Italian for Musicians - Music Glossary

Music is often said to be a universal language,
but Italian just might be the language of music itself.

(James Bennett, WQXR)

Piano, forte, adagio, vivace, alla marcia, sforzando, ritardando… If you play an instrument, surely you'll have come across these Italian words, and many more, while reading music. You certainly use Italian words, or words of Italian origin, when you talk about music, such as concerto, opera, soprano, pianoforte: many of these terms are now part of an international music language.

For our series Italian for Musicians we browsed countless scores in search of those crucial little markings that shape our interpretation and understanding of the music as musicians or music lovers, and we presented for each one of them the correct Italian pronunciation, the literal meaning, and the actual meaning in music (which may not always be the same). We also provided short music excerpts as examples to make these explanations easier to understand and remember.

We selected over 100 Italian words that deserved to be part of this collection, and grouped them in three categories: first of all Tempo Markings, often the very first Italian word that we find at the beginning of a piece, the one that tells us how fast or how slow it should be played and that sometimes also adds something about its character: a piece marked vivace is fast, for sure, but it’s also brilliant and lively, as the literal meaning of the word entails.

We then went on to explore Dynamics, i.e. softness and loudness, another fundamental feature of music. A piece can, for instance, start out pianissimo and then move on to mezzoforte through a crescendo, it can have unexpected accents, and then die away towards the end.

Our third and last video explores the realm of Expression & Articulation, arguably the most nuanced and sophisticated. Here we explain and exemplify the words that composers write in to make music passionate and expressive, or maybe nostalgic and mysterious, or tender and graceful.

If you can't find the term you're looking for in our videos, or you would like to have a searchable reference guide conveniently at hand at all times, with additional terms and explanations, there will soon be an eBook version of Italian for Musicians, available as a digital download for a small price.

Diana Lavarini, June 2020

A few examples

andante - At a walking pace. Literally, going, flowing; andare means "to go".

con fuoco - Literally, with fire; presto con fuoco would be very fast and full of energy and burning passion.

crescendo - Gradually increasing in loudness; crescere means “to grow”, so crescendo literally means “growing”, “increasing”. It’s a gerund, like many of these terms.

legato - Literally, tied up; notes are tied together in a single line, played to their full length or even overlapping.

scherzoso / scherzando - Literally, joking; playfully, with humour.

sotto voce - Quietly, in a low voice; it implies a soft sound with a whispering quality.

vivacissimo - Superlative form of vivace: very lively!

Allegro, fortissimo, dolce: Italian is the language of music, from the markings found in sheet music to the great operas of the 19th century, to contemporary ballades. Here we provide an overview of classical music in Italy, with an explanation of music-related key words used all over the world.

In our series Love Italian Opera! we analyse and explain beloved arias from the most popular works of the genre, to help opera enthusiasts to understand and better appreciate this amazing combination of language & music.

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