Italian musical terms: why music speaks Italian

By Go! Go! Italia staff
01 Apr 2024
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Italian musical terms

Have you ever noticed that no matter where music is played, from grand concert halls to small home studios, Italian musical terms like tempo(speed), andante(walking speed), or fortissimo(very loudly) are used? 

Musicians from every corner of the globe, whether they’re into classical, jazz, or modern music, often find themselves using Italian musical terms. This tradition crosses genres and eras, showcasing the undeniable influence of the Italian language in music. Italian terms have become the standard, providing a shared vocabulary for dynamics, tempo, and expression that is recognized worldwide, making music a truly global language.

Photo of Italian musical terms

This tradition not only connects musicians around the world but also shows the significance of Italy and its language in music. Take the word piano, for example. It’s not just a way to indicate playing softly but also names the famous musical instrument. The name originates from pianoforte, invented in Italy. The instrument was revolutionary because it allowed musicians to control the volume of notes by how softly or forcefully they struck its keys.

In today’s article, we will explore why the Italian language plays such an important role in the musical world and learn some of the key expressions in music that will enhance your musical communication capacity.

Photo of Italian music terms

Why Italian? The universality explained

1. Prominent Italian musicians who marked a historic era

Back in the days of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the 15th to the 17th centuries, Italy was the place to be for music innovation. This time in history saw the creation of opera and the growth of orchestras, with Italian cities like Venice and Florence full of musical invention. A lot of musical terms are Italian because, during this crucial period in music history, most of the leading composers were Italian.

This was a time when many of the musical instructions we’re familiar with today were first widely used. Renowned Italian composers like Antonio Vivaldi, famous for “The Four Seasons,” and Claudio Monteverdi, who brought new depth to opera, were pivotal in this. Their groundbreaking work established Italian as the preferred language for musical terms, even among musicians from other countries.

The Italian musical terms invented during this time offer more than just directions on the pace of the music; they convey the emotions and expressions the composer wants to share, from allegro (joyful) to grave (solemn). The clarity and emotional depth of these terms make them ideally suited for music.

2. Invention of the press

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century played a key role because Italy was among the first to print music. As these printed music sheets made their way across Europe, they carried Italian musical instructions with them.

Continuing to use Italian in music pays tribute to Italy’s significant influence on the art form. From sight-reading musical notation to creating operas and symphonies that continue to enchant audiences today, Italy’s contributions are prominent to the classical music tradition. By using Italian terms, musicians around the world not only remain true to the composer’s original intentions but also help keep Italy’s rich musical heritage alive. This shared language of Italian links past and present, uniting people everywhere with a common love for music.

3. The impact of Italian literature on music: Italian opera librettists, Lorenzo Da Ponte and Pietro Metastasio

Italian literature has deeply influenced music, especially opera, with Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) and Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) playing key roles. Da Ponte worked with Mozart to create famous operas like Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. His stories, filled with complex characters and engaging plots, showed how stories could make music even more powerful. These operas are loved for how well they combine complexity of the Italian language with Mozart’s beautiful music.

Metastasio was another big name in opera. He wrote opera stories that were turned into music by hundreds of composers, including famous ones like Handel and Mozart. His works were elegant and often told historical or mythological stories. They not only entertained people but also shared the ideas of the Illuminism (Enlightenment), which was an intellectual movement in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries characterized by a focus on reason, science, individualism, and the pursuit of knowledge, leading to significant social, political, and philosophical changes.

Da Ponte and Metastasio’s work shows how important stories are in music. They proved that combining a good story with great music can create something truly special that touches people’s hearts and lasts through the ages.

Italian musical terms universally used

Italian terms for tempo

Tempo instructions indicate the speed at which a piece of music should be played. These terms range from very slow to very fast:

  • Lento (20-40 bpm): A term denoting a very slow tempo, imbuing the music with a sense of solemnity and depth.
  • Adagio (66-76 bpm): This tempo suggests a slow and expressive pace, allowing for emotional expression.
  • Moderato (108-120 bpm): Signifying a moderate speed, it’s a balanced tempo for conveying a sense of normalcy and march-like progress.
  • Allegro (120-156 bpm): A lively and fast tempo, encouraging energetic and bright expressions.
  • Prestissimo (over 200 bpm): The fastest tempo marking, suggesting a thrilling and intense speed.

Italian musical terms for dynamics

Dynamics in music refer to the volume levels, from whisper-quiet to thunderously loud:

  • Pianissimo (pp): Very quiet, like a gentle whisper.
  • Mezzo Forte (mf): Moderately loud, offering a balance between soft and strong.
  • Forte (f): Loud, commanding attention with its powerful volume.
  • Crescendo: Gradually increasing in volume, leading to a climactic point.
  • Decrescendo/Diminuendo: A gradual decrease in volume, often creating a sense of fading away.

Italian musical terms for articulation and expression

Articulation marks shape how individual notes are played, adding texture and contrast to musical phrases:

  • Staccato: Notes played in a short, detached manner, adding a rhythmic crispness.
  • Legato: Smooth and connected notes, creating a flowing line of music.
  • Marcato: Marked notes, played with emphasis and accentuation for dramatic effect.

Expressions in music provide emotional context and depth, guiding performers in interpreting the composer’s intentions:

  • Espressivo: Play expressively, with feeling and emotional depth.
  • Dolce: Sweetly, often implying a gentle and tender approach.
  • Con brio: With vigor and spirit, infusing the music with energy and liveliness.

Tempo changes and other instructions

Musical pieces often vary in tempo, requiring adjustments in speed for expressive purposes:

  • Ritardando (rit.): A gradual slowing down, adding drama or concluding phrases.
  • Accelerando: Speeding up, often used to build excitement or intensity.
  • A tempo: Return to the original tempo after a deviation, restoring the initial pace.

Italian terms in music not only instruct on the technical execution but also explore the pieces with emotional depth and narrative. By mastering these terms, musicians can more accurately interpret and perform compositions, bringing the written music to life with precision and emotion.

In conclusion, learning Italian is really important for anyone who wants to dive deep into the world of opera and classical music. Italy has a rich culture that’s closely tied to the history of music and art, and this culture really shines through in the Italian language. Knowing Italian helps you catch the finer details and deep feelings in operas and classical music, and it helps you appreciate all the great art and literature Italy has given the world.

Learning Italian right there in Italy can give you insights and make connections that you just can’t get anywhere else. If you’re thinking about taking this exciting step, contact Go! Go! Italia are there to help. We will guide you through the process of studying abroad in Italy, making sure you get the most out of your adventure in Italian culture and language. 

For more information about learning Italian and living in Italy, follow us on our blog and social media!

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