A study I am playing has these tempo hints:

  • Slowly, Freely in the beginning
  • Accelerando when the next section starts
  • moderato shortly afterwards


(I cut the score in the middle)

What does moderato mean in this context?

Does it mean "accelerate gradually until you play at the moderato tempo"?

Or does it mean "accelerate, but then slow back down to the moderato tempo"?

Or is it a hint on dynamics?

P.S. Here is an example recording:

  • Have you listened to any recordings of this piece? That'd be my first port of call.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2016 at 13:43
  • They are very different (checked 3). Didn't help me understand what is going on.
    – anatolyg
    May 30, 2016 at 13:49
  • Which maybe says a lot about the 'moderato' mark. As in "We don't really know what the composer wanted either...". Seems to be a piece where rubato reigns supreme.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2016 at 13:54
  • It's an etude so tempo isn't really a big deal. As Todd Wilcox suggests below, you accelerate until from after the pause and then 'ease in' to a medium tempo (moderato) where you can comfortably make the chords 'flow' as the composer suggests. May 30, 2016 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


I would certainly read it as:

Start accelerating at the accelerando so that you are playing at a moderato tempo when you get to the moderato, then continue to play moderato until you reach another tempo marking or the end of the piece.

That might not be exactly how others play it, and every performance involves interpretation of the score by the performer(s), but that is the only literal interpretation I can think of for those markings.

Moderato indicates a tempo faster than andante and slower than allegro, usually between 108 and 120 beats per minute.

Slowly could also be called lento and is likely meant to be 45 - 60 beats per minute. If so, that accelerando is really brief, since at the end of it you are being told to play twice as fast as at the beginning. Slowly might instead mean more of an adagio tempo of 66 - 76 beats per minute. Before you get too caught up in exactly how slow or fast to play, read the next paragraph.

Note the word freely in the initial tempo marking. That means you are invited to play around with the tempo a little bit. The composer expects/suggests that you speed up and slow down a little bit as you play to better convey emotion. A good question about that is, should we continue to play freely through the whole piece, even after other tempo markings? I would say yes, and I would interpret the freely at the beginning to indicate the whole piece is to be played with interpretive tempo.

  • 1
    Hence lots of rubato.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2016 at 18:30
  • 1
    @Tim Personally I see "freely" and "rubato" being slightly different, but I'm not sure if I could the difference into words. With rubato I see it as the player has to pay back what has been robbed, so if you slow down in place you have to catch up later. Freely to me is whatever the player wants to do (within reason). May 30, 2016 at 18:40

If I would have a guess I would say that it is a poor score and what the piece really wants is a return to the original tempo. It would be better to indicate that with the terms tempo primo or a tempo.

It is confusing as you rightly point out. Moderato is an indication of character, not mere speed or tempo. As with such things the character is indicated at the beginning of the piece.

  • Moderato is so vague a term to not bother putting it on music anywhere!
    – Tim
    May 30, 2016 at 18:35
  • @Tim That's funny. As indicated in my answer, I find moderato to be just as specific and useful as all other tempo markings like allegro, andante, largo, etc. But the different interpretations we all have is what keeps music alive. May 30, 2016 at 18:43

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