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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

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67 thoughts on “Rallentando & Ritardando: What’s the Difference?”

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

      1. Does it mean that a composer can use rall then goes on to insert a rit after the rall? In other words can the two terms be used consecutively now that we have said that they are different?

        1. That’s an interesting question. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I suppose it is possible. If a composer wishes for one type of slow down followed by another, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be free to do that.

    2. Ellen: If a composer is not illiterate then what he thought it meant is how the dictionary describes it (or as you so rudely put it ‘what the dictionary thinks’) Dictionaries don’t think. dictionary makers attempt to describe the common meaning of a word. If you mean to say that one composer may have not understood the meaning of a word in general use and may have had a different intent from another composer in the word’s use, then you should have read the article properly where it clearly states “However, the crucial difference between the two seems to be one of musical intent and effect.” For me the best description I’ve found anywhere on the web is in this article where the effect is described as coasting to a stop as opposed to braking to a stop. I think that’s an excellent description and all I need to know. In another 10 years when I’m taking my Masters degree in Musical theory I shall be talking about intent and effect and composers’ styles & so forth, but for me, at my stage of musical understanding this is perfect. And if you think the composers intent is paramount, listen to the Beatles version of ‘A little help from my friends’ then listen to Jose Feliciano’s totally different (and better) version. Or the modern version of Rhapsody in Blue (played at 80) then the original 1924 version (played at around 120). Then you can come back and tell the author of this page that she is right. Instead of trying to second guess what a dead composer might have meant we want to know what is the generally accepted difference between the words. And this post has explained that admirably. Thank you Joy.

      1. Damn Phil.
        A little heavy with the attitude don’t you think?
        I can’t tell if you’re jumping to the defence of Joy, or if you honestly thought that it was important to set Ellen straight.
        Unfortunately for you, your rebuttal consists mostly of “Ellen is wrong and the Beatles are overrated” both of which are just your Opinion.
        Speaking of which, I couldn’t find anything about José Feliciano doing a version of “A Little Help From My Friends” however, I know he did a cover of “A Day in the Life” Which is definitely better, assuming that you define how good a song is by its syllable count. Who knew the word “book” actually consisted of 5 smaller words? It’s like an English Lesson and an overly pretentious cover of a great song all in one!
        But that aside, perhaps you were thinking of the classic album by Cheo Feliciano, “With A Little Help From My Friend”
        You’ll know it when you hear it. It featured all of his classics like Nabori, Huellas De Ti, and my favourite, Esa Es La Que Es
        Anyway, I mostly just wanted to comment because your complete misreading of poor Ellen’s comment threw me for a loop.

        That is all.

  2. 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. 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. 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. 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

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

  7. 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..


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

    1. 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!

      1. Ritenuto is often used to indicate an immediately slower tempo for a specific section rather than a slowing tempo. Samuel Barber, who spent a lot of time in Italy due to his relationship with Menotti, certainly uses it this way.

      2. If you look at the root, ritenere, and the meaning “to withhold”, ritenuto means to withhold the tempo or to hold it back – pull in the reins! “To consider” is an adequate meaning as well – one considers the notes more deliberately, taking extra time, when ritenuto is indicated. And this withholding of tempo happens right away, unlike rit. and rall. which mean a slowing down over several notes or measures.

      3. I now think that “ritenuto” is the correct term for something indispensible in classic Viennese waltzes and much of the music of Johann Strauss jr.- Listen to the recording of “Die Fledermaus” by Clemens Krauss:
        “Mein Herr, was dächten sie von mir, säß ich mir einem Andern hier…..
        Mit mir so spät im Tête-à-tête,
        ganz traulich und allein,
        in dem Kostüm, so ganz intim,
        kann nur allein der Gatte sein!”.
        By the way, Clemes Krauss was, for a long time, the only one to use the “ritenuto” here. The conductor Placido Domingo at first did not, by now does (I heard a live performance).
        Conductors who do not feel that many Viennese waltzes lose their soul without a properly place “ritenuto” simply do not understand this kind of music.
        In fact, the “ritenuto” is also essential to many waltzes by Lehar and especially to the waltz by Heuberger: “Kommen Sie ins Chambre Separée”.

  9. 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?

    1. Hi Goele. Conversely rit. is almost always ritardando. Ritenuto is most commonly abbreviated to riten. although it is sometimes abbreviated to rit. Ritenuto does most often appear in the middle of a piece, not because of its placement in the score, but because it’s where it’s usually most effective. Ritenuto is an abrupt, sustained change of tempo. Think of it as a sudden pause. Ritardando can be followed by a tempo, acclerando to a tempo or a tempo change altogether.

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

    1. 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…

  11. 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,

  12. 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.) 🙂

  13. 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.

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

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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) 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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 🙂

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. Hey, thanks for posting this! I just googled rallentando vs. ritardando for a piece I’m working on, and this is definitely more helpful than the other links that popped up.

  25. to me, rit. feels like it decelerating at the rate that a snowball rolling down a hill accelerates by… Its the feel of a train barreling down the tracks coming to a screeching halt because a kitten is on the tracks. It’s like ‘WWHOOOOAAA THERE, HOLD YOUR HORSES,’ while rall. is like floating down the lazy river in a water park and it comes to a end; rall. is a more gradual slowing which feels comfortable and more natural/ human like. It’s like the way that ambien vs. melatonin at bedtime sedates you; one definately feels more unnatural and ‘heavy-duty’

  26. I have been singing for years but never had formal training until recently. I always followed the director and accompanist before and just used the dynamic markings as a clue of what to do without really knowing exactly what they meant. Now I have to know. I have been working on “The Palms” with my voice teacher. I am a first soprano and the phrase “Praise Him who cometh to bring us salvation” if taken too fast was a real tongue twister for me to keep the pitch and get the words out. The music said rall. which allowed us to slow it down enough for me to get the words out clearly while not losing the power and meaning of the words. I became curious as to the difference in rall. and rit. and found this article very helpful

  27. thx. i liked the article.
    your writing is very engaging and efficient.
    and informative.
    a really good combination!


    thx again,

  28. Hi! I found your post very helpful. Rit and Rall still seem the same to me though! They both slow down gradually. I wonder if you can use rit and rall together. Like for example, piu rit. rall. I was also wondering if you have a post related to harmonic and melodic chromatic scales. It would really helpful!

  29. Ah yes, ritenuto, ritardando and rallentando. I’ve always known that it was a matter of degrees and intent. But what about morendo? That is actually “dying away” which is the description often given for rallentando. If I keep these concepts in mind as degrees of slowing down, I’ve always considered them as ritenuto, ritardando, rallentando, and then morendo. What do you think?

    1. Most definitions I see state that morendo means primarily a “dying away” or decrease in volume, but not necessarily a “dying away” of tempo. Liszt, as a meticulous editor of his own works and transcriptions, offers some insights. Two examples: 1) In his Hungarian Rhaphsody #2, seven measures prior to the Vivace section has a rallentando followed three measures later by a morendo. So the tempo slowing begins first, followed later by the dying away of sound. 2) In his transcription for piano of Wagner’s “O du mein holder Abendstern”, five measures before the end, he indicates a morendo in the bass line only. One can’t slow down one voice without slowing down the other, so this obviously means a dying away of volume for the bass line. I think morendo has become a shorthand (albeit a confusing one) to indicate a slowing of tempo and a decrease in volume, rather than using “rall. e dim.”, which would be more clear. To differentiate, diminuendo simply means to grow softer, while morendo means to die away, in other words virtually to nothing. As practical justification that morendo is limited to volume, one can not die away to virtually no tempo – that would be too painful!

  30. I stumbled across your blog while attempting to find the precise title for this week’s blog entry based on my book, A Past Worth Telling. Bingo. I love the nuances you mentioned between ritardando and rallentando and happen to agree. I studied classical piano for about 12 years before deciding on my major in college as German. Music still remains food for my soul. I just retired from 48 years of teaching German. Once more music beckons. Thanks for your blog!

  31. I was taught (and still follow this approach) that rit. was just a slowing down but that rall. included more than a tempo change. When it is a rall., we slow down AND get heavier. Rallentando sits on the other end of the spectrum from Morendo.

    Which seems to match what some others have said…that Rall. is more dramatic.

    But yeah, to me, ritardando is only a tempo thing. Rallentando and Morendo imply more than just a change of tempo.

  32. This is exactly the question I had. I like your explanation, which is logical. I am editing an organ piece which has no tempo alteration markings, even though it is a late romantic work (possibly they are stylistically presumed by the composer). At the end of the piece, I sense a ritardando prior to a two-measure coda. In addition, the coda begs for a rallentando. I wonder if it is over-editing to include both a “rit.” in the measure prior to the coda and a “rall.” at the coda. Perhaps the “rall.” will illicit a “rit.” As a musician, what would you like to see in the way of tempo alteration markings in this case?

  33. I found this difference in some music dictionary:

    A rallentando slows down but then keeps going, either at the original tempo or a new one. It’s a rolling stop, like jumping out of a moving car.

    A ritardando slows down and completely stops. It’s not necessarily the end, but you can step out of the car. In either case the duration and rate of the slow down is not indicated.

  34. Oh, how to end a pop-song that has a fade-out ending?…

    So, ‘Hey’ by Julio Iglesias; I’m working on this at the moment – what a beautiful song – it has a perfect fade-out ending. I say ‘perfect’ because the fade lends itself to the mood of the song, like the sincere longing and pleading from the protagonist…

    Anyway, I’m the protagonist at my pub gig, on a Glasgow Friday-night (Scotland) and I don’t need a fade-out for this wonderful song. I made a note that a ‘ritardando’ would work – until I read your description, Joy.
    Absolutely no-doubt about it now – it has to be a….

    Thank you, Joy. Fantastic wee discussion.

  35. I always thought my choirs to think of rallentando as “taking your foot off the gas pedal” while ritardando is like “stepping on the brake”. Both are ways of slowing down your vehicle, but rallentando is like allowing your car to slow down on its own, while ritardando is deliberately slowing down the car. One is allowing the forward motion to ease up, the other is causing the forward motion to come to a stop.

    I like the way you described these terms!

  36. I have been wrestling with this for some time. I write arrangements, and I have tempo changes in mind. Sometimes I think it is what most folks would call ritard, but I also have these more pronounced slowing down sections over say a couple of measures, where I really want the music to pull way back, and then go a tempo. I’ve been resisting the urge to write all of that in the score. But will a simple rall. accomplish that? I want to be clear, and I also want to be as brief as I can.
    And would meno mosso be a simple reduction in tempo but not by degree?

  37. I appreciated the explanations; it seems to confirm my thoughts on “ritard” which I felt was used to deliberately slow the tempo in order to signal the end of the work (as in choral works, such as church hymns) or, maybe, to provide more contrast with the phrase at the close of the work.

  38. Rallentando is a holding back of tempo while retaining rhythmic movement, then possibl regaining tempo. Ritardando is simply gradual slowing. That is in line with your translations too. That has always been my understanding of the two.

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