Expressive use of tempo changes

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Expressive use of tempo changes

There are two fundamental components of music. Rhythm, and pitch. In this lesson, we are going to look at how changing the rhythmic element in a piece can be expressive.

Before you go a changin’…

A steady rhythmic pulse in a piece of music gives coherence and direction. Without any semblance of a pulse, rhythms lose their meaning. As a generalization, classical guitarists have sub-par rhythmic skills, and this underdevelopment comes, in part, from playing a solitary instrument. More often than not, we classical guitarists play solo repertoire and therefore have very little, save perhaps a metronome, to keep us strictly in time. Many other instruments live in a predominantly ensemble based world and develop a stronger sense of rhythm. I came to these conclusions during my doctoral research on sight reading, and even though musicianship, in general, is improving amongst classical guitarists, rhythm is still lacking.

I am going on this little tangent about the steadiness of rhythm because it is crucial to establish the ability to play “in time” before we start to manipulate timing to be expressive. All too often, poor rhythm is defended as being “expressive” or “musical”  when in fact the performer cannot actually execute the rhythms as written. Sometimes this issue originates from a student imitating a recording, where the performer has already decided on some expressive rhythmic tools. By using the recording as a base for the piece, instead of actually reading the rhythms written on the score, the student’s version strays further and further from the original instructions from the composer. To be succinct about it: unless you can play in time, any expressive use of rhythm will lose its effect.

Timing is, … , everything.

If you are at the point where your rhythm is steady, the next hurdle is knowing where to implement expressive rhythmic changes. The good news is that, more often than not, the score will indicate places to change tempo. Composers put a great deal of though into their scores and reading their markings should be taken with as much seriousness as if you were to have a private lesson with the composer. So, let’s look at some of the most common types of tempo/rhythm changes that you will find in a piece of music. There are others that you might find in a musical dictionary, but in my experience, many are rarely used.


Often abbreviated as rit. and sometimes, to be specific, riten.

To hold back and slow down rather suddenly


Also abbreviated as rit.

A gradual decrease in tempo


Abbreviated as rall.

Rallentando and Ritardando mean essentially the same thing, however, as Ritardando has the same abbreviation as Ritenuto,which makes Rallentando a more effective term to communicate the gradual slowing of tempo.


Indicates a hold or a pause on a particular rest, note or place in the music. The fermata tells the performer that the rhythm should be extended longer than its normal duration, however, the exact amount of time is left up to the discretion of the performer.


Abbreviated as accel.

A gradual increase in tempo

Più mosso

More movement or faster

Meno mosso

Less movement or slower

A piacere

Literally means “as you like” and indicated that the performer may manipulate the tempo with discretion.

Tell me what to do!

All of the aforementioned markings are very useful directions to add expressivity to the score. However, they are only half the story. There are always places in a piece of music which lend themselves to rhythmic changes with an expressive goal.

One of the most reliable places to manipulate the rhythm successfully is at the beginnings and ends of phrases. Because a phrase has a complete musical idea within its boundaries, pulling or pushing the rhythm at the end of the phrase will not disturb the contents of this ‘idea’. In fact, pulling back at the end of a phrase can often have the effect of punctuating the music and giving it a clearer structure. As guitarists, our fingers don’t need to take breaths like a woodwind player or a singer, as a result, our playing can become breathless. By marking in the phrases and pulling back at the end of the phrase, or simply adding a little ‘breath’ of a pause, we can give our interpretations a lot more clarity.

I’ve been robbed!

Pulling and pushing is all well and good, but our music often sounds good when it is balanced. The term that is used for a balance between pulling and pushing is Rubato. It literally translates to the word “robbed” and the idea behind it is quite simple: If at any point you speed up the music, then you must balance again the music with a slowing down. Similarly, if you take some speed away (i.e. you have “robbed” the music of some speed) you need to give it back by speeding up again.

The most famous practitioner of the “rubato style” was the Polish pianist, Frederic Chopin. He was said to be able to maintain a steady pulse in his left hand, while freely pulling and pushing the rhythms in the right hand.

In essence, the idea is to create an elasticity in the music. One that serves long winding melodies by taking away the rigidity of bar lines and metronomic rhythms.

Too Much of a Good Thing

It might be a little too fun to start deploying all of these new found toys in your music. But, just as a word of caution, aim to be selective with these tools as using them too much can make the interpretation sound predictable, or worse, sound disconnected. I like to think of these types of effects as dessert. Just the right amount can make the meal a wonderful experience, but too much will leave you feeling a bit ill…

I’m a Fermata, hold me.

The last expressive tool we will look at is the Fermata. This funny little bird’s-eye marking is telling the performer to hold the note, or chord. It doesn’t tell you how long to hold it for, it just tells you to hold, so you are going to need a bit of decision making when these come up. They will often appear at the end of a piece to give a sense of finality, or the end of a section to give a clear division between one section and the next. Sometimes they will be used on particularly expressive notes, moments or climaxes in the music where the composer wants you to linger for a short while.

I approach the duration of a fermata by taking into account the material that came before it and the point in the music where it occurs. Sometimes they are held slightly longer than the normal duration, and sometimes they really can be drawn out. For instance, at the end of a twenty minute piece you would probably give the fermata a long duration as it is the final point of a very long journey. On the other hand a fermata used halfway through a short piece, might just require an extra little sustain to make the musical effect work nicely. In the end, it is up to you!

2016-10-24T00:19:56+00:004 Comments


  1. Mike Philbert February 14, 2015 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this valuable information. I do know to gain the correct tempo and use a metronome; however, I tend to play too freely with the tempo, and lose the rhythmic “groove”. I like the band Rhythm Future Quartet, and some others. I am learning this valuable lesson and what you have posted here I will read and practice over and over until it feels natural. For me it is easy to just play everything full rubato, but I want to maintain a solid rhythm since on solo guitar I do not play with a drummer or bass player. My guitar teacher encourages me to always us my metronome, but then after I have mastered the rhythm, to add some rubato (accelerando), not to over-do it, but at the right places. Just so long as I do not sound like a computer playing the song; but, to play from my heart and soul. I sing through the piece and this also helps.

    • Simon February 17, 2015 at 3:00 am - Reply

      Hi Mike,

      That last comment resonated with me “sing through the piece and it helps”. I was just at a Manuel Barrueco class the other day and he commented that it is very hard to rush or drag when you are singing. I think by far the best way to develop rhythm is to play with others, perhaps try some ensemble playing to add to your rhythmic development?


  2. subrata August 22, 2017 at 7:15 am - Reply

    Many thanks for this nice and informative article.I have a little confusion of this topic which is that while playing a piece, namely,Lagrima by Tarrega or Etude in B minor by sor or many more pieces like that on guitar in strict rhythm with a Metronome as indicated in the score,if any expressive use of tempo changes is applied or any such suggestion is indicated in the score itself, then what is the system of coming back to the strict rhythm or whether Metronome can still be used till the end of the music?Please convey your valued sggestions

  3. Marcos Villanueva February 15, 2018 at 5:03 am - Reply

    Hello, Simon
    I’m agree with the very most you say. Only there’s something I’m not.
    Rubato is a alteration of tempo, not the rhythm, for example: a quaver followed by two semiquavers, must be understood like is it written even if we play with a strong rubato.
    And I would like to add on my own:
    Rubato is not a change of the beat: 3/4 is always 3/4. If we are decreasing the tempo, the result must nor be understood like a change to 4/4.
    The pulse go ahead but now is not a metronomical pulse. Now it flow whith more freedom (but conditioned for the music tension not in an arbitrary way).
    The audience must not been surprised by abrupt tempo changes when we play rubato.
    The romantic music is incomprehensible without rubato. Romantic music played “a tempo” can be simply ridiculous.
    The best we can do is to listen good pianist, violinist, conductors, singers, etc. playing romantic music, learning (and feeling!) how they play rubato.
    And if we are not moved by Brahms, Schubert, Chopin and many others (that never wrote music for the guitar) I think it’s impossible to become good guitarists.
    Thank you

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