Grave, Largo, Adagio, Andante, Moderato, Allegro, Vivace and Presto.
Every semester, my class memorizes this list of Italian tempo terms and the order they go in, slow to fast. And every semester I attempt to explain that these terms didn’t start out with exact speeds linked to them (that developed later) and that they are supposed to be moods, emotions and styles of music. These terms are often used as “names” of individual movements in larger pieces. You can see them listed on some metronomes. (If you're curious, the number on the metronome is the number of beats in one minute so 60 is the same as one beat a second, 120 is two beats in a second and so on.) In most Classical concerts, people see
and, if they are lucky, they know that means this Sonata has 3 movements; a fast movement followed by a slow one and finally a VERY fast movement. But the story each term suggests, the overall feeling of the music, is largely ignored. And yes, there are yet more tempo terms but we'll stick with these to keep this post from getting too outrageously long.
Grave is the slowest marking, in theory. It means heavy, burdensome and serious. Now grave is not always slower than largo (the next one) but it should be darker in mood. I think of grave style as being somber with a lot of story or history behind each note and chord.
Largo is still very slow. But it means broad, wide, abundant and open. Think of this as laid back and taking things easy. I noticed that largos drift into the pompous fairly easily but they can also have a relaxed humor hiding in them.
Adagio is possibly the most commonly used term for slow. It’s dictionary definition is slowly and gently. Adagios run a wide range of emotions. Some are absolutely tragic (Barber’s Adagio for Strings), some are peaceful and sweet like a cheery lullaby. I think of them as having an inward focus, perfect for any music linked to contemplation.
Andante is considered a somewhat slow to medium speed. This term can be translated as continuous or unbroken. It suggests a smooth and flowing style of music to me.
Moderato is an in-between speed. It is often defined as walking speed which, if you think about it, is nearly the most obscure tempo marking possible. I have rarely found even two people who naturally walk at the same speed, even in marching bands! The dictionary defines it as moderate or middle of the road. Which can be seen as flexible. It can shift between thoughtful and cheerful easily. Moderatos are tricky to pin to one mood and are quite independent to my mind.
Allegro is fast. Some books say it is only moderately fast but you will find that allegros are quite likely to be played fast (maybe too fast). Since it also means cheerful, merry and joyful there is some logic behind this. Many people associate "up" moods with faster tempos. Since allegros are generally as optimistic as they can be, they get sped up.
Vivace is also fast. It is lively, brisk, brilliant and full of life. It is about showing energy, passion and life itself in music. Again, it is not uncommon for vivaces to get sped up a bit more than they should.
Presto is the fastest term in this list. It means quick, fast, soon, early or ready. The word prestito (not presto I know but similar) means borrow which musically could suggest “stealing” time from the next beat in order to go even faster. Prestos tend to be fairly friendly but they can edge into frantic or hectic without much effort. Frightening, alarming or chasing scenes work well as prestos too. Prestos also tend to make musicians swear a blue streak. Really, this marking shouldn’t be about playing so fast the audience can’t tell one instrument from another but create a sensation of motion that carries the audience along with it rather than leaving them lying in the dust.
The lines between Allegro, Vivace and Presto can get a little blurry. There is an element of "who can play it fastest" that sneaks into all these tempos. There is a similar issue with the slow tempos seeming all the same. This is partly because, as I said, these terms didn't start out with exact speeds and partly because when you remove the emotion these terms don't really mean that much. But emotion is an inescapable part of music which may be why people have trouble talking about music in our culture. It comes too close to discussing how we feel. Yet that is precisely why we love music. It does not hesitate to pour all its emotions out into the world for us to glory in.