or “leading tone” and having the following pattern: WhWWh – W+h – h), and melodic (characterized by a raised 6th and 7th scale degree ascending and using the natural minor scale descending). See also: “scale”, “minor key”, “key”, “scale degree”, “leading tone”.
Minor Triad – a “triad” composed of three half-steps between the bottom two “pitches” and four half-steps between the upper two “pitches”. This chord can be indicated as such the following ways: min, m, - . See also: “triad”, “Major triad”, “diminished”, “Augmented”.
Minuet and Trio Form – see “Compound Ternary Form”.
misterioso – literally “mysterious” meaning to perform the music in a manner that allows it to sound mysterious.
moderato – tempo indication. Moderate, or medium tempo. See also “tempo”.
Modern Era - see "Contemporary Era".
modulation – a shift from one “key” to another within the same piece of music. See also: “key”, “tonality”.
molto – very. For example, allegro molto: very fast.
monophonic texture – (one sound) singing or playing alone or in unison. Usually one “melody”. See also: “texture”, “homophonic texture”, “polyphonic texture”, “melody”, “accompaniment”.
mordent – a type of “ornament” consisting of three pitches: the principle (notated) note is played then quickly followed by the note a half step below and just as quickly returning to the principle note. The mordent is most often indicated by a horizontal squiggly line with a straight vertical line through its middle. See also: “ornament”, “trill”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
morendo – dying away, fading away. Usually accomplished by becoming slower and softer, but the idea is to produce the overall effect of dying away. See also “perdendosi”.
motive – a short rhythmic or melodic idea that is sufficiently well defined to retain its identity when elaborated or transformed and combined with other material. Much shorter than a “theme”. See also: “melody”, “theme”, “phrase”.
movement – a piece that sounds fairly complete and independent but is part of a larger composition. Pieces generally have anywhere from 1-4 movements with 3 movements being the most common setup. Separate movements provide more variety within one piece without actually having several different pieces. Each movement usually has its own unique character: fast, slow, fast is the most common setup of a piece in three movements.
Nachschlag – a type of “ornament” that is usually the termination of a “trill”. Most often this includes one “note” lower than the principle note, the principle note, and then the note following the trilled note. See also “ornament”, “mordent”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
natural – a symbol placed to the left of a “note” indicating to perform the “pitch” without any alterations higher or lower than the note name itself. This is always going to be a white key on the piano. See also: “interval”, “flat”, “sharp”, “half step”.
non troppo – not too much. Usually used in association with allegro: allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast).
note – an object usually placed on a staff used to indicate both pitch and duration (rhythm). Except for the “whole note”, it includes both a “notehead” and a “stem”. The stem is placed on the left side of the notehead when going down and on the right side of the notehead when going up. See also “whole note”, “half note”, “quarter note”, “eighth note”, “sixteenth note”, “rhythm”.
Octatonic Scale – a “scale” consisting of an alternation between “whole steps” and “half steps” between successive pitches. See also: “scale”, “whole steps”, “half steps”.
octave – the interval produced by two tones that sound similar and have the same note name, but are 12 half-steps apart. Each ascending successive octave doubles in frequency (i.e. 220Hz, 440Hz…). See also “interval”.
opus – (Latin for “work”) Usually abbreviated (Op.) and usually paired with a number to designate a work in its chronological relationship to a composer’s other works. “Numbers” also often accompany the opus numbers. This is the number of a piece within an Opus since there are often several different pieces within an opus. For example, Beethoven’s Op. 2 contains three piano sonatas: Op. 2, No. 1 in f minor, Op. 2, No. 2 in A Major, and Op. 2, No. 3 in C Major.
ornament – a symbol of ornamentation. See “ornamentation”.
ornamentation – the modification of music usually by adding additional notes to a “melody”. Ornamentation is a process of decorating a melody with additional notes. See also “trill”, “mordent”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
Parallel Key Signatures –Major and minor keys that share the same “tonic” and have different “key signatures”. For example: C Major and c minor have the same tonic but different key signatures (C Major is no sharps or flats, and c minor has three flats). See also: “key”, “Major Key”, “minor key”, “key signature”, “relative keys”.
Pentatonic Scale – a “scale” consisting of five notes. The most common pentatonic scale can be derived from playing the five black keys on the piano (any three black-key group and the neighboring two black-key group). See also: “scale”.
perdendosi – dying away. Usually in performance this includes becoming slower and softer. See also “morendo”.
pesante – literally “heavy” meaning to perform the music in a manner that makes it sound heavy.
phrase – a musical sentence or idea; analogous to a phrase in language, it is a shorter unit which makes up a complete “melody”. Phrases are usually punctuated by “cadences”. See also: “melody”, “cadence”, “periodic phrasing”, “antecedent phrase”, “consequent phrase”.
piacere – usually “a piacere” meaning “at the pleasure” of the performer. It is a a performance indication that instructs the performer to perform the music freely – usually in terms of tempo. See also: “rubato”.
pianissimo – very soft (often abbreviated: “pp”) This instructs the performer to play very softly. This is softer than piano. See also “dynamics”.
piano – soft. (often abbreviated: “p”) This instructs the performer to play softly. This is softer than mezzo piano and louder than pianissimo. See also “dynamics”.
pitch – the relative highness or lowness of a sound.
più – “more”. See “più mosso” for a typical combination of “più” with another word.
più mosso – Indicates a change in tempo: more movement or faster. Literally: more motion. This change is usually sudden, as if indicating a new tempo.
pizzicato – this indication refers to a manner of playing a string instrument during which the string is plucked with the finger. Some composers like to call upon pianists to imitate this type of plucked sound, and therefore this term can be found as a performance indication in piano music. This is like a very crisp staccato. Franz Liszt is an example of a composer that used this performance indication in his piano music. See also: “staccato”, “articulation”.
Plagal Cadence – ("false cadence") a type of “cadence” involving two “chords”: “subdominant” (IV chord) progressing to “tonic”. See also: “cadence”, “chord”, “phrase”, “subdominant”, “tonic”.
poco – little. Examples: poco a poco (little by little, usually meaning to change something a little bit at a time – such as tempo: poco a poco rit. – slow down little by little), poco allegro (not very fast allegro).
polyphonic texture – (many sounding) simultaneous performance of two or more melodic lines of relative equal interest. See also: “homophonic texture”, “monophonic texture”, “texture”, “melody”, “accompaniment”.
polyphony – see “polyphonic texture”.
prestissimo – tempo indication. As fast as possible. See also “tempo”.
presto – tempo indication. Very fast. See also “tempo”.
Program Music – music that contains some extra-musical reference. These sorts of pieces usually have descriptive titles. Examples include: Robert Schumann’s “Carnival”, Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraume”. See also: “absolute music”.
quarter note – a kind of “note” that looks like a black oval with a stick attached vertically to it. The name is derived from the fact that its duration is ¼ that of a “whole note”. In 4/4 time, the “quarter note” receives one beat of duration. See also “note”, “rest”, “beat”.
quasi – literally “almost” or “nearly”. This term is usually paired with some other term. For example “quasi allegro” would indicate to select of performance tempo that is almost fast.
rallentando – Indicates a change in tempo: slowing down (abbreviation: rall.). Essentially the same as “ritardando”. See also “ritenuto”, “ritardando”, “allargando”, “stringendo”, “accelerando”, “allargando”.
range – the distance between the lowest and highest tones that a voice or instrument can produce.
rasch – quick, lively (German). See also “langsam”, “mäßig”, “schnell”, “lebhaft”.
register – part of the total range of an instrument or voice.
Relative Key Signatures –Major and minor keys that share the same “key signature”. For example: C Major and a minor have the same key signature. See also: “key”, “Major Key”, “minor key”, “key signature”, “parallel keys”.
rest – a symbol usually placed on a staff to notate a duration of silence. Each kind of “note” value (“whole note”, “half note”, etc.) can also be replaced with a rest. This way while a “half note” indicates two beats of sound production in 4/4 times, a half “rest” indicates two beats of silence.
rhythm – generally: “the flow of music through time.” specifically: the particular arrangement of note lengths in a piece of music. However the true essence of rhythm is much more expressively realized. For example, a triple meter should have a very different "feel" than a quadruple meter. The importance of rhythmic nuance and the degree to which specific stylized pieces depend upon thoughtful rhythmic inflection can not be fully realized without considering the rhythmic subtleties of different dances such as "Mazurkas", Viennese Waltzes, etc. In light of these considerations, one can see how it is possible to execute with correct rhythm yet not actually play "rhythmically". See also “beat”, “measure”, “bar line”, “time signature”, “meter”, “whole note”, “half note”, “quarter note”, “eighth note”, “sixteenth note”, “syncopation”.
rinforzando – becoming strong. Usually a sudden accent (see “sforzando”), but sometimes becoming louder over a short period of time (more quickly than with a crescendo). See also: “crescendo”.
ritardando – Indicates a change in tempo: slowing down (usually abbreviated: rit. or ritard.) Generally the same as rallentando but more gradual than ritenuto. See also “ritenuto”, “rallentando”, “allargando”, “stringendo”, “accelerando”, “allargando”.
ritenuto – Indicates a change in tempo: slightly slower. Ritenuto usually indicates a more sudden change in tempo than ritardando and rallentando. See also “ritardando”, “rallentando”, “allargando”, “stringendo”, “accelerando”, “allargando”.
Romantic Era – in "Western Art Music", the style period lasting from roughly 1820-1900. For more details on its characteristics, see “Description of Four Style Periods”. See also "Baroque Era", "Classical Era", "Contemporary Era", "Western Art Music".
Rondo Form – a “form” characterized by returning 1st section. It can be diagrammed several different ways including: ABACABA, ABABA. See also: “form”.
rubato – literally “stolen time”. It is a manner of playing (acceptable in some styles without the need to be notated as such – unacceptable in other styles) in which the performer varies the tempo. It is a tool of expression most often employed in music of the “romantic era”.
scale – a series of different tones arranged from lowest to highest or highest to lowest. See also: “Major Scale”, “minor scale”, “chromatic scale”, “whole-tone scale”, “octatonic scale”, “pentatonic scale”.
Scale Degree – the notes in a scale numbered from one to seven (if you consider the eighth note a repeat of the first) in which the first note is “tonic” and the seventh note is the “leading tone”. See also: “scale”, “tonic”, “leading tone”.
schnell – fast (German). See also “langsam”, “mäßig”, “lebhaft”, “rasch”.
semplice – literally “simple” meaning to play the music in a manner that makes it sound simple. This term may be used to indicate that you should perform the music without ornamentation. See also “facile”, “ornamentation”.
senza sordini – “without mutes”. For the piano, to play without the use of the left pedal.
sforzando – forced; Accented at least in relation to the prevailing dynamic but often simply loud. Often notated: sf or sfz.
sharp – a symbol placed to the left of a “note” indicating to perform the “pitch” one “half step” higher than the “natural” “pitch” that is notated. The symbol itself looks like: #. A double sharp (x) indicates to perform the pitch two half steps higher. See also: “interval”, “flat”, “natural”, “half step”.
Simple Meter – a meter in which the basic rhythmic pulse (or beat) is divided into groups of two. The best way to determine if a meter is a simple meter is by looking at the top number of the time signature. If the top number is not a 6, 9, 12, 15, etc. then you have a simple meter. Examples of simple meters include: 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 2/2, and 3/8. See also “meter”, “simple meter”, “measure”, “beat”, “measure”.
sixteenth note – a kind of “note” that looks like a black oval with a stick attached vertically to it and then two flags attached to the far end of that stick. The name is derived from the fact that its duration is 1/16 that of a “whole note”. In 4/4 time, the “sixteenth note” receives 1/4 a beat of duration. See also “note”, “rest”, “beat”.
smorzando – dying away. Usually accomplished by getting slower and softer.
sonata – a piece for an instrument. Not to be confused with “sonata form”, a “sonata” is a work usually cast in three movements. The first movement is usually fast and in “sonata form”, the second movement is usually slow and in “ternary form”, and the third movement is usually fast and in “rondo form”. See also: “instrument”, “sonata form”, “movement”, “concerto”, “ternary form”, “rondo form”.
Sonata Form – often called “sonata-allegro form”, it features three main sections: exposition, development, recapitulation. The exposition contains the main material of the piece (usually a first and second theme) and also transports the music from the tonic key to a different key (usually the second theme is already in the new key). The development simply develops the material from the exposition (by excerpting parts of the first and/or second theme and often times changing it in one way or another). The development is the most unstable part of the piece and sets up the need for a return which is fulfilled by the recapitulation. The recapitulation presents both themes (usually both are heard) in the tonic key therefore producing a sense of resolution. See also: “form”.
sotto voce – (“under voice”) to play in an undertone. See also: “mezza voce”.
staccato – a manner of playing (a kind of “articulation”) in which a note produces the effect of sounding short and detached. In the most literal sense, staccato is holding the note for half of its notated value. Usually a staccato note also has a slightly sharper edge to the sound than a non-staccato note of equivalent duration (for example comparing a staccato quarter note versus an eighth note followed by an eighth rest). See also “articulation” and “legato”.
staff – a set of five horizontal lines on which notes are placed.
strepitoso – noisy, boisterous.
stringendo – pressing, becoming faster. Usually more intensifying than accelerando. See also: “accelerando”.
Subdominant Chord – the “chord” built upon the fourth “scale degree”. It is “Major” in a “Major” “key” and “minor” in a “minor” “key”. See also: “chord”, “scale degree”, “plagal cadence”, “Major”, “minor”.
syncopation – generally: accenting an ‘off-beat’ note or a note that is not on a strong beat. This is often accomplished by accenting the space in between beats or by accenting weak beats.
tempo – the “speed” of the beat. Common tempo indications (from slowest to fastest) include: “grave”, “largo”, “larghetto”, “lento”, “adagio”, “andante”, “moderato”, “allegretto”, “allegro”, “presto”, “prestissimo”. See also “ritardando”, “ritenuto”, “accellerando”, “allargando”, più mosso, meno mosso, and “rallentando”. See also the German indications: “langsam”, “mäßig”, “lebhaft”, “schnell”, “rasch”. See also the French indications: gravement, lent, vif, animé, vite.
Ternary Form – 3-Part form: ABA. See also: “form”.
texture – the way in which different layers of sound are heard at once, and how these different layers relate to one another. See also: “homophonic texture”, “monophonic texture”, “polyphonic texture”, “melody”, “accompaniment”.
theme – a musical idea, usually a “melody”, that forms the basis or starting point for a composition or a major section of one. See also: “melody”, “phrase”, “form”.
Theme and Variations – a type of “form” characterized by a theme presented at the beginning of the piece followed by a series of variations. See also: “form”.
timbre – quality of a sound that distinguishes one instrument or voice from another. For example, what we hear that would allow us to distinguish between a saxophone and a piano even while both instruments are performing the exact same pitch. (often also called “tone color”)
time signature – see “meter”.
tonality – the organization of tones around a central “pitch” called “tonic” and the tendency of all pitches within a piece of music to ultimately gravitate towards tonic. See also: “tonic”, “tone”, “key”.
tone – a sound that has a definite “pitch”.
tonic chord – the “chord” built upon the first “scale degree”. It is “Major” in a “Major” “key” and “minor” in a “minor” “key”. See also: “chord”, “scale degree”, “cadence”, “Major”, “minor”.
tre corde – Literally "three strings". With the piano, this indication tells the performer to play without the left pedal depressed. See also: “una corda”, “con sordino”.
treble clef – a symbol placed at the beginning of the staff indicating the specific names of the lines and spaces for the staff on which it is placed. The treble clef is also called the “G clef” since it indicates that the second line (counting up from the bottom) is the “G” above “middle C”. See also “clef”, “bass clef”, “staff”.
triad – a “chord” made up of specifically three “notes”. See also: “chord”, “harmony”, “tonic”, “dominant”, “Major”, “minor”, “diminished”, “Augmented”.
trill – an “ornament” consisting of the more or less rapid alternation between two pitches in which the trilling note is one step above the written note. It is usually indicated with an abbreviation (tr) and/or a squiggly line placed above the note to be trilled. When performing trills, in addition to the speed of the trill itself, performers must also consider how to start and end the trill. The most common generalization about starting a trill is that music before Beethoven starts each trill on the upper note and after Beethoven the trill is started on the principle (notated) note. Some trills may be terminated with a “Nachschlag”. See also “ornament”, “mordent”, “turn”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
turn – a type of “ornament” consisting of at least four notes. Most often including the note above the principle, the principle note, the note below the principle, and then concluding on the principle note. It is usually notated with a symbol resembling an “S” rotated 90 degrees clockwise. See also: “ornament”, “mordent”, “trill”, “appoggiatura”, “grace notes”, “acciaccatura”, “Nachschlag”.
una corda – literally “one string”. On the piano, it means to depress the left pedal during performance. See also: “con sordino”, “tre corde”.
vif– lively (French). See also: gravement, lent, animé, vite.
vite – fast (French). See also: gravement, lent, vif, animé.
vivace – a tempo indication meaning lively. Roughly equivalent to “allegro” or possibly faster.
Western Art Music - a common title of convenience used to describe music that has evolved from the "written tradition" (vs. the "oral tradition" or "folk tradition") in western culture (and the societies that have strong roots in western culture). This is the music that most individuals in western culture would simply call "classical" as opposed to music that is more "popular" (such as rock, rhythm and blues, rap, country, etc.). Other titles commonly used to designate this kind of "classical" music include: "serious music", "art music".
whole note – a kind of “note” that simply looks like an oval. The name is derived from the fact that its duration is twice as long as that of a “half note” and four times as long as that of a “quarter note”, etc. In 4/4 time, the “whole note” receives four beats of duration. See also “note”, “rest”, “beat”.
whole step – the distance from one note to another note two “half steps” away. See also: “half step”, “interval”.
whole-tone scale – a “scale” consisting entirely of “whole steps”. See also: “scale”, “whole steps”.
For other uses, see Tempo (disambiguation).
"Beats per minute" redirects here. For the rate of heartbeating, see Heart rate. For the online publication, see Beats Per Minute (website).
In musical terminology, tempo[ˈtɛmpo] ("time" in Italian; plural: tempi[ˈtɛmpi]) is the speed or pace of a given piece.
In classical music, tempo is usually indicated with an instruction at the start of a piece (often using conventional Italian terms). Tempo is usually measured in beats per minute (BPM). In modern classical compositions a "metronome mark" in beats per minute may supplement or replace the normal tempo marking, while in modern genres like electronic dance music, tempo will typically simply be stated in BPM.
Tempo may be separated from articulation and metre, or these aspects may be indicated along with tempo, all contributing to the overall texture. While the ability to hold a steady tempo is a vital skill for a musical performer, tempo is changeable. Depending on the genre of a piece of music and the performers' interpretation, a piece may be played with slight tempo rubato or drastic accelerando. In ensembles, the tempo is often indicated by a conductor or by one of the instrumentalists, for instance the drummer.
While tempo is described or indicated in many different ways, including with a range of words (e.g., "Slowly", "Adagio" and so on), it is typically measured in beats per minute (bpm or BPM). For example, a tempo of 60 beats per minute signifies one beat per second, while a tempo of 120 beats per minute is twice as rapid, signifying one beat every 0.5 seconds. The note value of a beat will typically be that indicated by the meter signature. For instance, in 4
4 the beat will be a crotchet or quarter note.
This measurement of tempo became increasingly popular during the first half of the 19th century, after the metronome had been invented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome; in the 1810s he published metronomic indications for the eight symphonies he had composed up to that time.
With the advent of modern electronics, bpm became an extremely precise measure. Music sequencers use the bpm system to denote tempo. Instead of beats per minute, some 20th-century composers (e.g., Béla Bartók, Alberto Ginastera, and John Cage) specify the total playing time for a piece, from which the performer can derive tempo.Tempo is as crucial in contemporary music as it is in classical. In popular music genres such as electronic dance music, accurate knowledge of a tune's bpm is important to DJs for the purposes of beatmatching. The speed of a piece of music can also be gauged according to measures per minute (mpm) or bars per minute, the number of bars of the piece performed in one minute. This measure is commonly used in ballroom dance music.
In different musical contexts, different instrumental musicians, singers, conductors, bandleaders, music directors or other individuals will select the tempo of a song or piece. In a popular music or traditional music group or band, the bandleader or lead singer may select the tempo. In popular and traditional music, whoever is setting the tempo often counts out one or two bars in tempo. In some songs or pieces in which a singer or solo instrumentalist begins the work with a solo introduction (prior to the start of the full group), the tempo they set will provide the tempo for the group. In an orchestra or concert band, the conductor normally sets the tempo. In a marching band, the drum major may set the tempo. In a sound recording, in some cases a record producer may set the tempo for a song (although this would be less likely with an experienced bandleader).
See also: Glossary of musical terminology
In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words, most commonly in Italian, in addition to or instead of a metronome mark in beats per minute. Italian is typically used because it was the language of most composers during the time these descriptions became commonplace. Some well-known Italian tempo indications include "Allegro", "Andante" and "Presto".This practice developed during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Baroque and Classical periods. In the earlier Renaissance music, performers understood most music to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus (roughly the rate of the human heartbeat). The mensuraltime signature indicated which note value corresponded to the tactus.
In the Baroque period, pieces would typically be given an indication, which might be a tempo marking (e.g. Allegro), or the name of a dance (e.g. Allemande or Sarabande) - the latter being an indication both of tempo and of metre. Any musician of the time was expected to know how to interpret these markings based on custom and experience. In some cases, however, these markings were simply omitted. For example, the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 has no tempo or mood indication whatsoever. Despite the increasing number of explicit tempo markings, musicians still observe conventions, expecting a minuet to be at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a perpetuum mobile quite fast, and so on. Genres imply tempos. Thus, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote "In tempo d'un Menuetto" over the first movement of his Piano Sonata Op. 54, though that movement is not a minuet.
Many tempo markings also indicate mood and expression. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, simply indicates speed. Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication ("agitated").
Often, composers (or music publishers) name movements of compositions after their tempo (or mood) marking. For instance, the second movement of Samuel Barber's first String Quartet is an Adagio.
Often a particular musical form or genre implies its own tempo, so composers need place no further explanation in the score.Popular music charts use terms such as bossa nova, ballad, and Latin rock in much the same way.[original research?]Lead sheets and fake book music for jazz or popular music may use several terms, and may include a tempo term and a genre term, such as "slow blues", "medium shuffle" or "fast rock".
Basic tempo markings
"Andante" redirects here. For other uses, see Andante (disambiguation).
Here follows a list of common tempo markings. The beats per minute (bpm) values are very rough approximations for 4
These terms have also been used inconsistently through time and in different geographical areas. One striking example is that Allegretto hastened as a tempo from the 18th to the 19th century: originally it was just above Andante, instead of just below Allegro as it is now. As another example, a modern largo is slower than an adagio, but in the Baroque period it was faster.
From slowest to fastest:
- Larghissimo – very, very slow (24 bpm and under)
- Grave – very slow (25–45 bpm)
- Largo – broadly (40–60 bpm)
- Lento – slowly (45–60 bpm)
- Larghetto – rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
- Adagio – slowly with great expression (66–76 bpm)
- Adagietto – slower than andante (72–76 bpm) or slightly faster than adagio (70–80 bpm)
- Andante – at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
- Andantino – slightly faster than andante (although, in some cases, it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante) (80–108 bpm)
- Marcia moderato – moderately, in the manner of a march (83–85 bpm)
- Andante moderato – between andante and moderato (thus the name) (92–112 bpm)
- Moderato – at a moderate speed (108–120 bpm)
- Allegretto – by the mid 19th century, moderately fast (112–120 bpm); see paragraph above for earlier usage
- Allegro moderato – close to, but not quite allegro (116–120 bpm)
- Allegro – fast, quickly, and bright (120–156 bpm) (molto allegro is slightly faster than allegro, but always in its range)
- Mosso Vivo
- Vivace – lively and fast (156–176 bpm)
- Vivacissimo – very fast and lively (172–176 bpm)
- Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace – very fast (172–176 bpm)
- Presto – very, very fast (168–200 bpm)
- Prestissimo – even faster than presto (200 bpm and over)
- A piacere – the performer may use his or her own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"
- Con moto - Italian for "with movement"; can be combined with a tempo indication, e.g., Allegro con moto
- Assai - (very) much
- A tempo – resume previous tempo
- L'istesso, L'istesso tempo, or Lo stesso tempo – at the same speed; L'istesso is used when the actual speed of the music has not changed, despite apparent signals to the contrary, such as changes in time signature or note length (half notes in 4
4 could change to whole notes in 2
2, and they would all have the same duration)
- Molto - very
- Poco - a little
- Subito - suddenly
- Tempo comodo – at a comfortable (normal) speed
- Tempo di... – the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz, . ≈ 60 bpm), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march, ≈ 120 bpm))
- Tempo giusto – at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
- Tempo semplice – simple, regular speed, plainly
- Tempo primo – resume the original (first) tempo
French tempo markings
Several composers have written markings in French, among them baroque composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau as well as Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel and Alexander Scriabin. Common tempo markings in French are:
- Au mouvement – play the (first or main) tempo.
- Grave – slowly and solemnly
- Lent – slowly
- Modéré – at a moderate tempo
- Moins – less, as in Moins vite (less fast)
- Rapide – fast
- Très – very, as in Très vif (very lively)
- Vif – lively
- Vite – fast
Erik Satie was known to write extensive tempo (and character) markings by defining them in a poetical and literal way, as in his Gnossiennes.
German tempo markings
Many composers have used German tempo markings. Typical German tempo markings are:
- Langsam – slowly
- Lebhaft – lively (mood)
- Mäßig – moderately
- Rasch – quickly
- Schnell – fast
- Bewegt – animated, with motion
One of the first German composers to use tempo markings in his native language was Ludwig van Beethoven. The one 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).
English tempo markings
English indications, for example quickly, have also been used, by Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger, among many others. In jazz and popular musiclead sheets and fake book charts, terms like "fast", "laid back", "steady rock", "medium", "medium-up", "ballad", "brisk", "up", "slowly", and similar style indications may appear. In some lead sheets and fake books, both tempo and genre are indicated, e.g., "slow blues", "fast swing", or "medium Latin". The genre indications help rhythm section instrumentalists to use the correct style of playing. For example, if a song indicates "medium shuffle", the drummer will know to play a shuffle drum pattern. Similarly, if another song is labeled "fast boogie-woogie", then the piano player will know to play a boogie-woogie bassline.
Tom Lehrer's anthology Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, uses fake English tempo markings to humorous effect. For example, Lehrer specifies that the song "National Brotherhood Week" should be played "fraternally" or "We Will All Go Together" be played "eschatologically" (and "Masochism Tango" be played "painstakingly").
Variation through a piece
Tempo is not necessarily fixed. Within a piece (or within a movement of a longer work), a composer may indicate a complete change of tempo, often by using a double bar and introducing a new tempo indication, often with a new time signature and/or key signature.
It is also possible to indicate a more or less gradual change in tempo, for instance with an accelerando (speeding up) or ritardando (rit., slowing down) marking. Indeed some compositions - for instance, Monti's Csárdás or the Russian Civil War song Echelon Song- are mainly composed of accelerando passages.
On the smaller scale, tempo rubato refers to changes in tempo within a musical phrase, often described as some notes 'borrowing' time from others.
Terms for change in tempo
Composers may use expressive marks to adjust the tempo:
- Accelerando – speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
- Allargando – growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece
- Calando – going slower (and usually also softer)
- Doppio movimento / doppio più mosso – double speed
- Doppio più lento – half speed
- Lentando – gradual slowing and softer
- Meno mosso – less movement or slower
- Meno moto - less motion
- Mosso – movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme
- Più mosso – more movement or faster
- Precipitando – hurrying, going faster/forward
- Rallentando – gradual slowing down (abbreviation: rall.)
- Ritardando – slowing down gradually; also see rallentando and ritenuto (abbreviations: rit., ritard.)
- Ritenuto – slightly slower, but achieved more immediately than ritardando or rallentando; a sudden decrease in tempo; temporarily holding back. (Note that the abbreviation for ritenuto can also be rit. Thus a more specific abbreviation is riten. Also sometimes ritenuto does not reflect a tempo change but a character change instead.)
- Rubato – free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes (literally "theft", so more strictly, take time from one beat to slow another)
- Stretto – in faster tempo, often near the conclusion of a section. (Note that in fugal compositions, the term stretto refers to the imitation of the subject in close succession, before the subject is completed, and as such, suitable for the close of the fugue. Used in this context, the term is not necessarily related to tempo.)
- Stringendo – pressing on faster (literally "tightening")
- Tardando – slowing down gradually (same as ritardando)
While the base tempo indication (such as allegro) appears in large type above the staff, these adjustments typically appear below the staff or (in the case of keyboard instruments) in the middle of the grand staff.
They generally designate a gradual change in tempo; for immediate tempo shifts, composers normally just provide the designation for the new tempo. (Note, however, that when Più mosso or Meno mosso appears in large type above the staff, it functions as a new tempo, and thus implies an immediate change.) Several terms, e.g., assai, molto, poco, subito, control how large and how gradual a change should be (see common qualifiers).
After a tempo change, a composer may return to a previous tempo in two different ways:
- a tempo – returns to the base tempo after an adjustment (e.g. ritardando ... a tempo undoes the effect of the ritardando).
- Tempo primo or Tempo Io – denotes an immediate return to the piece's original base tempo after a section in a different tempo (e.g. Allegro ... Lento ... Moderato ... Tempo Io indicates a return to the Allegro). This indication often functions as a structural marker in pieces in binary form.
These terms also indicate an immediate, not a gradual, tempo change. Although they are Italian, composers typically use them even if they have written their initial tempo marking in some other language.
Modern classical music
20th-century classical music introduced a wide range of approaches to tempo, particularly thanks to the influence of modernism and later postmodernism.
While many composers have retained traditional tempo markings, sometimes requiring greater precision than in any preceding period, others have begun to question basic assumptions of the classical tradition like the idea of a consistent, unified, repeatable tempo. Graphic scores shows tempo and rhythm in a variety of ways. Polytemporal compositions deliberately utilise performers playing at marginally different speeds. John Cage's compositions approach tempo in diverse ways. For instance 4′33″ has a defined duration, but no actual notes, while As Slow as Possible has defined proportions but no defined duration, with one performance intended to last 639 years.
More extreme tempos are achievable at the same underlying tempo with very fast drum patterns, often expressed as drum rolls. Such compositions often exhibit a much slower underlying tempo, but may increase the tempo by adding additional percussive beats. Extreme music subgenres such as speedcore and grindcore often strive to reach unusually fast tempo. The use of extreme tempo was very common in the fast bebopjazz from the 1940s and 1950s. A common jazz tune such as "Cherokee" was often performed at quarter note equal to or sometimes exceeding 368 bpm. Some of Charlie Parker's famous tunes ("Bebop", "Shaw Nuff") have been performed at 380 bpm plus.
Main article: Beatmatching
In popular music genres such as disco, house music and electronic dance music, beatmatching is a technique that DJs use that involves speeding up or slowing down a record (or CDJ player, a speed-adjustable CD player for DJ use) to match the tempo of a previous or subsequent track, so both can be seamlessly mixed. Having beatmatched two songs, the DJ can either seamlessly cross fade from one song to another, or play both tracks simultaneously, creating a layered effect.
DJs often beatmatch the underlying tempos of recordings, rather than their strict bpm value suggested by the kick drum, particularly when dealing with high tempo tracks. A 240 bpm track, for example, matches the beat of a 120 bpm track without slowing down or speeding up, because both have an underlying tempo of 120 quarter notes per minute. Thus, some soul music (around 75–90 bpm) mixes well with a drum and bass beat (from 150–185 bpm). When speeding up or slowing down a record on a turntable, the pitch and tempo of a track are linked: spinning a disc 10% faster makes both pitch and tempo 10% higher. Software processing to change the pitch without changing the tempo, or vice versa, is called time-stretching or pitch-shifting. While it works fairly well for small adjustments (± 20%), the result can be noisy and unmusical for larger changes.
- ^Some of these markings are today contentious, such as those on his "Hammerklavier" Sonata and Ninth Symphony, seeming to many to be almost impossibly fast, as is also the case for many of the works of Schumann. See "metronome" entry in Apel (1969), p. 523.
- ^"E. Rules for Competitions (Couples). Rule E.3 (Music)", WDSF Competition Rules(PDF) (WDSF Rules & Regulations), World DanceSport Federation, 2018-01-01, p. 19, retrieved 2018-01-20,
- ^Randel, D., ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1986, Tempo
- ^Haar, James. The Science and Art of Renaissance Music. Princeton University Press. p. 408. ISBN 1-40-086471-2.
- ^Heyman, Barbara B. (1994-05-12). Samuel Barber: the composer and his music. Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 0-19-509058-6.
- ^For extensive discussion of this point see Rosen (2002:48-95). Rosen suggests that many works marked "Allegretto" are nowadays played too quickly as a result of this confusion. Rosen, Charles (2002) Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Excerpts on line at Google Books: .
- ^music theory online: tempo, Dolmetsch.com
- ^Kleine Trommel (Side Drum), Eckehardt Keune
- ^Kleine Trommel (Side Drum), Eckehardt Keune
- ^Elson, Louis Charles (1909). Elson's Pocket Music Dictionary: The Important Terms Used in Music with Pronunciation and Concise Definition, Together with the Elements of Notation and a Biographical List of Over Five Hundred Noted Names in Music. Oliver Ditson.
- ^American Symphony Orchestra League (1998). Journal of the Conductors' Guild, Vols. 18–19. Viena: The League. p. 27. ISSN 0734-1032.
- ^William E. Caplin; James Hepokoski; James Webster (2010). Musical Form, Forms & Formenlehre: Three Methodological Reflections. Leuven University Press. p. 80. ISBN 905-867-822-9.
- ^Kleine Trommel (Side Drum), Eckehardt Keune
- ^Apel (1969), p. 42; for the literal translation see the online Italian–English dictionary at WordReference.com.
- ^"Istesso tempo" entry in Sadie (2001).
- ^For a modern example of L'istesso, see measures 4 and 130 of Star Wars: Main Title, Williams (1997), pp. 3 and 30.
- ^Gnossiennes music sheet, IMSLP Music Library
- ^Apel (1969), p. 92.
- ^Italian translation, WordReference.com; German, Apel (1969).
- ^"Ritenuto" entry in Sadie (2001).
- ^Apel (1969), p. 809.
- ^David Fallows. "Ritardando". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
Books on tempo in music:
- Epstein, David (1995). Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-873320-7.
- Marty, Jean-Pierre (1988). The tempo indications of Mozart. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03852-6.
- Sachs, Curt (1953). Rhythm and Tempo: A Study in Music History. New York: Norton. OCLC 391538.
- Snoman, Rick (2009). The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques – Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Press. ISBN 0-9748438-4-9.
- Apel, Willi, ed., Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. ISBN 978-0-674-37501-7
- Sadie, Stanley; John Tyrrell, eds. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. NewYork: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0.
Examples of musical scores:
- Williams, John (1997). Star Wars: Suite for Orchestra. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corp. ISBN 978-0-793-58208-2.