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Learn Tempo Terms using a Magic Lamp
The language of music is complicated enough, but then there are all those extra terms to learn when it comes to dynamics, expression, and style of playing. The piece of music you've got in front of you at any given time may include instructions in any one of a dozen different languages. This can be particularly confusing when tempo markings are indicated by words instead of metronome markings.
But have no fear: any confusion you feel will soon be alleviated, as this simple guide gives you the information you need to decipher most of the more common tempo markings in the most popular languages.
What Does "Tempo" Mean?
The word "tempo" comes from the Latin tempus, meaning time. It refers literally to the time it takes to play a piece of music. We indicate that with a tempo or speed marking so that the performer knows how fast or slow to play. Tempo means "speed you play at" or the pace of the music and has nothing to do with beats or rhythm.
Basic Tempo Terms
There are hundreds of terms used to describe tempo. These could just as easily be written in English, French, or any of the main languages of the world’s music. Originally they were all Italian words, but modern composers tend to write instructions in their native tongue. So how do you sort them out so you can become familiar with the majority of terms in the shortest possible time?
You might not think it's much of a problem - until you sit down to play from the latest piano book you bought, only to discover the tempo markings are in German. And unless there’s also a metronome marking giving beats per minute, you’re stuck.
That's why it's useful to have some kind of system or acronym to make remembering the terms a little bit easier. And you can do that by simply remembering this one word - LAMP. Here's how the method works:
The Tempo LAMP System
Here are the main components of the LAMP system:
L = Largo & Lento
Largo is slower at approximately 40 beats per minute, while Lento is sometimes used to mean the same thing or just a little bit quicker. Whenever you see an -issimo — as in Larghissimo — just think MORE. In this case, more slowly than Largo.
A = Adagio, Andante & Allegro
Adagio is just a bit faster than Largo/Lento at around 66 beats per minute. Andante (at a walking pace) is a relaxed tempo at somewhere between 76-108 BPM, while Allegro takes us up to 120.
Okay, they’re not exactly in order from slowest to fastest — but nearly. Allegro is actually faster than this one:
M = Moderato
Moderato lies between Andante and Allegro. As the name implies, it means at a moderate pace. Not too fast, but not what you’d call slow, either. Somewhere around 112-116 beats per minute.
P = Presto
Presto is the fastest of the basic terms. It signifies playing at about 168 BPM. Remember that -issimo suffix? Well, when applied to Presto — to make Prestissimo — it means more quickly. In other words, something like 208 beats a minute.
An Extra Tempo Term
Know what a kitchenette is? It’s a little kitchen. Likewise, a Larghetto is a “little” Largo, i.e. not a FULL Largo, so not quite as slowly. Similarly, an Adagietto is a “little” Adagio — not the full deal, so not as slow. So that leaves just one more letter to deal with:
V = Vivo & Vivace
It doesn't fit in with the LAMP acronym, but these two terms are worth mentioning. You’ll see them in the music you play, so you might as well know what they mean. Basically, Vivace and Vivo are the same as Presto.
Tempo terms go from slow to moderate to fast. There are a lot of variations in between, but as long as you know the MAIN terms (LAMP) and the two most popular suffixes (-issimo and -etto) you should always be able to work it out. And as for French and German equivalents, you’ll find those in the simple table underneath.
Tempo Terms in Three Languages
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Now you’re up to speed, go find some music and see what you can make of those tempo markings. And don't forget to test your knowledge in the quiz below.