I recall a piano teacher once telling me that the tempo marking in a piece I was learning (andante, if memory serves) meant different things in different eras. (Maybe slower in the Baroque than in the Classical eras, again if memory serves.)

I've never been able to keep straight which ones have changed, and what their meanings were in different eras or even to different composers. Wikipedia, for example, mentions that Allegretto is faster now than in the past.

One striking example is that Allegretto hastened as a tempo from the 18th to the 19th century: originally it was just above Andante, instead of just below Allegro as it is now. (Wikipedia)

Which tempo indications are particularly sensitive to era, style, composer, or other consideration? And how so?

2 Answers 2


You could write quite a long article on what different tempi (and dynamics, articulation etc.) mean to different composers.

Many of our tempo indications were originally about mood or general feeling as much as about speed. "Allegro" means "happy." "Andante" means "walking." "Largo" means "wide" or "roomy."

Metronomes used to come with a chart that mapped the words to beats per minute. Who knows how many music students took away the lesson that 132 to 152 was Andante and 160 to 176 was Allegro. Perhaps that was how the words changed from being about mood to being about speed.

And then there's "Tempo giusto" which means either "in exact time" or "in just the right tempo." In this case, I guess if it feels right then it's right.

In my opinion the indication that has changed the most is "Allegro." For example, look at this fragment of Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto: Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5

Note the time signature: there are two beats in a measure and each beat is a half note. If you set the metronome to half note equals 60 ("Largo") that's a very allegro tempo for this.

  • I wonder if Bach's use of the cut-time symbol should be interpreted in terms of mensural notation rather than the modern meaning.
    – Aaron
    Commented Dec 25, 2020 at 2:03

Some composers consider Andante a 'slow' tempo and others consider it a 'fast' tempo with regard to how adverbs on it behave. A composer who regards Andante as a 'fast' tempo writes Andantino or Un poco andante to mean a tempo on the slow side of Andante, whereas a composer who regards Andante as a 'slow' tempo would write Andantino or Un poco andante to mean a tempo on the fast side of Andante.

Probably more composers treat Andante as a 'slow' tempo but Brahms is a notable exception.

  • I'm sure there are others but Brahms is easily the most important to remember of the composers who meant andante as a 'fast' tempo - he wrote a lot of modified andantes. Commented Dec 25, 2020 at 2:19

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