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Not being Italian myself, or fluent in the language generally, I usually think of "Andante" as meaning "walking," and "assai" as meaning "very."

Fine, but what the heck am I supposed to make of "Andante assai"? 'Very walking' seems pretty nonsensical, or at least ambiguous. How would most musicians interpret it? Slightly slower than Andante, or slightly faster than Andante, or something else?

All answers welcome, but if somebody fluent in Italian would care to answer that would be extra marvelous.

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Musical terminology isn't "Italian" - it's mostly conventional words and phrases that just look like they might be Italian.

In Italian, "andante" actually means "cheap" or "second-rate" - nothing to do with "walking" at all.

And "assai" doesn't always mean "much" or "a lot" - it can mean the opposite. A phrase like "m'importa assai" means "what do I care?" or "I don't give a **** about that".

Musical instructions written by a real Italian speaker can be just as confusing - like Handel's "largo e allegro" (not alternately - simultaneously!)

Not to mention classics like "Non si deve usare qui il maledetto legato d’organista da chiesa anglicana" ...

"Andante assai" can mean either slower or faster than "Andante" - but since we don't have a precise definition for the tempo of "Andante" anyway, you just have to make up your own mind, or blindly follow whatever MM mark that an editor added to the score.

One theory is that "andante" is an incorrect form of some part of the verb "andare" - but "andare" simply means "to go" with almost the same range of literal and metaphorical meanings as in English - you can certainly "andare a piedi" (i.e. "walk") but food can "andare a male" (go bad) or something can "andare perduto" (go missing).

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    I never have heard before that musical terms for tempo etc,. are not actually Italian, but just appear to be. I've been taught that because the most successful composers in the early 1700s were Italian that that is why that language became dominant for musical directions. If that isn't true, then where did they come from!?! Or am I misunderstanding you?
    – L3B
    Feb 14 '17 at 0:14
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    perhaps the language has changed somewhat in 400 years? I think that many of the Italian terms we use in music are completely different than what the modern slang uses them as. Much like reading Shakespeare I expect... Feb 14 '17 at 1:42
  • @L3B most of them are real Italian words, but they don't have the same meanings. In ordinary Italian, "tempo" doesn't mean "speed", it just means "time" (as shown on clocks and calendars) or "duration" (i.e. a time interval). "Tempo primo" means the "first part" of something (like a soccer match), not "revert to the speed at the start" as in music. If you look at collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/italian-english you will find a separate definition for the musical meanings - and it gives the English translation of "Andante (music)" simply as "Andante"!
    – user19146
    Feb 14 '17 at 3:21
  • "Most successful composers" might have been disputed at the time in England, France, Holland, Germany, and Spain (all of which had some pretty good composers, writing very different music from the Italians) but it's certainly true that Italy exported a lot of musicians to the rest of Europe, and just as "fractured English" is now the world language for business and science, "fractured Italian" became the European-wide language for music, and continued to have a life of its own afterwards.
    – user19146
    Feb 14 '17 at 3:32
  • alephzero, your last comment has really opened my eyes. Thanks so much. I will never again tell students that Andante means 'walking'!
    – L3B
    Feb 14 '17 at 16:35
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The basic tempo markings generally have a range of beats per minute. Andante sits between 76 - 108 on my metronome.

There are some additional qualifiers that may be added to the tempo marking to clarify which side of the tempo range the composer wishes. It is all somewhat subjective however on how much it means.

Adding Assai to the tempo, or "very much" would be play at the faster end of the Andante spectrum. Adding Non Troppo or "not too much" would be at the slower end.

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  • have you seen music references that support your third paragraph above, or is this rather something you know from training and experience? Just curious, though your answer is valuable either way.
    – L3B
    Feb 13 '17 at 20:18
  • I had almost the very same question myself, about what some of the tempo markings actually mean. In collage my instructors mostly said it was about "feel". I have studied it since the question comes up when I teach. Historically the tempos were pretty much learning what each marking feels like, sometimes based on how other works were performed. There is more modern agreement about the marking's actual BPM, thus the metronome markings. The additional modifiers are still interpretative though, such as when you get into moods like "Misterioso". The wiki on "tempo" has a pretty full list. Feb 13 '17 at 21:10
  • This is the second time I've seen a comment on this site about a metronome marking for Andante which looks crazy, at least for classical music. Around 60 is often more sensible than 78-108 (which is more like Allegretto).
    – user19146
    Feb 13 '17 at 23:09
  • 76- 108 seems to be a standard definition of Andante. I just looked an an old metronome I have from the 1960's and it lists it as that also. That being said, I tend to use the arrangement's tempo suggestions as a rough guideline, and play at what the piece and my performance seem to want. Considering that there wasn't a standard BPM set when many of these pieces were written one can assume that what Andante et. al. meant varied among regions and composers. Feb 14 '17 at 1:49
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    and here's a link to a funny about it: tonedeafcomics.com/comic/brief-history-of-tempo-markings Feb 14 '17 at 2:04

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