Tempo is the speed of any piece of music. Just like driving a car and seeing the 45 M.P.H. speed sign, it is the same for Tempo words in music.
At the very top left hand corner, on the beginning page of your sheet music, you will often see a word that tells you how fast or how slow to play a particular song. Sometimes you will be asked to slow down your speed of playing in a particular passage.
Usually you will find that these tempo words are written in Italian. Here are some of the more common Italian words you will discover in music. It does help to memorize most of these words. Having flash cards to quiz yourself is a very good idea.
Slow Tempo Marks:
Adagio (play with ease)
Largo (very slow and broad)
Lento (very slow)
Grave (heavy and solemn)
Medium Tempo Marks
Andante (a moderate, graceful, walking tempo)
Andantino (a little slower than andante)
Moderato (a moderate tempo)
Larghetto (somewhat slow)
Fast Tempo Marks
Allegretto (lively and quick but a little slower than Allegro))
Allegro (cheerful, fast and quick)
Vivace (lively and brisk)
Presto (very fast)
Prestissimo (very, very fast)
Right in the middle of a piece, you will see that the composer has decided he wants you to slow down. Look for a new tempo marking at the very beginning of a new section. Here’s what to look for.
Gradually Getting Faster:
Accelerando (becoming gradually faster and abbreviated accel.)
Gradually Getting Slower:
Ritardando (becoming gradually slower and abbreviated rit.)
Ritenuto (held back)
Rallentando (becoming gradually slower)
Rattenuto (holding back and slowing down)
When you slow down at the end of a phrase of music or a particular section of a composition, you will notice at the start of the next section a new word, a tempo. This means to go back to the original tempo. It is like slowing down while driving a car because you see a sign that says, “Speed Reduced Ahead.”, and then going back up to the regular speed limit once again.
Now your piano practice sounds playful and energetic while observing accelerando. Sometimes your moderato walking tempo sounds smooth dance-like. Time completely changes within a song all because you changed speed when playing the piano. The pace of a piece of music becomes alive because you have observed tempo marks with expression. Well done.