We still have no way of indicating how fast the piece of music as a whole should be played.  For this, we need the concept of musical tempo (which is the Italian word for ‘time’). Tempo has a strong impact on the mood of music.  With our tempo measurement, we can specify the precise speed of a piece of music so that we get exactly the feel we are looking for.

With the advent of the metronome, a mechanical device used for keeping time, musicians could calculate how many beats per minute were occurring in the music. Beats per minute is a measurement of just that: the amount of beats that occur in a minute, and is usually abbreviated “b.p.m.”

Eventually, each of the Italian terms would be associated with a specific bpm so the terms would be more accurate. Here are the most general of those terms, with their translation and approximate bpm

  • Largo—very slowly and broad (40 – 58 bpm)
  • Adagio—slow (60 – 76 bpm)
  • Andante—walking speed (80 – 106 bpm)
  • Moderato—moderate pace (108 – 118 bpm)
  • Allegro—fast, cheerful (120 – 168 bpm)
  • Presto—very fast (170 – 220 b.p.m)

But that’s not all. Tempo doesn’t always stay the same throughout a piece. In fact, it may change frequently throughout a work to generate interest or certain feelings for the listener. When music moves from one tempo to another, either slowing down or speeding up, composers will use the Italian terms ritardando (meaning “slow down”) or accelerando (meaning “speed up”). These two terms are often abbreviated “rit.” or “accel.” in music