50 useful Italian music terms and symbols to know

Do you have trouble remembering the entire musical dictionary? Here is a comprehensive guide to Italian music terms and symbols.
50 useful Italian music terms and symbols to know
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Italian music terms

Music phrases can sound as lovely and fun as the works they describe, whether it’s a direction to play glissando or an indication that Pavarotti is about to sing an aria rather than the overture.

They’ll also help you learn more about the history of classical music and how composers intended their works to be played.

Here’s a helpful Italian music term list for you to understand what’s going on in a piece of music.

Italian music terms and symbols

Italian music terms for tempo

Determining the speed or tempo of a piece of music is one of the most basic and crucial components of understanding it.

The beats per minute are the most accurate way for a composer to communicate the intended speed (BPM).

This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute.

Musical pieces do not always have a numerical time indication. It is typical in classical music to use one or more words to describe a piece’s tempo.

The majority of these words are Italian, as many of the most famous composers of the 17th century were Italians, and this was the age when tempo signals were first utilized and defined.

Here is a brief list of the most common Italian music terms for speed.

  • Accelerando (accelerating): accelerating;
  • Accompagnato (accompanied ): the accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will;
  • Adagio (at ease): Slow and easy (but not as slow as largo);
  • Allegro (joyful): lively and fast;
  • Allegretto (a little bit joyful): slightly less joyful than allegro;
  • Andante (walking): at a walking pace, moderately slow tempo;
  • Andantino (a little bit walking): less of a walking pace than andante;
  • Grave (grave, solemn): slow and solemn tempo;
  • Lento (slow): slow tempo;
  • Moderato (moderate): moderate tempo;
  • Mosso (moved): agitated;
  • Rallentando (slowing down): decelerating;
  • Tempo (time): the speed of music, e.g. 120 BPM (beats per minute);
  • Tenuto (sustained): holding or sustaining a single note;
  • Vivace (vivacious): fast and lively tempo (quicker than allegro).

Italian music terms for dynamics

The dynamics of a piece of music refers to how quietly or loudly it should be performed.

Dynamics are a crucial way to convey a piece’s mood, and your use of them is a significant aspect of your performance.

Composers use dynamics to change the mood. There are times when a piece has relatively few dynamics and other times when it has a lot of them.

The dynamics are described with Italian music terms and each one has a unique abbreviation.

  • Pianissimo (very soft ) pp;
  • Piano (soft) p;
  • Mezzo piano (moderately soft) mp;
  • Mezzo forte (moderately loud) mf;
  • Forte (loud) f;
  • Fortissimo (very loud) ff;
  • Crescendo (gradually louder) cresc. or Crescendo;
  • Diminuendo (gradually softer) dim. or Diminuendo;
  • Fortepiano (loud, then immediately soft) fp;
  • Rinforzando (reinforced) rfz or rf;

Italian music terms for speed

Italian music terms for techniques

A list of terminology related to playing techniques. The terms direct the artist to use a certain playing technique to produce the desired sound.

  • Arpeggio: chord notes played in succession rather than simultaneously;
  • Glissando: a continuous slide from one note to another;
  • Legato: notes played with a smooth connection between them;
  • Mano destra: right hand;
  • Mano sinistra: left hand;
  • Pizzicato: plucked with the finger rather than bowed;
  • Portamento: a smooth slide from one note to another;
  • Staccato: shortened and sharply separated notes;
  • Staccatissimo: shortened and extremely separated notes;
  • Vibrato: a rapid repeated slight change in the pitch of a note;

Italian music terms for tempo

Italian music terms for moods

Musical terms that indicate a playing style or mood in Italian might be used at the start of a piece of music or throughout it.

A composition may have only one mood stated during its duration, or sections may have different moods that switch back and forth regularly.

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These musical terms help in the formation of a mental image for the musician, as well as the development of other parts of playing such as the proper flute tone, tempo, and articulation.

The following are some frequently used Italian music terms that you may come across.

  • Agitato (agitated);
  • Animato (animated, lively);
  • Cantabile (in a singing style);
  • Con amore (with love);
  • Con brio (with spirit, with vigor);
  • Con fuoco (with fiery manner);
  • Dolce (sweet);
  • Doloroso (sorrowful);
  • Energico (energetic);
  • Grazioso (graceful);
  • Leggero (light, nimble);
  • Maestoso (majestic);
  • Risoluto (decisive, strong);
  • Scherzando (playful);
  • Tranquillo (calm);

Ovviamente ce ne sono molti di più!

Of course, there are many more!

Italian music terms

Final thoughts

When you open a musical piece, you’ll see a multitude of symbols, words, and abbreviations.

They were included by the composer to assist you to understand how he imagined the piece being played and how it would sound best when performed.

Italian music terms and symbols are frequently used to guide performers on how to play a piece of music.

First used by 17th-century Italian musicians, the terminology has since spread to the rest of the world.

With this list, you’re now ready to appreciate the most beautiful and harmonious compositions.

Read also: 6 amazing Italian art museums you must see while visiting Italy

Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!

FAQs on 50 useful Italian music terms and symbols to know

What are the Italian words in music?

Some Italian music terms, such as "tempo," "adagio," "allegretto," and "rallentando," are solely used when writing or reading music. Others, though, such as "concerto," "piano," "soprano," and "opera," were so popular that they made it from the original Italian into our common musical lexicon.

What is the Italian term for Song?

The Italian music term for song is "canzone" (feminine, singular).

Are most music terms in Italian?

Many music terms are in Italian, as the vast majority of Europe's most important early composers from the Renaissance to the Baroque periods were Italian. 

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