Friday, July 1, 2011

Music Terminology and Symbols

Music terminology and symbols are something we all should know when playing a piece of music on the piano. There is the tempo terms, which tell us how fast we are supposed to play the piece, and there is the dynamic symbols, which tell us how loud or soft we play the music.

We will go into the tempo terms of a piece, which will tends to be written at the start of a piece of music and is usually indicated in beats per minute (BPM). This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note or crotchet) is specified as the beat and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats has to be played per minute (see the image below for an example, which indicates that there should be 120 crotchet beats (quarter notes) per minute).

The greater the tempo, the larger the number of beats that must be played in a minute and the faster a piece must be played. Below is a list of tempo terms and their BPM.

  • Larghissimo — very, very slow (20 bpm and below)
  • Grave — slow and solemn (20-40 bpm)
  • Lento — slowly (40–60 bpm)
  • Largo — broadly (40–60 bpm)
  • Larghetto — rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
  • Adagio — slow and stately (literally, "at ease") (66–76 bpm)
  • Adagietto — rather slow (70–80 bpm)
  • Andante Moderato — a bit slower than andante
  • Andante — at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato — moderately (101-110 bpm)
  • Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato — moderately quick (112–124 bpm)
  • Allegro — fast, quickly and bright (120–139 bpm)
  • Vivace — lively and fast (˜140 bpm) (quicker than allegro)
  • Vivacissimo — very fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo — very fast
  • Presto — very fast (168–200 bpm)
  • Prestissimo — extremely fast (more than 200bpm)
Composers may use expressive marks, which are listed below, that adjust the tempo of a music.
  • Accelerando — speeding up (abbreviation: accel.)
  • Allargando — growing broader; decreasing tempo, usually near the end of a piece
  • Calando — going slower (and usually also softer)
  • Doppio movimento — double speed
  • Meno mosso — less movement or slower
  • Mosso — movement, more lively, or quicker, much like più mosso, but not as extreme
  • Più mosso — more movement or faster
  • Precipitando — hurrying, going faster/forward
  • Rallentando — gradual slowing down (abbreviation: rall.)
  • Ritardando — less gradual slowing down (a more sudden decrease in tempo than rallentando)(abbreviation: rit. or ritard.)
  • Ritenuto — slightly slower; temporarily holding back. (abbreviation for ritenuto can be rit., riten., or ritenuto)
  • Rubato — free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes
  • Stretto — in faster tempo, often near the conclusion of a section.
  • Stringendo — pressing on faster
There are also mood markings in music pieces that have a tempo connotation. These are listed below.
  • Affettuoso — with feeling/emotion
  • Agitato — agitated, with implied quickness
  • Appassionato — to play passionately
  • Animato — animatedly, lively
  • Brillante — sparkling, glittering, as in Allegro brillante, Rondo brillante, or Variations brillantes
  • Cantabile — in singing style (lyrical and flowing)
  • Dolce — sweetly
  • Energico — energetic, strong, forceful
  • Eroico — heroically
  • Espressivo — expressively
  • Furioso — to play in an angry or furious manner
  • Giocoso — merrily, funny
  • Gioioso — joyfully
  • Lacrimoso — tearfully, sadly
  • Grandioso — magnificently, grandly
  • Grazioso — gracefully
  • Leggiero — to play lightly, or with light touch
  • Maestoso — majestic or stately (which generally indicates a solemn, slow march-like movement)
  • Malinconico — melancholic
  • Marcato — marching tempo, marked with emphasis
  • Marziale — in a march style, usually in simple, strongly marked rhythm and regular phrases
  • Mesto — sad, mournful
  • Morendo — dying
  • Nobilmente — nobly (in a noble way)
  • Patetico — with great emotion
  • Pesante — heavily
  • Sautillé/ Saltando — jumpy, fast, and short
  • Scherzando — playfully
  • Sostenuto — sustained, sometimes with a slackening of tempo
  • Spiccato — slow sautillé, with a bouncy manner
  • Tenerezza — tenderness
  • Tranquillamente — adverb of tranquillo, "calmly"
  • Trionfante — triumphantly

Dynamic symbols are also seen on sheet music and as stated previously they tell us how loud or soft we play a piece. They can also tell you if you need to increase the loudness or softness in a piece of music. Below is a basic list of dynamic symbols, their terms and meaning that you should remember. 

Dynamic Symbols






Very Very Soft



Very Soft





Mezzo Piano

Medium Soft


Mezzo Forte

Medium Loud






Very Loud



Very Very Loud



Gradually becoming louder



Gradually becoming softer



Gradually becoming softer

Messa di voce

Becoming louder then softer

Now that you have learned these music terms and symbols, you can now play your favorite pieces at the correct tempo and the correct loudness/softness ie you know when to increase the loudness or softness of your playing. A metronome will be able to help you by telling you the tempo you should be playing your music to. A metronome is a device that produces a regular, metrical ticks (beats, clicks) that can be set in beats per minute. These ticks represent a fixed, regular aural pulse.


Post a Comment