Today’s video is a quick one on two Italian music terms – ritardando, and a tempo. We talk about what they mean and how to play them, with some examples thrown in there for good measure.

Basic Terms with Ritardando

Ritardando – gradually slow down
A tempo – return to the original tempo
Molto ritardando – slow down a lot
poco ritardando – slow down a little

What Ritardando means

When you see ritardando in music, it might be written in full, or abbreviated like “rit.“, and what it means is to slow down gradually. Think of a car – hopefully when and if you drive, when you see a stop sign, you don’t just hammer on the brakes – you gently come to a nice stop. The same idea applies to ritardando – it’s a gentle slowing-down, not an abrupt one.

Sometimes you’ll be given more direction, like “poco rit.”, which is saying “just a little slow-down”, so that would be an even gentler slow-down.

What ‘a tempo’ means

The other term we’re looking at today is ‘a tempo’. This means ‘the original tempo’ or speed, so if you see this sometime after a ritardando, you resume the previous speed after your slow-down.

When to use Ritardando

And that’s all there is to it! Ritardandos are a really nice musical function, and are usually seen either at the end of songs, or at the end of a part of a song – though sometimes they can be sprinkled in mid-song for dramatic effect.

Even if there is no such mark on the score, sometimes composers choose to do their own little ritardandos – this is especially true with Baroque music, or any sheet music with very sparse markings on tempo and dynamics. Since a very gentle slow-down sounds natural at the end of a piece, or at the end of sections of a piece, composers will often choose to insert them even if the marking isn’t there. This is a case where you can use your own discretion.

If you’re playing a Bach piece (from the Baroque era), for example, you wouldn’t want to be doing any wild Romantic-style ritardandos, because it would be out of character for the music and time. However, a little slow-down, and perhaps even a pause, during the last few notes of a section, can sound great – it gives the listener (and the performer) a much-needed reprieve.