Italian tempo marking in compound meter

This is not really a Dorico specific question:

I have some simple piano pieces which all are set in compound meter (6/8 or 12/8).

Left hand is playing three-note arpeggios (in eighth notes) throughout, so per each beat (of a dotted quarter note) there is one arpeggio.

The melody in the right hand also mainly consists of phrases in 8th notes, so although the beat is moderately slow the 8th note time feel makes the tunes quite lively.

I wonder how such tempos translate to italian tempo markings. For example: most of the pieces have a tempo between q. (dotted quarter) = 60 and 80. In Dorico’s list of tempo markings there would be Adagio (60) and Andante (80), but these are in my opinion markings for rather slow tempos and do not match the feel of the music.

Another approach would be to take the 8th notes as a metronome reference, this would triple the tempo, now they would be somewhere between 180 and 240. As I understand it everything above 180 is considered Presto, so there would be no room for disambiguition which also does not seem quite right to me.

Or, a mathematical approach: as there are more notes in a beat than in simple meter the music feels faster at the same tempo, so maybe give the tempo in dotted quarter, but take the italian terms that would fit to the resulting tempo for a regular quarter? For example: q. = 80 results in q = 120 (Allegro), or in other words: In compound meter of tempo 80 the eighth notes are as fast as the eighth notes in simple meter of tempo 120 thus making allegro the appropriate marking.

Any thoughts or knowledge to share?

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Dorico’s tempo markings basically match what you’ll find on a traditional pendulum metronome, but you shouldn’t feel restricted by them - you can type any text against any metronome mark into the Shift-T popover (or select any tempo mark from the right panel, then override either or both the text or the beats per minute in the properties panel).

If the pulse is dotted crotchets/quarters I’d much rather see the metronome mark given in dotted crotchets/quarters than anything else.

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All things are relative, but there are some very loose ‘traditions’.

The metronome mark not only shows us speed, it also tells us about the beat. Traditionally the beat in compound time is the dotted crotchet (8th), so two beats per bar for 6/8 (four for 12/8). So if I came across a piece in 6/8 marked simply Andante, I’d expect to play it around the 72 beats per minute.

If there is a quaver (8th) metronome mark in 6/8, I’d interpret that as meaning the composer wants me to think in 6 beats per bar. Usually this will mean a slower overall tempo (eg e=108, which is the same as q.=36). High speed marks like e=240 are extremely rare, because the beat at higher speed is more likely to be two per bar (q.= 80).

Because of the ubiquity of triplets in (classical) music, metronome marks are usually expressed in increments of 6 based on x=60. So x=80 is rare to see. Usually it would be x=84 or x=78. This makes it easy to translate speeds from q. to e.

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Your argument falls down at x=78 - that doesn’t exist on a traditional metronome. 76 or 80.

The exception that proves the rule!

It’s not the exception, though - there are plenty of numbers on a traditional metronome that aren’t multiples of six. As you go from lower (speed) to higher, the increments get greater (40,42,44…60,63…72,76…120,126…144,152 etc.). Presumably this is something to do with perceivable differences(?)

Of course, I can write literally anything into the text field. My question is more about what would be good practice.

Let me describe my “problem” another way:

Pieces in the feel of a Vienna Waltz can be considered as a really fast 3/4 meter, you would have a tempo of around q = 200 which would be clearly marked as “Presto”.

You can however notate them as 6/8 or even 12/8 which is basically grouping 2 or 4 of these fast 3/4 bars into one long bar, the shift from quarter notes to 8th notes makes it easy legible as now the three-note groups (that used to be the 3 quarter notes of one bar) will now be beamed together.

As we count dotted quarters in compound meters the metronome would go down to 1/3 (around q. = 66), but as the music and feel would stay the same I still would consider it “Presto”.

So would it be good practice to notate a waltz-ish tune in 6/8 and indicate “Presto, q. = 66” ?

A related thing would be:

4/4 at Tempo 200 would be considered “Presto”, but you normally would notate it in cut time, meaning we now count half notes, so the “beat” is now 100. 100 on the traditional scale would be “Moderato”, but I am pretty sure that most composers would indicate “Presto” anyway, right?

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I’m not relying on the metronome, just what I see commonly in printed scores. I really can’t remember a score marked x=80 from the classical period - though doubtless there are some. And Dorico’s Andante=80 has always irked me. It’s way too fast.

I disagree. The Viennese Waltz is one beat per bar (around h.=48-60) and usually marked Tempo di Valse. That way people know it is a waltz! The Italian words convey more than just speed. They convey a mood, a feel.

Not if all the notes were semibreves!


Ok, that that sounds plausible.

Ok, here we are splitting hairs, aren’t we? :wink:

If the whole piece would consist of whole notes there is no use in notating it that fast and not to simply write quarter notes at 50.

Adagio con fuoco? Presto moderato? Grave con brio? Tenuto vivace?

I urge you to study the finale of Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony (the Organ Symphony). After the big organ chord, it starts at Maestoso (q=96) in 6/4 (mostly crotchets and quavers, but with some passage work in semis)… transitions through Allegro (h=92) to Piu Allegro (h=138) and reaches Allegro Molto (w=88) with a time signature 3/1, at which point no one is playing shorter than a crotchet. That’s q=352 and still not marked Presto.

However, Saint-Saens does mark Presto in the 2nd movement (q.=138) time signature 6/8.

Lastly I offer you selection of Czerny metronome marks and their accompanying Italian descriptions…

I draw your attention to the final four to suggest that speed of note may bear little relation to the Italian mark.


Getting back to your original question, it sounds like your piano pieces’ tempos all relate to a dotted quarter pulse. If you want to use Italian terms, the following link might enlarge a bit on Dorico’s canned selection. It’s worth considering that writing tempo indications in a native language (“Flowingly”) might elicit a more appropriate response from young or more inexperienced players.

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non conosco la lingua inglese ma spero di darvi un aiuto nell’interpretazione del Metronomo nei Tempi composti (suddivisione ternaria) e nei Tempi semplici (suddivisione binaria):
ecco una pagina dei miei appunti che do ai miei allievi, spero possa essere utile.
Buona Musica


Grazie mille, è esattamente quello che avevo sospettato!

Here is the english translation of the text in the attachment:

To determine the (italian) term of a compound time, divide the metronome indication by 2 (in the example 80 : 2 = 40) and then multiply the result by 3 (in the example 40 x 3 = 120). From the table, 120 corresponds to the term “Allegro”.

Yes – it’s a quasi-logarithmic scale, so each increment feels roughly the same. I find the metronome was extraordinarily well designed from the beginning. Slower than 40 bpm, humans need to divide the beat in order to keep it steady; any faster than 208 we naturally group beats into larger ones to keep with it. (I’m not saying people cannot push past those boundaries, but they are reasonable for general human response.)

Knowing the numbers on a traditional metronome has saved me a lot of time estimating tempos, just like a grid for drawing or laying things out.

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This may be of interest…
Metronome.pdf (665.5 KB)