What Does “A Tempo” Mean In Music? Definition And Examples

a tempo music definition

I love music, and I’m weird in that I love sight-reading, but I know there are a lot of terms out there most people won’t recognize right off the bat. 

One of these is “a tempo.” If you’re in the heat of playing, it’s easy to blow right by it. 

Fortunately, the definition of “a tempo” in music is simple. 

“A tempo” literally translates to “in time.” Tempo on its own refers to the speed you play the song at. “A tempo” together means to go back to the previous speed after you change the speed. It’s usually written in the next section after you slow or speed up. 

If it sounds a little complex, that’s because it is. 

But this happens frequently enough; you need to know what it means as you’ll come across it with some regularity. 

What Does Tempo Mean?

The word tempo itself means “time” in Italian. 

In music, it speaks to the speed of the beat. 

At the top left of the music, you’ll see a marking (yes, often in Italian) telling you how fast the music should be played. 

At different sections of music, if the tempo changes, you’ll see a new marking above it. 

A lot of these tempo markings refer to some form of motion; I use different modes of walking and running to give my students a good idea. 

From a more established and scientific perspective, the tempo is measured in the number of beats that happen per minute. 

In music, we use the measurement beats per minute or BPM to show how fast the music needs to be. 

A metronome is the tool of choice here. 

Tempo Markings In Music Chart

While there are hundreds of potential tempo markings used throughout music history, there is a handful of them we see all the time. 

This chart shows you the marking, its measurement in BPM, and its translation for context. 

Tempo MarkingBeats Per MinuteMeaning
Largo40-60 BPMWide
Adagio66-76 BPMSlowly
Andante76-106 BPMWalking
Moderato106-120 BPMModerate walking
Allegro112-124 BPMCheerful

Words For Altering Tempo In Music

At certain parts in music, usually right before we transition into a new tempo, we may alter the tempo by speeding up or slowing down. 

There are a whole host of terms out there for these alterations in speed of the beat, and they’re important to talk about in this article because many times, these words are followed by “a tempo.” 

Here is a quick list of the common ones you may come across as you play music: 

  • Accelerando (Accel.) = Go faster
  • Ritardando (Rit. or Ritard.) = Slow down
  • Rallentando (Rall. or Rallen.) = Slow down and broaden
  • Rubato = Freely, outside of time
  • Stringendo = Get faster bit by bit and get louder
  • Allargando = Get slower and louder (broader)

There are a ton of music terms out there in mostly Italian, some German, and a little French.

It’s impossible to know them all. This is why all my lesson students have this little pocket dictionary.

It’s cheap but thorough. And it’s small. Perfect for fitting right inside your case or music folder.

“A Tempo” In Music For Going Back

A tempo is a phrase you’ll see following the terms above. 

It may not always appear, but when it does, you need to return to the same tempo you were at before the change. 

For example, if you were playing a piece at a moderato tempo of 105 BPM and came up to a ritardando, you would slow down before the phrase, and then when you hit the a tempo, you’d return to the 105 BPM. 

95% of the time, you’ll see this marking after the tempo slows down. It’s basically a way for the composer to say:

Slow down here to emphasize that the new section is important. Then, keep going! 

Tempo Primo Music Definition

Tempo Primo is a term very similar to a tempo. 

Tempo Primo literally translates to “first time.” 

It means you need to return to the original tempo or speed after a different section. 

In many cases, it’s used as an alternative to a tempo to mean the exact same thing. 

But there are some slight nuances to this definition a tempo doesn’t cover. 

Think about it this way: 

All “a tempos” are also “Tempo Primos,” but not all “Tempo Primos” are “a tempos.”

Clear as mud, right?

In some cases, Tempo Primo means to return to the same tempo you were just at before one of the altered tempo markings listed in the previous section. 

But it’s also used to refer to larger phrases in music too. 

Let’s say you play at Allegro for 64 measures, and then it switches to Andante for 32 measures. 

A third section could be marked with Tempo Primo, and it would tell you to go back to the first section’s tempo. 

A tempo always refers to short changes. Tempo Primo refers to both short tempo changes and large-scale changes. 

Commonly Asked Questions

Why Is Tempo Important In Music?

Without tempo, we’d have no context for how fast or slow a piece of music was supposed to go. 

The piece would sound completely different depending on the musician’s choice from what the composer intended. 

Composers spend dozens and hundreds of hours fine-tuning a piece to reach their creative vision. Part of a musician’s job is to execute the vision. 

Sticking close to the tempo marking is critical in this. 

On a practical note, keeping a consistent tempo makes rehearsing easier and helps the song fit together better. 

What Is The Fastest Tempo?

The fastest tempo marking is generally accepted as prestissimo. 

This marking usually means any tempo higher than 200 beats per minute. 

That’s over three beats per second! 

By comparison, many marches are played at around half the speed of what prestissimo is usually played at (120 BPM for marches and 200+ BPM for prestissimo). 

In functionality, most people mark prestissimo and simply mean a tempo on the faster end of presto. 

What Is The Slowest Tempo?

The slowest tempo is larghissimo, somewhere under 24 beats per minute. 

This means a single beat happens somewhere around once every 3 seconds or more. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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