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Tempo Terms Glossary
Musical Glossary of Tempo Terminology
By Brandy Kraemer, About.com Guide

Tempo Terms By Alphabet:

◊ A - D ◊ M - R
◊ E - L ◊ S - Z

▪ a piacere: “to your pleasure/at will”; indicates that liberties may be taken with certain aspects of the music, usually tempo. See ad libitum.

▪ a tempo: “in time; back in tempo”; indication to return to the original tempo after an alteration such as tempo rubato.

▪ a tempo di menuetto: to play “in the tempo of a minuet”; slowly and gracefully.

▪ (accel.) accelerando: “to accelerate”; to gradually speed up the tempo.

▪ accompagnato: indicates that the accompaniment will follow the tempo (or overall playing style) of the soloist. See concerto.

▪ (ad lib.) ad libitum: The Latin command ad libitum can be an indication:
  1. to take liberties with an aspect of the song, usually referring to tempo or dynamics; lit. “at liberty.”

  2. to improvise. See rubato.

  • Repeat ad libitum: Option to repeat a specified passage as many times as desired.

▪ adagietto: indicates a tempo near that of adagio. Adagietto remains somewhat ambiguous, and may be interpreted as slightly slower or faster than adagio. Usually, its tempo is between adagio and andante.

▪ adagio: to play slowly and calmly; at ease. Adagio is slower than adagietto, but faster than largo.

▪ adagissimo: to play very slowly and calmly; slower than adagio.

▪ affrettando: a rushed, nervous accelerando; to hastily increase the tempo in an impatient manner.

▪ agile: to play swiftly and confidently, but it can also signify a switch to double-speed.

▪ alla breve: “to the breve” - where breve refers to a half-note; an indication to play in cut time. Alla breve has the 2/2 time signature, in which one beat = half-note.

▪ alla marcia: to play “in the style of a march”; to accentuate the downbeat in 2/4 or 2/2 time.

▪ (allarg.) allargando: to “widen” or “broaden” the tempo; a slow rallentando that retains a full, prominent volume.

▪ allegretto: to play somewhat quickly; slower and slightly less lively than allegro, but faster and livelier than andante.

▪ allegrissimo: to play very fast; faster than allegro, but slower than presto.

▪ allegro: to play in a quick, lively tempo. Allegro is faster than allegretto, but slower than allegrissimo.

▪ anacrusis: a note or series of notes that comes before the first complete measure of a composition; an introductory (and optional) measure that does not hold the number of beats expressed by the time signature.

The anacrusis prepares your ears for the next measure’s downbeat, and is therefore sometimes referred to as the upbeat. In traditional notation, the amount of beats in the anacrusis is taken out of the very last measure of the song to even out the difference; (also called: pickup; pickup note(s); pickup measure).

▪ andante: to play with a moderate tempo; to play in a light, flowing manner. Andante is faster than adagio, but slower than allegretto; similar to moderato.

▪ andantino: to play with a slow, moderate tempo. Andantino is slightly faster than andante, but slower than moderato (andantino is a diminutive of andante).

▪ attacca: to move immediately to the next movement without a pause; a seamless transition into a movement or passage.

▪ bar: synonymous with measure. While this usage is universally understood and acceptable, it’s found primarily in U.K. English. In American English, “bar” is short for barline.

▪ beat: an individual stroke of measured time; the steady pulse of a song. Beats are rhythmically organized by the time signature, and given speed by the tempo. See BPM and downbeat.

▪ (BPM) Beats per Minute: the number of times a beat is repeated in one minute. BPM expresses the tempo of a song above the very first measure as metronome marks or tempo word commands.

▪ bird's eye: casual term for fermata.

▪ bracket: A horizontal bracket (not to be confused with volta bracket) is used to group notes together when a note beam would not be appropriate; or, to rhythmically organize notes inside a tuplet.

▪ calando: indicates a gradual decrease in both the tempo and volume of a song; the effect of a ritardando with a diminuendo.

▪ come prima: “like at first”; and indicates a return to a previous musical state (usually referring to tempo). See tempo primo.

▪ common time: refers to the 4/4 time signature, which signifies four quarter-note beats per measure. It may be written as a fraction, or with a c-shaped semicircle. If this symbol has a vertical strikethrough, it’s known as “cut common time.” (Learn about the origins of the common time semicircle.)

▪ corona: alternate Italian word for fermata; a musical symbol indicating a flexible pause.

▪ cut time: (or “cut common time”) is a 4/4 time signature that’s been rhythmically “cut” to manipulate rhythm and/or tempo. Cut time can be written as 2/2, or as a c-shaped symbol with a vertical slash.

Cut time is used for the following rhythmic effects:
  • To Mimic a March: The rhythm of 2/2 time is similar to that of 2/4 - also known as “march” time - because both have the downbeat on every other beat.

  • To Speed Up Tempo: When switching from common time, cut time means you’ll be playing twice as fast. In this manner, cut time can be referred to as “half time,” or “playing in 2.”

▪ dotted note: a music note followed by a small dot on the staff. A dotted note is lengthened by half; for example, a dotted quarter note = 1 quarter note + 1 eighth note (1 1/2 beats). Double and, less commonly, triple-dotted notes also exist; a double increasing length by 75%, with a triple increasing length by 87.5%.

Not to be confused with staccato, a small dot written above or below a note.

▪ doppio: “double”; indicates a switch to double-speed; to speed up the tempo.

▪ downbeat: the first beat in a measure. The downbeat has an implied accent, making it stand out from other beats.
  • Count: 1-2-3-4 … 1-2-3-4 … The 1 should be the loudest beat in your head, while 4 should be the weakest (see upbeat).

▪ duplet: a note-grouping of two, which fits into the length of three of its note-type.

Quick Tempo Lessons:

  How to Read Piano Music
• Notes of the Piano Keys
• Note-Lengths in U.K. & U.S. English
• Music Rest Lengths
• Memorize the Grand Staff Notes
  Beginner Musical Symbols
• Measures & Barlines
• Understanding the Key Signature
• How to Read Time Signatures
• Tempo & BPM Symbols
  Beginner Piano Lessons
• Accidentals & Double-Accidentals
• Comparing Major & Minor
• Piano Chord Types & Symbols
• Diminished Chords & Dissonance
  ♫ Musical Quizzes!
• Identify the Notes of the Keyboard
• Note Length Quiz (U.S. or U.K. English)
• Grand Staff Notes Quiz
• Tempo Command Quiz  

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