Musicians in the English-speaking often use Italian musical terms instead of the English equivalents. Somehow they sound more musical, or maybe we think they are more musical because we usually encounter them in musical contexts. One of these is ritardando, which I’ll explain more in a moment. Some composers, most famously the Australian-American Percy Grainger, preferred or prefer English, specifically Germanic, terms. In Grainger’s case, unfortunately, this was specifically related to his ideas about racial purity.

A few days ago, one of the choirs I sing in sight-read a work by the American composer Leo Sowerby, whose name I knew but whose music I had never encountered. Scattered throughout is retarding, the direct equivalent of ritardando, but still Latinate. Grainger probably used the undoubtedly Germanic slowing. (I don’t know what Sowerby’s motivation in using the term was.)

One problem is that there are three closely related Italian terms: ritardando, rallentando and ritenuto, but composers don’t always observe the distinction and performers, teachers and students don’t always understand it when they do. The consensus of music dictionaries and websites is that ritardando means gradually and deliberately slower, rallentando means gradually and naturally slower and ritenuto means immediately slower. Another problem is that while the abbreviations ritard., rall. and riten. are unambiguous, rit. might mean ritardando or ritenuto. In my experience, composers use ritard. and rit. (that is, ritenuto) but you can never be sure.

Retarding is tainted by the use of retarded and retard (as a noun) to describe children (or adults) of delayed, slow or limited mental development (sometimes accompanied by physical deficits). This is part of what Steven Pinker calls the euphemism treadmill, in which any term becomes tainted by association with an idea pejorated by society. Thus idiots, imbeciles, morons and cretins became retarded or retards and are now usually developmentally disabled, a person with a developmental disability or cognitively impaired (“cogs”?). (These days, you just might get away with talking about the retarded growth of trees, or retarded economic growth (but would probably use slow(er)(ly)), but please don’t use it about any person or people.)

If we are going to use the English terms retarding or slowing, the next problem is what the opposite is. The direct equivalent of Italian accelerando (accel.) is accelerating. Fasting and fastening both mean different things. Maybe quickening for gradually faster and quicker for immediately faster. If you are going to use English/Germanic terms, it would be better to argue doing so on the grounds that beginner musicians will immediately know exactly what you mean. But so much music uses the Italian terms that student musicians will need to learn the Italian terms eventually.

I recently found a website called I used to believe, to which anyone can submit their “ funny and bizarre ideas that thought were true when they were children”. One contributor (somewhere on this page) thought that tardy meant the same thing as retarded, until a teacher called them that one morning, then had to explain. They share a derivation from Latin tardus, slow, but have now developed different meanings. (See also tardigrade and alacrity and alacritous from alacer, quick and velocipedevelociraptor and velocity from velox, quick, swift.) 

(Note that the form retarted is used on some online forums, either by mistake or deliberately to mean “beyond retarded”. Please don’t use this at all.)


5 thoughts on “retarding

  1. So there are three Italian terms (ritardando, rallentando and ritenuto) for slowing down, but only one (accelerando) for speeding up? OK, there’s also più mosso…

    Leo Sowerby’s name rings a bell as the arranger of the popular (with choirs) traditional Christmas number “The Snow Lay on the Ground.”

    That use of “ritard” was the source of numerous awkward moments during choir direction.


  2. I can also think of stringendo, which is much rarer. Più mosso (and meno mosso) mean immediately faster (or slower). I’m sure that if you dredged through music dictionaries, you’d find more. There are also morendo and perdendosi, which are softer as well as slower.

    I don’t relate to snow at the best of times, and especially not at Christmas, but snow- (and winter in general-) related songs are quite common. Surprisingly, it sometimes snows in Australia at Christmas (the height of summer). One sister and brother-in-law were in Hobart for their honeymoon and reported snow on Mt Wellington on Christmas Day. The first year I was in South Korea I spent December saying “Christmas in Australia is in summer. It is *hot*”. Then it snowed in the Snowy Mountains on Christmas Day.

    (But I loved it when it snowed in South Korea. I would race around taking photos. You know it’s cold when a Korean grandmother stands in her doorway and says ‘Chu-wo, chu-wo! (Cold, cold!).)


    • I haven’t been in Korea when it snowed, though I’ve been there through some serious rainstorms. Anyhow, this brings me to a pet peeve of mine about music for the season, at least here in the USA north of the Equator.

      It’s a fact that various songs about winter and its
      (dis)contents are considered Christmas songs and relegated to the limited
      time interval of December, in prerecorded and public settings. I’m
      talking about songs like Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, and Baby It’s Cold Outside, as well as Sleigh Ride and Jingle Bells. These songs celebrate (or at least take place in the milieu of) Old
      Man Winter, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas per se. They
      would be as relevant in January or February, or in July in Australia, for
      that matter.

      (I tried to come up with songs that mention wintertime but haven’t been consigned to the holiday period. The only ones that came to mind were
      American Pie (“February made me shiver”), I Am a Rock (“a deep and dark
      December”), and a song by Tori Amos entitled “Winter” which is about the
      memory of a father-daughter relationship.)

      I believe the composers of the other songs, or their
      respective estates, have been served ill by not receiving the benefits of exposure (the good kind) during the post-holiday
      season. These songs could also lift the spirits of folks when they need it the most, after the manufactured thrill of the holidays has dissipated.

      At least “The Snow Lay on the Ground” is about the birth of Christ and not just about snow.


      • I have sung ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ at a Christmas Eve midnight service at approx 38 degrees centigrade and heard ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ at a ‘carols concert’ on a balmy summer evening and no-one involved seemed to think that that was slightly strange.
        Was Jesus born in winter? Nothing in Matt or Luke 1-2 says so. Was it snowing? Probably not – shepherds would not have been in the field if it was.


  3. Pingback: TARD | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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