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Tempo Marks & Terminology
Tempo terms and symbols.

The phrase “a tempo” indicates a return to the original speed after a tempo-altering command such as ritardando.

Image © Brandy Kraemer

Rhythm & Tempo

The tempo is the speed of a song, or the speed at which beats are repeated.

Tempo commands specify the tempo of a song, and are written above the very first staff in sheet music. They are expressed in at least one of the following ways:

  1. As metronome marks, followed by the number of beats per minute (BPM):

    • ♪=140 *
    • M.M.=140
    * The small note preceding the BPM tells you which note length you use to count your beat. In this text example, an eighth note equals one beat, so 140 eighth notes will occur each minute.

    However, in the image above, a quarter note is the main beat; so the tempo would be twice as fast as that of the text example (140 quarter-note BPMs = 280 eighth-note BPMs).

    So what determines which note length is written in the metronome mark? Generally, you go by the bottom number of the time signature: In 4/4 or 2/4 time, the quarter note is the main beat; in 6/8 or 9/8, the beat falls on the eighth note.

  2. As a word description (often in Italian), sometimes accompanied by an expression command:

    • Vivace: Very lively and fast, with a tempo of 140 BPM.

    • Maestoso: Play with dignified expression.

Continue With Tempo:
►  Learn More Tempo Terms & Symbols
►  Test Yourself on Tempo Terms & Rhythm

See More Musical Symbols:
Staff & Barlines    ■Note Lengths     ■Articulation Marks    ■Repeat Signs
The Grand Staff      ■Dotted Notes      ■Dynamics & Volume      ■Segno & Coda Signs
Time Signatures       ■Accidentals        ■Key Signatures      ■Pedal Marks
■Tempo Commands     ■Piano Chords         ■Music Rests          ■8va & Octave Commands

Related Video
Time Signature and Rhythm Basics
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