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17 Italian Musical Terms That Will Strike A Chord With You

If you take a cursory glance at almost any sheet music, particularly for classical music, you will see a hodgepodge of Italian terms such as piano, staccato, crescendo, just to name a few. How did the Italian language come to dominate musical notation? To answer this question, we need to know a little bit about the history of music.

The music staff (a set of five horizontal lines with four spaces) used in sheet music was created by Guido d’Arezzo, a Benedictine monk in Arezzo, Italy, in the 11th century. Later, during the Renaissance, Italy became an important site of polyphonic musical notation. Finally, during the Baroque period (from the 17th to the mid-18th century), new musical forms such as the sonata, concerto, and opera were invented in Italy. With such a long history of musical innovation in what is today known as classical music, it is little surprise that the Italian language dominates musical notation.

Read on for a list of some of the many musical terms that come from Italian. Some of these have filtered into everyday usage, like crescendo. Others have stuck firmly to their musical roots.

piano 

The word piano in Italian literally means “soft.” But most English speakers associate it with the musical instrument. The name for this instrument comes from the Italian piano e forte, meaning “soft and loud,” a description of the two volumes this harpsichord could make. In musical notation, however, piano does not refer to the instrument, but literally means “soft,” “subdued,” or “softly.” When a little p, indicating piano appears on sheet music, that is an instruction to play softly.

allegro

In music, allegro [ uhley-groh ] means “brisk or rapid in tempo.” It can also refer to a movement, or “a principal division or section of a sonata, symphony, or the like,” that uses allegro tempo. While an Italian word, allegro ultimately comes from the Latin alacer, meaning “brisk.”

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adagio

The notation adagio [ uhdah-zhee-oh ] is another tempo notation, meaning “in a leisurely manner; slowly.” It comes from the Italian expression ad agio, which means “at ease.”

crescendo

Crescendo [ kri-shen-doh ] is one of the musical terms that has come to be used outside of notation. It means “a gradual, steady increase in loudness or force.” Crescendo comes from Italian meaning “growing.”

rondo

The term rondo is a technical term for the overall composition of a piece of music. It refers to “a work or movement, often the last movement of a sonata,” having one principal subject that is stated at least three times in the same key and to which return is made after the introduction of each subordinate theme. Rondo is the Italian version of the French word rondeau, “little round.” (Round in this case refers to a piece of music with repeated elements.)

vibrato

One Italian music term whose meaning is relatively clear to English speakers is vibrato, “a pulsating effect.” Vibrato comes from the Italian for “vibrate,” which is precisely the desired effect.

alto

The different divisions in range are typically named in Italian. One of those is alto, a term for “the second highest instrument in a family of musical instruments, as the viola in the violin family.” The term is also used to describe voices in music, either the lowest female voice or the highest male voice. The word alto in Italian means “high,” a reference to it being higher than a tenor.

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soprano

Another range name that comes from Italian is soprano, “the uppermost part or voice.” The word soprano is Italian for “above” or “high.”

fermata

The fermata [ fer-mah-tuh ], also known as a pause in English, indicates that a note, chord, or rest should be held “for a duration longer than the indicated time value.” The fermata symbol is 𝄐. Fermata in Italian means “stop” or “pause.”

giocoso

A piece of fun, happy music is known as giocoso [ juhkoh-soh ], meaning “merry; playful.” It can also be used occasionally to describe a particular tempo. Giocoso in Italian literally means “playful.”

ostinato

An Italian term that is a close cognate with its English cousin is ostinato [ os-ti-nah-toh ], which literally means “obstinate.” In music, ostinato refers to “a constantly recurring musical fragment.”

pizzicato

One musical term that may make you think of a favorite Italian dish is pizzicato [ pit-si-kah-toh ], which means “played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using the bow, as on a violin.” Pizzicato comes from the Italian verb pizzicare, “to pluck, pick, twang (a stringed instrument).”

solfeggio

At some point, you likely learned the musical tones do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti. What you may not know is that this scale is known as sol-fa, and it was created by our old friend the monk Guido d’Arezzo. Putting this scale to use is known as solfeggio [ sol-fej-oh ], “a vocal exercise in which the sol-fa syllables are used.”

staccato

You may have encountered the term staccato—much like crescendo—outside of the world of music, most often to describe someone’s pattern of speech. In music, staccato [ stuhkah-toh ] indicates notes that are “shortened and detached when played or sung” or “characterized by performance in which the notes are abruptly disconnected.” Staccato in Italian means “disconnected,” from the Italian verb staccare.

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glissando

The term glissando [ gli-sahn-doh ] describes something that is a polar opposite of staccato. Glissando comes from a combination of French and Italian—glisser from French meaning “to slide” and -ando, a gerund ending in Italian. Glissando, then, means literally “sliding,” and in music means “performed with a gliding effect by sliding one or more fingers rapidly over the keys of a piano or strings of a harp.”

rubato

One of the sneakiest musical terms that come from Italian is rubato [ roo-bah-toh ], from the Italian expression tempo rubato, meaning “stolen time.” In music, rubato means “having certain notes arbitrarily lengthened while others are correspondingly shortened, or vice-versa.”

Bonus: cello 

You are likely familiar with the cello [ chel-oh ], “the second largest member of the violin family.” One of the most famous cellists of the contemporary era is Yo-Yo Ma. What you may not already know is that the word cello is a shortening of violoncello [ vee-uh-luhn-chel-oh ]. The violon- part of the word refers to a violone, also known as a double bass. The suffix -cello is a diminutive in Italian, meaning “small.” Violoncello, then, means “small violone.” Ironically, for such a big instrument, cello literally means “small.”

Did these Italian musical terms make your head spin? You can brush up on their meanings at our word list here. To test your knowledge of these terms, take our musical terms from Italian quiz.

A blend of Word of the Day and classical music is sure to get you shivering in delight. Read about "Shivaree," a musical fantasy composed by Steven Mackey.

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