Rallentando & Ritardando: What’s the Difference?

Ever wonder about the difference between rallentando and ritardando?  Well, I did….so I decided to look into it and add my two cents to the debate.  =)

According to the Music Dictionaries…

Many musical dictionaries simply state, “slowing down” as the definition for both rallentando and ritardando.  Some state that the two words are synonyms.  However, I would still like to think there is some slight difference in meaning or emphasis between the two words.  After all, they are two different words in the Italian language.   And composers have been making use of both words in their compositions for centuries.  So I decided to do a little more digging.

According to the people on the web…

Some people (here too) state that rallentando is a more gradual slowing down than ritardando. However, it’s not clear whether they mean that the ritardando is to occur over a shorter period of time than the rallentando, or whether the ritardando is a greater slowing of the tempo than a rallentando over the same period of time.  One person on this forum compared a rallentando to coasting to a stop in your car and a ritardando to braking to a stop.  There is a lot of debate on various forums on the internet, but very little is conclusive.

According to the Italian-English Dictionaries…

Upon entering the words into an Italian-English Dictionary, I found these definitions:

  • Ritardare:be late, wait, retard, lag, stay, lose, delay, set back, defer, put off.”
  • Rallentare: slow down, reduce speed, slacken, slow, die down, decelerate, check, put back.”

Bingo!  There is a difference.  Ritardando seems to be a deliberate slowing or being late, while rallentando seems to be more of a letting go or dying away.

Well, so what?

The difference is a subtle but important one, methinks.

A couple of examples: The end of a Bach piece would probably require a ritardando in order to create a deliberate, final-sounding ending to the piece.  I can think of some Debussy and Liszt pieces, however, where a rallentando might be more appropriate, to give the effect of dying away, drifting away, or perhaps falling asleep.  The rallentando, I imagine, is often accompanied by a diminuendo, and should probably be more gradual than the ritardando in many cases.  However, the crucial difference between the two seems to be one of musical intent and effect.

To get this all confirmed, I suppose we’d need a native Italian speaker.  However, I like to think that we’re on the right track — or at least we’re closer to the real answer than if we’d assume they meant precisely the same thing!  It’s something to think about.

Photo credit: dannysullivan | CC 2.0

PG
Joy Morin is a piano teacher in Perrysburg, Ohio (United States) who enjoys keeping her teaching fresh with new ideas and resources. ColorInMyPiano.com serves as a journal of her adventures in piano teaching as well as a place to exchange ideas and resources.

Joy has blogged 953 posts here.

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35 Comments

  1. Posted 3 September 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I think the more interesting question is asking what each individual composer thought it meant when they used these terms in their music. It really doesn’t matter what a dictionary thinks does it?

    • Posted 3 September 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Good point, Ellen — no doubt there are composers who use / have used the terms incorrectly. Italian composers such as Puccini, Paganini, Bellini, Busoni, Verdi etc. (and other composers who lived in Italy at some point during their lives) no doubt perceived a difference between the two words. The fluent Italian speaker would also recognize the difference. Languages are funny things – words can mean different things depending on the context, and oftentimes you have to be fluent or native to a language to understand the correct usage and meaning of the word. Maybe I’m a little too optimistic – but I’d like to think that the subtle difference between the two words as musical terms has survived throughout the centuries, even if it is sometimes misused. I’m certainly not claiming to completely understand the difference between ritardando and rallentando, but by this post I’d like to at least suggest that there IS a difference.

      On a side note – I have a found a few online music dictionaries which have defined rallentando as “slackening in tempo” and ritardando as “slowing down.” That seems a little more accurate.

  2. Posted 3 September 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I had always considered rallentando to be a more dramatic slowing than ritardando, basically a greater slowing over the same period of time. Interesting that most people on the web seem to disagree.

  3. Carrie
    Posted 5 September 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I found this topic very helpful. I was always a little embarrassed that I couldn’t define these two words to my satisfaction. I thought I had just “missed” that theory page somewhere. Thank you, Joy!

  4. Andy Hodkinson
    Posted 3 January 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, Tchaikovsky (say in Symph No 6) uses ‘Ritenuto’ if the slowing down is over a few beats, ‘Rallentando’ when over a few bars, and ‘Ritardando’ when a much more dramtic slowing of the tempo is required. Mind you, there are not many composers who use ‘Incalzando’ in between the ‘Ritenuto’ moments. Mind you there is another conundrum for us: ‘Incalzando’, ‘Affrettando’, ‘Stringendo’, ‘Animando’, ‘Accellerando’, and ‘Animato’ – it’s what makes musical interpretation such fun!!

  5. Andy Hodkinson
    Posted 3 January 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Just to complicate the problem even further we get the use of the word ‘quasi’ before a term. As if we haven’t got enough confusing words, we get “quasi Adagio” for example! What’s that all about?

    Andy H

    • Graham Lyons
      Posted 25 October 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      adagio is ‘officially’ a tempo, but it also has the aura of a mood – a rather solemn mood. So if I’m writing a section that has the tempo of an andante but a solemn feel, I’ll mark it andante quasi adagio.

  6. Andy Hodkinson
    Posted 3 January 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Of course it’s easy if you are a conductor (I am), because they all mean “watch the conductor!”

  7. Chris
    Posted 11 January 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Well done Joy, I think you did us all a favour! I tend to think of Ritardando meaning “heald back” and rallentando meaning “slow down”, which goes along with what you said about ral. being like dying away, but I think also implies that the tempo might speed back up again after a rit..

    Thanks!

  8. Posted 25 May 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks a lot Joy for charing this! As a composer a should have known it, so it is a kind of embarrassing;-)

  9. Wendy
    Posted 30 June 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    So Joy, question: How does a ritenuto then fit into the picture? Thanks for your input of rit. vs. rall…..very helpful!!!

    • Posted 1 July 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Tough question, Wendy!! I did find a source online that suggested that ritenuto is generally used in the middle of a piece rather than at the end (can anyone confirm this?). Then I plugged the Italian verb “ritenuto” into that handy dandy online translator, and found this:

      Ritenuto: “to believe, to consider, to retain, to feel, to consider oneself.”

      Let’s assume that ritenutos do indeed occur during the middle of a piece rather than at the end. I would take this to mean that the performer is slowing down as if to think for a moment and consider something, or perhaps even lose his/her train of thought……and then at the a tempo, it is as if the performer’s mind is brought back to the present and continues telling the story.

      What do you think?! It’s a slight difference in meaning from the other two, but again — it’s a difference of musical intent and effect. It’s kind of fun to suppose what the composer might have been intending!

  10. Goele
    Posted 4 July 2011 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    Great article! I never stood still at the difference between rallentando and ritardando, but now I will definitely try to make this difference.

    About the difference between ritenuto and rallentando however, I learned that (assuming rit. is mostly ritenuto) ritenuto is slightly holding back in the middle of a piece, just before a tempo change and that ritardando is really slowing down, before the ending of a piece, or just untill you arrived at the next, slower tempo. Doesn’t that seem quite acceptable?

  11. Blaine
    Posted 20 July 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    My Sibelius Software will slow down more and more rapidly for a rit and than for a rall.

  12. Anne
    Posted 6 December 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Bach’s Prelude in Bb minor, Vol. 1, Well-Tempered Clavier, uses rallentando at the end, not ritardando, as suggested..

    • Maybe Dave
      Posted 20 August 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Those are almost certainly editorial markings, as it is unlikely that Bach himself would have written such tempo directions. Baroque musicians were trained to “just do it,” but left little record of how exactly it was supposed to be done. Back to the debate, I guess…

  13. Gui
    Posted 11 February 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    My high school band generally uses a rall. gradually until the last one or two beats.

  14. Steven
    Posted 4 March 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Italian native speaker & musician (conservatory grad) here. Rallentando and ritadando are the same. How you interpret depend on piece of music. The two words by themselves are no indication.
    The point is that these indication refer more to the state of mind of the interpreter than a precise metronome change.
    The Italian dictionarey is not the right place to undersdant these things because sam ewords are used in a different way in modern italian. Best is to listen to more than on egreat interpret and find how they do it.

    By the way, quasi, means “almost”.

    Hope it helps,
    Steven

  15. Dean
    Posted 10 August 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Great discussion – has been very informative, and helped me clarify my own thoughts about it.

    Here’s what I’ve come up with:
    As a performer, I completely agree with the statement that different composers have used the terms rallentando and ritardando to convey different intent. It all means “watch the conductor”, and play the piece from the heart.

    As a composer, the drama of music seems to be about tension and release. Rallentando indicates a less dramatic loss of movement and tension, such as “coasting”. Ritardando indicates a more pronounced loss of movement without losing tension, such as “braking”. When you’re riding in a car that brakes, you feel force and tension – it’s just in another direction.

    So I guess, to me, the difference is the context. If I want there to be a moment where it slows down and is less intense, I go with rallentando. If the slowing down is part of an increase in tension, I go with ritardando.

    I use ritenuto to mark a passage that I want played “less forcefully”, or “more tentatively”. It’s not necessarily a change in tempo, although it usually is just a hair slower. For example, if I want the brass to play a phrase that is ferocious, loud and boisterous, followed by an “echo” which is more mellow treatment of the same melody, I’ll mark the second phrase as ritenuto.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. (and probably a rip-off at that.) :)
    -d

    • Graham Lyons
      Posted 25 October 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Dean, where can I hear some of your music?

  16. Mike Maclaren Duffin
    Posted 26 August 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    As a writer rather than a musician I offer you ‘retard’ (to hold back) for ritardando, and ‘release’ (to let go) for rallentando…both are decaying motions.

  17. Ron Bean
    Posted 10 September 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve heard rallentando to mean slowing @ the end, but with discernible increase in sound *volume* during same time frame!

  18. Kathleen
    Posted 21 February 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I have always thought rallantando was less dramatic than a ritardando..so that the ritardando indicates you should slow down more. I thought it interesting that some of you thought the opposite.

  19. Posted 15 April 2013 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    In his Polonaise Fantasie, op. 61, Chopin seems to use ritenuto and rallentando pretty much the way you describe, Joy. At the end of the meditative introduction there’s a rallentando during the base’s pianissimo solo. It’s really dying away. This makes the a tempo giusto. A long section in strict time follows; at the end of it thereis a poco a poco ritenuto for one measure — holding back the pulse a bit right leading into the nocturnelike section, which Chopin marks as back “in tempo” (his English!). Later there’s a seven-measure rallentando to wind down to the più lento middle section of the piece. After the return of the opening material there’s a 1 1/2 measure rallentando leading to a poignant f2, after which the music moves to the (a tempo primo) agitated sextuplet figure that builds to the piece’s peroration. This looks a lot like a place where a ritenuto would work well, so perhaps Chopin simply isn’t always consistent in making a distinction between the two terms. On the other hand, perhaps Chopin used rallentando because he wasn’t going for the effect of holding back a tugging tempo but was following the slowdown with an (unmarked) four-measure accelerando to the a tempo primo. This is a tough place to interpret. Near the end of the piece, where both hands go into parallel octaves, there’s a marked two-measure accelerando. And at the end of the piece, where the triplets stop there is a final ritenuto. Following your thought, it’s interesting to note that there are no dashes after the ritenuto. In other words, at the start of the quietly buzzing trill in the bass the music supposed to sound like it’s holding back the tempo, at least for the first two measures. Perhaps holding back even more for the next two. In other words, the ritenuto could be showing that the music is not just supposed to lay down and fade away; there’s supposed to be some feeling of tension, as if the triplet tempo is still pushing things from a distance. Little changes in the dynamics of the trill could make that work. Then the final fortissimo chord would be a release of built up tension, not just a rhetorical flourish. Summing up, I got some new insights into Chopin by using your distinction between ritenuto and rallentando. Thanks.

  20. Posted 13 June 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    A good analogy is to use a driving senario;
    1.Driving down a long road towards a set of traffic lights that have been on Red since you could see them. You start to slow hoping that they will change to green, change down a gear..still slowlng, holding back, then, just as you get to them they change allowing you to resume your speed again..
    2. The same lights, same approach but this time they have been on green all the way until just as you reach them they turn to red forcing you to slow with the intentions of stopping.
    Senario 1. Rit (Ritardando/Ritenuto)..to hold back but with the intention of resuming the original speed. Therefore Rit should be used in the middle of a piece and should be followed by ‘ a tempo’.
    Senario 2. Rall (Rallentando).. to slow but with the intention to stop, should be used at the end of a movement or piece.

  21. Graham Lyons
    Posted 25 October 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    For me, the key is in sound of their third letters. Ritardando’s ‘t’ has a more sudden, determined sound than the flowing ‘ll’ in rallentando. Rit. = a purposeful decrease; rall., more gentle.

  22. Bill
    Posted 12 November 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    As a performer I tend to make my ritardando more like a gradual holding back, wheras with rallentando I would tend to pull the rythem back towards the end of the rall more than I would for the rest. I always associate a rall with being a more bolder ending to piece rather than a rit which I would expect to find in a song.

  23. Liam Pike
    Posted 30 November 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    cheers, I always thought that the slowing down of a rallentando is more subtle to that of a ritardando, now this just confirmed my views :)

  24. Denrus
    Posted 4 March 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    My teacher (many, many years ago) suggested that ritardando was like slowing down a car with the brakes whereas rallentando was like letting the car slow down by itself, without the brakes.

  25. John Blyth
    Posted 14 June 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I feel rallentando is when you no longer propel the music, so it loses some of its drive, and if it goes on for some time it loses quite a lot of drive.
    Ritenuto is often transliterated in German scores as zurückhalten–hold back–so there is more of a sense of that, than simply letting it go slack.
    Jean Sibelius uses allargando fairly often, which is getting slower and bigger at the same time, so, an increasing sense of breadth and grandeur.
    In these three cases there is one where energy is being lost, one where energy is being applied to retard the forward momentum, and one where energy is being applied to make it bigger in terms of volume and the time it takes.

  26. Mike Metzler
    Posted 1 October 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Joy,

    Thanks for making a gray area a little shadier. LOL. I’ve come across one term more than once, “Molto Rallentando”, that if I’m not mistaken would be to greatly gradually slow down. I’m still trying to unwind my brain from that one.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Publications | Pearltrees on 9 April 2012 at 4:24 pm

    […] According to the people on the web… Some people ( here too ) state that rallentando is a more gradual slowing down than ritardando. However, it’s not clear whether they mean that the ritardando is to occur over a shorter period of time than the rallentando , or whether the ritardando is a greater slowing of the tempo than a rallentando over the same period of time. One person on this forum compared a rallentando to coasting to a stop in your car and a ritardando to braking to a stop. Rallentando & Ritardando: What’s the Difference? […]

  • […] try experimenting with the dynamics (loud or soft) and even the tempo. Some well-placed ‘ritardando‘ (slowing down temporarily) markings could work well towards the end of […]

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