At the beginning of each piece the initial tempo (or speed) of the piece is usually indicated using an Italian word. Overall, there are no strict speeds when it comes to tempo markings. But since the invention of the metronome, often a recommended speed (in beats per minute) is indicated for you. The larger the number means the faster the speed of the music. 120 beats per minute is twice as fast as 60 beats per minute and so on however, watch out for the time signature used. In simple time signatures (such 4/4 time) a crotchet (quarter note) is generally used to measure speed. In compound time signatures (such as 6/8 time) the beat marking for a dotted crotchet is often used to set the speed.
Often the Italian words used can indicate both speed and a playing style. For example, ‘allegretto vivo’ means moderately fast and lively, and would indicate that the speed should be slightly faster than allegretto and the player should convey the mood of energetically bouncing through the piece.
Throughout a piece, the speed can change several times. It can happen gradually over several bars of music, or very suddenly. Markings (often dashed lines) above or under the music staff indicate over how long these changes should occur. These relative changes are somewhat open to interpretation by the player and also depend on the initial tempo.
A list of common Italian musical terms used for tempo markings is given below. Where possible I’ve given an indication of the speed (usually a range) that can serve as a guide. Whilst this is not a complete list of tempo markings, these terms are frequently used in flute music and are great to begin with. Before you know it, these words will make their way into your musical vocabulary without a second thought! In bocca al lupo… good luck!