Learn Keyboard NJ: Tempo in Classical Music


Beginning in the mid 18th century, composers marked tempo fairly regularly and in Italian. The more important of these in order of increasing speed are:

  • Largo, broad

  • Lento, slow

  • Adagio, slow

  • Andante (literally ‘walking’), slowish, but with movement

  • Andantino (‘a little Andante’), ambiguous, but generally implying quicker than Andante

  • Moderato, moderate

  • Allegretto (‘a little Allegro’), slower than Allegro

  • Allegro, quick

  • Presto, very quick

  • Prestissimo, as quick as possible

For smaller, local variations the most common are: ritardando (rit.) or rallentando (rall.), getting slower; accelerando (accel.), getting quicker; with a tempo to show a return to the prevailing speed. However, sometimes in classical music, and more often in romantic, important sectional changes have not been marked indicating a change in tempo. To learn piano, it is important to understand tempo.

Classical Period Tempo

The large-scale forms of the classical period, for example the movements of a sonata, were usually written in a uniform tempo, apart from the small local shifts mentioned above. It is, then, generally a mistake to play one section of a movement at a different tempo from that of another.

A generally uniform tempo, or at least the impression of a uniform tempo, should be the goal in classical music. Exceptions to the rule are most likely to be seen in sets of variations within the piece, since these are themselves sectional and at times contain abrupt changes of mood. An isolated minor variation in a major context, for instance, may imply so great an emotional contrast that it must be accommodated by some relaxation of tempo; and similar adjustments might be needed elsewhere.

A subtle and unexpected type of tempo change is needed in certain rhythmically cumulative variations. In the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata, where the theme is mainly in crotchets and the three variations are successively in quavers, semiquavers and demi-semiquavers, it will be found that no single tempo fits both theme and third variation. This is not because of the difficulty experienced in some virginals music of playing sixteen demi-semiquavers in the time of one crotchet--it is for precisely the opposite reason: here there is too much time for the demi-semiquavers, because sometimes slow music may sound less slow, and quick music less quick, than is in fact being played. Therefore if we want to give the impression of a uniform tempo in this movement, the speed must be increased very slightly with each succeeding variation. Such progressive tempo changes are by no means always necessary in cumulative variations: they are, in fact, only likely to occur when the theme itself is on the slow side.

In comparison, some of Schubert’s sonata-form movements, unlike those of Beethoven, require different tempi to suit the sharply contrasted moods of their themes. In some cases, where a musical link exists in the piece, a gradual transition can often be made from one tempo to the other, where, for example, a slight accelerando will carry the listener imperceptibly from the relaxed mood of an opening to the more urgent mood later. If there are no links, the changes will of necessity be abrupt.

Romantic Period Tempo

In the Romantic period, music tempi became more fluid than before. Sectional changes are more usual and local changes more exaggerated, and the two types even merge at times. While sectional changes are usually clearly marked, exceptions occur at times, especially in the Chopin mazurkas, where rhythmic freedom is a legacy. Some of the mazurkas require two distinct tempi, like the Schubert A minor Sonata; but here the difference between the two is likely to be greater than in the earlier work. The pianist will usually find that the presence of a musical link implies a gradual transition from one tempo to the other, while the absence of a link implies an abrupt change. In the Mazurka in C sharp minor, for example, there is a gradual shift from the slower to the quicker of two tempi, followed by a gradual return to the original speed, the whole forming what could be called a ‘rhythmic arch.’

It is often up to the pianist, however,, to preserve a sense of continuity by making the changes as unobtrusive as possible. While many pieces contain a single basic tempo throughout, small local variations are still essential to the life of the music.