Sunday, July 07, 2013

Tempos or Tempi?

In a recent lesson, one of my students needed to work with the metronome to develop a steadier pulse, not just at one slow tempo, but at all the metronome markings on the road from slow to full tempo. And although I'm usually quite verbose in lessons, the correct choice of words left me tongue-tied.

Of all my daily musical decisions, this is one that has always gnawed at me with no clear resolution: when you're referring to more than one tempo,  do you say "tempos"  or "tempi"?

This is a tricky one for American and Canadian musicians. On the one hand, you can say "tempos", but there will be many who view you as a boorish, uncultured North American who never learned the refined ways of music school. On the other hand, you can say "tempi", but all illusions of coolness will be shattered as you are perceived as a middle-aged effete, pretentious Eurosnob. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground.

My solution? I attached the following photo to my student's lesson notes:

What do you say? Tempos or tempi?


  1. Do people really say "tempi"?! I studied music in the UK, and here at least I think we're comfortable saying tempos... That said, love the pic :)

    1. "Tempi" is common among orchestral players, especially in the 40-and-up crowd.

  2. Anonymous8:55 AM

    I always use "tempi" as I find it more natural and appropriate in terms of Italian, since I am using an Italian word. Of course, "tempos" in US/UK is used as this has an English plural ending of an Italian word. The same thing would apply with "crescendi & crescendos", "ritenuti & ritenutos" etc.

  3. Once a word enters the English language it becomes subject to English grammatical norms. If you slavishly insist that all words are grammatically modified according to their source language then English will become an unusable amalgam of Latin, Greek, French-modified Latin, Germanic this and that etc.

  4. Can't say that I've ever heard the word "tempi". I've heard it as tempos for as long as I can remember. "Tempi" is the plural form of time in Italian. "Tempo" equals "time" and "tempi" equals "times" in Italian.

  5. This is interesting, because recently, all I have ever heard it tempi. Maybe, I been listening to Glenn Gould interviews too much. Of course, he would be 80 years old, if he were still alive today so he belonged to the over 40 set, as I do (or should it be as do it?)

  6. As someone who writes about music on an almost daily basis (e.g. I find myself constantly questioning when to use anglicized versions of words vs. their originals. I mostly come down on the site of the latter, but given that I write for a radio station that doesn't actually play any classical music, it's always a question I have to ask.