The organization of time in music is just as fundamental (if not more so) than the system of pitches. Melodies are shaped just as much by their rhythms as they are by their melodic contours, and harmony depends on certain pitches being played synchronously. Many percussion instruments don't produce definite pitches at all, making them solely rhythmic instruments. The foundation of all rhythm is the beat.

The steady pulse, or beat, provides the framework for all rhythm in music. We dance to the beat, a conductor keeps the beat for an orchestra, and a metronome clicks the beat. The vast majority of music has a beat, even if sometimes it is not easy to follow.


Tempo Marking Description BPM
grave solemn (very, very slow) ~ 40
largo broad (very slow) ~ 50
adagio quite slow 60-70
andante walking pace 80-100
moderato moderate ~ 110
allegro fast 120-160
vivace lively ~ 140
presto very fast ~ 180

The tempo is the speed of the beat. A tempo may be designated with general terms such as "fast" or "slow," or it can be measured precisely in beats per minute (bpm). The second-hand of a clock ticks at 60bpm, which is a good reference point.

It is common to find tempo markings in Italian (very fast: presto, slow: lento) or another language such as French or German. Although some terms can be understood by consulting a standard bilingual dictionary, other terms are conventional rather than literal. For example, allegro literally means 'happy' or 'cheerful' in Italian, but in music allegro means fast.

Rubato - "Stealing" Time

Measuring tempo in beats per minute can seem very rigid, but sometimes a soloist is permitted to slow down and speed up the tempo for expressive purposes. This is called rubato or tempo rubato from the Italian for 'stolen time'. This often happens in a cadenza - an extended solo section in a concerto. For an example of a cadenza performed with rubato, listen to Mozart's Piano Concert No. 20 in D minor (K.466) with a cadenza written by Beethoven (playback will begin just a few seconds before the cadenza).

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2022