Tempo means time in Italian. The expression found at the top left corner of the musical staff indicates how fast the music should be played. The expression could be a word or a metronome marking.

Italian Terms

adagio:         very slow.
allegretto:     fairly quick, slightly slower than allegro.
allegro:        lively, rather quick.
andante:        rather slow, at a moderate, walking pace.
andantino:      this used to mean a little slower than andante, but now it usually means a little faster than andante.
con moto:       with movement, or a certain quickness.
grave:          extremely slow and solemn.
largamente:     broadly.
larghetto:      less slow than largo.
largo:          slow and broad.
lentamente:     slowly.
lento:          slow.
moderato:       moderate pace.
prestissimo:    as quick as possible.
presto:         very quick.
rapido:         rapid.
veloce:         with velocity.
vivace:         quick and lively.

German Terms

belebt:         animated.
breit:          broad.
breiter:        broader.
geschwinder:    more rapid, swift.
grossem:        large, big.
klagend:        lamenting.
langsam:        slow.
langsamer:      slower.
mässig:         moderate.
rasch:          quick.
schnell:        fast.
schneller:      faster

French Terms

animé:          animated.
grande:         large, great.
grave:          slow, solemn, deep slow.
gravement:      gravely, solemnly.
lent:           slow.
vif.:           lively.
vite:           fast.


Tempo markings had been used since the early Baroque period, particularly with instrumental music. Not all instrumental music at that time had a tempo mark. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) often left out tempo marks in his keyboard music which was left to the discretion of the performer. The time of a piece was often determined by its purpose. Dance music was played at a certain tempo, depending on its style, so as to be danceable. Likewise, choral music had a certain tempo reflecting the mood of the text. Tempo markings became necessary to the point that Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) provided metronome markings instead of descriptive words.