Italian Words in Music
Music may be universal, but musical notation is Italian. If you sing or play a musical instrument (or want to start), you better learn these Italian words.
In a well known New Yorker cartoon a wife quips to her husband, "I think Italian is spoken in heaven, and Dutch is spoken in hell." Pithiness aside, whatever you think about the phonetic virtues or flaws of Dutch, Italian certainly deserves its reputation. The language produces an amalgam of mellifluous consonants and pleasant open vowels that will charm anyone’s ears. No wonder there is a long history of musical contribution from Italians.
Although the modern state of Italy did not come into being until 1861, many regions contributed to its musical culture — most importantly Tuscany. It was there, in Florence, that the conventions for notating music were slowly developed and words such as crescendo or diminuendo were written down in Tuscan dialect on the score to indicate expression and guide interpretation.
It was that same Tuscan dialect, more specifically an evolution of its Florentine variant, which was eventually crowned Italian, the national language of a unified Italy, taught nowadays in language schools all over the world. If you ever want to learn an instrument and sing or play the music of Scarlatti, Verdi and Puccini, you might as well get familiar with some of these words. And if your place is not on stage but in a seat in the audience, you can still practice the language by learning the meaning of these words — many of which are used in common daily language.
ROLES & PERSONALITIES
If any of your friends are acting like the sun shines out their behinds, the world owes them a living and buildings should bow down in their presence, they are very probably behaving like a prima donna. We use the expression disparagingly to describe the arrogant narcissist, but translated literally it means "first lady" — not the wife of the president, but the leading female role in an opera. She always comes first and is the main attraction throughout — but don’t envy her: In many operas, from Madame Butterfly to Salome, the leading lady ends up dying a terrible death!
Another word for an insufferable self-centred egotist is diva. It literally means "female deity", something you might have guessed already from its resemblance to the English word "divine". It also refers to a leading female singer and possesses more of a positive meaning in opera, a form of praise for the goddess-like interpretative powers of the performer. (And if you want to tell a male friend off, use divo instead.)
Or "master" in English. A term usually applied to a conductor, but also to a music director or music teacher, a composer and other eminent musicians and singers. If you have specialized skills and abilities that allow you to impart knowledge to others, you will probably be named a maestro.
No, not the instrument. In a score, if you find a passage with the indication piano, you must play or sing quietly. Piano means "soft and low". If someone is chatting too loudly or the music is blaring out of the speakers, you can always say piano, per favore — not so loud, please!
The opposite of piano, it means "loud" in a musical score. But in regular everyday Italian, it mostly means "strong" or "potent". And if you join piano with forte for pianoforte — the original name of the instrument we call the piano — you can understand why it got its name.
Going from piano to forte. Crescendo means growing, both in music as well as in regular speech. If you happen see your nephew after six months of being away, you can always say Come stai crescendo! — "You’re growing fast!"
Once again, you can immediately recognize "intermission" as the English equivalent. In music, Intermezzo is a short connecting instrumental movement. In common parlance, it’s just a break during a show. Maybe you can consider calling your coffee breaks intermezzo from now on. Who knows, it might catch on!
Every great artist leaves behind a legacy of immense significance. They are grandi opere, great works to be admired. That is the meaning of opera – "work". Operetta is "small work", and indicates a light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter. (And by the way, operaio is the Italian word for "worker" — usually in a factory. In this form, it’s easier to guess the meaning since it’s very close to the English “operator.")
You know this word — it’s what you scream at the end of a great performance or show. You might immediately think of the word "brave", but bravo is a bit more complex than that. It means a number of things: "good," "of value," "daring," "worthy of respect," "courageous". In musical terms specifically we can translate it as "skilful", a way of saying the performer is truly gifted. Generally speaking, you can use the word to define someone’s personality or actions, but be careful not to mix bravo with brava, especially when you’re clapping at the end of a show. The first is reserved for the male performer and the second for the female.
TEMPO & MOOD
In a music score, allegro indicates a lively and fast pace. For the rest of us, it means "joyful". Perhaps you’ve heard the name Allegra — the female variant — being called out loud in the playground before?
Not pesto, but presto! It describes a very fast pace when used as an indication for interpreters of music, but if you snap your fingers after having cooked a wonderful meal and run to the dining room to announce it’s ready, you can always holler presto — "ready" — to your guests!
If you see andante on a score, play at a moderate pace. It means “walking", so there’s no need to rush.
There are many more Italian musical terms where these came from, but we hope this introduction has whet your appetite for beautiful music and the beautiful language that helps makes musical expression possible.