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tempo[Ital.,=time], in music, the speed of a composition. The composer's intentions as to tempo are conventionally indicated by a set of Italian terms, of which the principal ones are presto (very fast), vivace (lively), allegro (fast), moderato (moderate), andante (moderate, literally a "walking" tempo), adagio (slow), lento (slower than adagio), and largo (very slow); accelerando (increasing the speed) and ritardando (slowing down) are directions to alter the tempo momentarily and are canceled by a tempo. Since Beethoven's time many composers have given metronomic indications, which, despite their seeming infallibility, are often misleading, and tempo remains a point of subjective interpretation. Acoustical factors influence the choice of a tempo but account less for the divergence between different performances than does the performer's interpretation of the work.
in music, the rate of the metrical units. Tempo is closely tied to the nature of a musical work. Originally, tempo was not indicated, and a performer decided what it should be on the basis of the content and style of the music itself.
The most important tempi, in the order of slowest to quickest, are largo, lento, and adagio (slow), andante and moderato (moderate), allegro and vivace (lively), and presto (fast). Previously, many of these terms defined the general character of the music as well; allegro, for example, literally means “cheerfully.” Some of the terms have retained a meaning of this sort, for example, largo, “broadly.” These terms are also used with modifiers that strengthen or weaken the meaning, for example, molto, “very,” and ma non tropo, “but not overly.”
A composer sometimes marks the tempo in his native language, such as German, French, or Russian. In certain cases, tempi are indicated indirectly by reference to a musical genre having a prescribed speed, for example, “in march tempo” or “in waltz tempo.” Tempo terms may also serve as a generic name for an entire piece performed in a given tempo, such as an adagio or allegro.
Tempo markings are approximate. Depending on their understanding of a piece and their own temperament, different performers will perform the same piece in different tempi. The metronome makes it possible to indicate tempi exactly. However, even metronomic markings given by the composer himself are only a guide for the performer, who may deviate from them within certain limits. Although one particular tempo ordinarily predominates in a given piece, it represents an average; it may be slightly quickened or slackened in certain phrases depending on the logic of the phrase development. More significant deviations from the marked tempo are often encountered and may be indicated by the composer. Special terms are used to indicate such changes, for example, accelerando, stringendo, and più mosso (quickening) and rallentando, ritenuto, and meno mosso (slackening). Return to the original tempo is indicated by the words tempo primo.
Differences in tempo, the character of movement, and other factors determine the contrast between movements of cyclical works, such as the symphony, sonata, and suite.
REFERENCENazaikinskii, E. V. O muzikal’nom tempe. Moscow, 1965.
["TEMPO: A Unified Treatment of Binding Time and Parameter Passing Concepts in Programming Languages", N.D. Jones et al, LNCS 66, Springer 1978].