What tempo should I play this piece in?

This is an all-too common question we receive from members at CGC Academy, especially when it’s time for Grade Exam Submissions. The answer is almost always: well, it depends. Classical guitar tempo markings require some interpretation and guesswork, and there is variability in possible tempos. 

Even if the composer has been extremely specific and gives a metronome marking of 61.25 quarter-note beats per minute—if your metronome could give you such a number—we might still choose to play it slower or faster for a number of reasons. In other situations we simply have to take a guess at how fast or slow an expressive tempo marking might be. Just how fast is Allegro? How slow is Andante? What about “tempo di minuetto”? In the article below we’ll walk you through some important tips to help guide you. 

There’s always a range. 

It’s important to recognize that there is no one right tempo. Each piece of music has an acceptable range of possible tempos. Now, this does mean that there is a too slow and there is also a too fast. A piece that is too slow can sound plodding and it can also make certain rhythmic aspects sound like disconnected blobs rather than flowing links in a chain. Likewise, a piece that is too fast can not only can sound rushed but can also lose nuance, breath, and time between notes. Another consideration is that a too-slow or too-fast tempo can affect the meter. If you play too fast in 3/4, it starts to sound like 6/8; likewise if you play too slow in 6/8, it starts to sound a bit like 3/4! (We have a forthcoming post with much more info about the similarities and differences between 6/8 time signature and 3/4 so look out for that!)

Make it personal

However, once we have set the outer limits for tempos that we don’t want to cross, a given performance tempo can be quite variable and still sound fantastic. One need only listen to some of the best interpreters play the same music on classical guitar to hear not simply “better” or “worse” but “different.” And this is a key point: choosing your tempo is a part of your interpretation of a piece of music. In that way, tempos can be quite personal. Just look out for those outer “too-slow” or “too-fast” limits. 

Metronome markings are not always the best guide

Many metronomes include tempo markings that designate a range for each tempo: Allegro is 110-132 on my metronome; while Largo is 46-50. If we rely too much on the metronome’s tempos, however, it’s easy to be shoehorned into a tempo that is too fast or too slow. But, more importantly, there was no such thing as a metronome before the mid-nineteenth century and so applying a mid-nineteenth-century (or later) standard for “Allegro” to a Bach sonata or a Renaissance Galliard can be quite anachronistic. Moreover, since we’ve already established that choosing a tempo is a point of interpretation, limiting yourself to what your metronome dictates can stifle your creative interpretation as well.  

Beware copying others’ tempos

We are lucky to have a wealth of resources available to us in our modern age: free downloadable sheet music, countless videos of performances, and lessons that will teach you how to do any number of things. So finding out how other guitarists play the piece you’re working on is as easy as a YouTube search. However, we must use caution when we do this. Because tempo choice is subjective, simply copying how one popular guitarist plays a piece can limit your creative interpretation. Moreover, it’s possible that guitarist also chose their tempo because they heard someone else play it that way, and so on. And perhaps the “allegro” chosen is not the kind of allegro the composer wanted. So don’t fall into the trap of copying others, at least not until you have had the chance to experiment with different tempos for yourself.

Know your Italian! 

Many of our tempo markings today come from Italian words, and knowing what these various Italian musical terms mean can be a great starting place for deciphering a piece’s tempo. For instance, while “Allegro” sometimes gets designated as “fast,” in Italian it simply means “happy.” Likewise, “Andante” does not mean “slow,” but “at a walking pace.” 

  • Allegro: joyful
  • Andante: at a walking pace
  • Lento: slow
  • Adagio: at ease
  • Largo: broadly
  • Vivace: lively
  • Tempo giusto: Precise (or correct) time
  • Tempo di minuetto: in minuet time

Okay, that last one can be quite variable and the Italian won’t help you much! All you can really count on for “tempo di minuetto” is that it will be in 3/4 time (usually). Otherwise, however, the speed varies from composition to composition! A great example of this tempo marking can be found in the third movement of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Sonata.”

(Be sure you know how to pronounce your Italian musical terms correctly as well!)

Performance tempo

After you have decided on the tempo range for your piece and consulted your musical Italian-English dictionary, a final consideration to make is the “performance tempo.” Keep in mind that the very natural anxieties and pressure of performing can make a piece that goes well in the practice room fall apart on stage. Your accuracy and confidence, but also your ability to handle the final tempo of your piece, will be affected by a performance situation. So when you go out on stage, you might plan on taking the edge off the tempo: play it a little slower than you have been practicing it.

Alternatively, if you are very diligent and can handle your piece above your target tempo in the practice room, then your target tempo will feel easier by comparison. Thus, pushing the speed of your piece above where you think it should be can be a useful practice tool for getting a piece performance-ready.

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At the end of the day, outside of its “outer limits,” the tempo of a piece is subjective so give yourself room to experiment with different tempos. And settle on what you feel suits you best. We hope the above tips will help you find a tempo giusto for your piece!

To help you better learn your Italian musical terms, especially those related to tempo, we’ve created a Quick-Start Guide to get you started. Download your guide below!