Tempo refers to the degree of time in which a piece of music is to be played. To understand tempo is indispensable because, as the polymath Athanasius Kircher noted as early as 1650, „the whole secret of music consists in the exact, but also different course of time.“1) Also, Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus called tempo „the most necessary and hardest and the main thing in music“.2) The speed of the performance has a strong effect on the the listener, because „speed ​​… is a criterion of the emotional content of music.“3) According to scientific research, the listeners expect that dissonant and minor tonal music will be played faster than music in major, because they want to experience its harmonic dissolution. 4)


In ancient music, the speed at which a piece of music should be played was essentially a matter of experience and feeling. The musician independently searched for the „tempo giusto“ (the „right tempo“). Therefore, the „middle tempo“ of „normal“ music did not have to be recorded separately; it resulted from the score.5) Odd bar types, which often came from dance music, were generally played faster than even ones. The well-known speed of certain genres served as approximate tempo indication (e.g., „tempo di minuetto“ = „at minuet tempo“, „tempo di marcia“ = „at march tempo“). E.g., the sarabande was considered slow and the minuet fast. If other tempi were wanted, starting from the 17th century, Italian tempo expressions were added to the piece. Their use was however completely uneven.

Until the Classical period, it was also common to change the tempo of a time signature to the degree of movement, i.e. adapt to the fastest note values occurring therein; e.g., 6/8 time was played a bit slower when there were sixteenths in it. Tempo and time indications were at that time not meant as fixed conducting information.6)

From the 18th century, French musicians began to use pendulums to regulate the speed of dance music. However, their statements appear to be too fast by today's standards.7) Even in the late eighteenth century, different understandings of the meanings of tempo words prevailed. The English composer William Crotch wanted to standardize it in 1800, but his own measurements with the help of a pendulum revealed numerous conspicuous inconsistencies, which reflected the great differences in the performance practice at the time:

  • grave (69–116)
  • largo (60–119)
  • larghetto (94–153)
  • adagio (64–125)
  • lento (69–153)
  • andante (72–153)
  • andantino (66–88)
  • allegretto (88–108)
  • allegro (91–153)
  • vivace (88–168)
  • alla breve (82–100)
  • presto (82–108)
  • prestissimo (77–178).

Records from the first half of the 19th century show that at that time slow passages were performed faster and faster passages slower than usual today. At that time, it was not common any more to determine the tempo of a measure by the character of the piece.

In the early 19th century the metronome was invented so that „a piece is performed precisely in the measure movement as the composer thought it to be.“8) Since the middle of the 19th century. Finally, some composers made metronomical indications for the tempi in their works. Since then, the speed of a single beat remains unchanged even if the time signature changes in a multipart piece.

Tempo and expression

Tempo indications should not be considered independent of the meaning of the piece. Especially for solo performances, as Aguado, Dionisio has stated, the performer is free and responsible for the appropriate expression:

When playing solo, the expression in certain short passages allows a slight change in the measure, be it through acceleration or deceleration; in this case it seems, at least for a moment, to be absent, only to follow it afterwards with as much exactitude as before.9)

Tempo expressions

Tempo expressions

In general, the following values are characteristic of the regulation of the tempo:

tempo bpm
Largo (Lento) 40–60
Larghetto 60–66
Adagio 66–76
Andante 76–108
Moderato 108–120
Allegro 120–168
Presto 168–200
Prestissimo 200–208

However, these are only indicative.

Modern dances

Modern dances

The following dances are generally be played with the following tempi:

dance bpm
Rhythm & Blues 60–90
Bolero 80
Rap 80–100
Foxtrott 80–120
Hip Hop 80–120
Reggae 80–120
Polka 80–160
Tango traditional 80–160
Slow waltz 84–90
Samba 96–104
Calypso 104
Rumba 100-108
Rock 100–140
Argentinian tango 108
Paso doble 120–124
Cha-cha 120–128
German tango 132
Jive 168–184
Twist 170
Viennese waltz 174–180
Salsa 180–300
Dixieland 200
Quickstep 200-240
Charleston 200–290



Jazz often uses the following tempo markers:

tempo bpm
slow 48-60
medium slow 60–90
medium 90–140
medium fast 140–180
fast 180–240
up-tempo 240–340


  • Jackson, Roland: Performance Practice: A Dictionary-Guide for Musicians. Routledge 2013 (ISBN 9781136767708)
  • Rubin, Emanuel: „New Light on Late Eighteenth-Century Tempo: William Crotch's Pendulum Markings.“ In: Performance Practice Review 2:1 (1989), 34–57

Athanasius Kircher: Musurgia universalis sive Ars magna consoni et dissoni , translated by Günter Scheibel 2017. Book VII, chap. IX, p. 208.
Mozarts Briefe, chapter 27, 23.10.1777.
Johannes Flecker: The significance of music for the design of brand personality. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag 2014, p. 36.
Ibid. 36-37.
Karin Paulsmeier in: Hartmut Krones (ed.): Alte Musik und Musikpädagogik. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1997, p. 295.
Helmut Breidenstein: Mozarts Tempo-System: Ein Handbuch für die professionelle Praxis. Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag 2015, pp. 18–19; 30.
Jackson 2013: 383
Anonymous: Kurze Abhandlung über den Metronomen von Mälzl und dessen Anwendung als Tempobezeichnung sowohl als bei dem Unterricht in der Musik. Mainz: Schott 1836, p. 9.
Dionisio Aguado: [1830], S. 71