In the previous how to read sheet music lesson we covered time signatures. In this lesson we will take a look at the speed of music or more specifically music tempo definitions.
It’s all very well to know the time signature so that we know that there are 4 quarter notes per bar in 4:4 time – but how do we know how long those notes are going to last. Or in general how fast we should be playing.
Tempo tells us this.
Realistically we are not going to look at a tempo that says 120BPM and be able to get that bang on without a metronome but as you learn about reading music and looking at tempos you will gain a feel for roughly how fast each tempo is.
Also, if you do have a metronome you can set it to the right tempo for an accurate speed. This is particularly useful for recording.
Beats Per Minute
These days there is usually a corresponding BPM (beats per minute) for each tempo.
So you might see tempo notated like this:
This essentially means that each quarter note will last 0.5 seconds and so there will be 120 of them in one minute. If you were to have a tempo of 60BPM then each quarter note would last for 1 second and there’d be 60 of them in the minute.
60BPM would be twice as slow as 120BPM.
In 6:8 time, for example, then the time would be notated for how long the eighth note would last.
For example “eighth note” = 120BPM would mean that there would be 120 eighth notes per minute – each eighth note would last 0.5 seconds. This would be quite a slow pace – it would be the equivalent of 60 quarter notes per minute.
If the time signature was in 3:2, then it would be the half note that would be the tempo measure.
In this example there would be 120 half notes per minute. Each half note would last 0.5 seconds. This would be a very fast tempo and would be the equivalent of 240 quarter notes per minute.
Music Tempo Definitions
Not all tempos are notated in BPM. Tempo may be indicated by one of the following Italian words. I have also shown the approximate beats per minute for each.
The beats per minute shown represent quarter note time. So each BPM below is how many quarter notes per minute roughly speaking.
- Larghissimo: Very, very slow (24 BPM or less)
- Grave: Very slow (between 25–45 BPM)
- Largo: broadly (40–60 BPM)
- Lento: slowly (45–60 BPM)
- Larghetto: Quite broadly (60–66 BPM)
- Adagio: Slow and stately “at ease” (66–76 BPM)
- Adagietto: faster than adagio but slower than walking pace (72–76 BPM)
- Andante: Walking pace (76–108 BPM)
- Andantino: Slightly faster than walking pace (80–108 BPM)
- Marcia moderato: moderately – marching pace (83–85 BPM)
- Andante moderato: between andante and moderato (92–112 BPM)
- Moderato: moderately (108–120 BPM)
- Allegretto: moderately fast (112–120 BPM)
- Allegro moderato: not quite as fast as allegro (116–120 BPM)
- Allegro: fast, quickly, bright (120–168 BPM)
- Vivace: lively and fast (168–176 BPM)
- Vivacissimo: very fast and very lively (172–176 BPM)
- Allegrissimo or Allegro Vivace: Very fast (172–176 BPM)
- Presto: very, very fast (168–200 BPM)
- Prestissimo: Faster than Presto (200 BPM and over)
Thanks for reading
I hope this lesson has helped you to understand tempos.
There are some other factors here but this is the basics. If there is anything you think needs adding to this then feel free to leave a comment in the comments section below.