Beyond Words - Language Blog

Mambo Italiano: Musical Terms of Italian Origin

The bulk of the terminology used to describe musical components comes to us from the Italian language.

The 18th- and 19th- century heyday of opera and classical string and brass music took place, with notable exceptions, in Italy, and the terms currently used by classical musicians reflect the influence of the Italian language.

Below are some of the most common examples:

A CAPPELLA
A contemporary favorite, a cappella, literally means “in the church,” and originates in the Middle Ages, when many vocal choirs sang hymns unaccompanied by musical instruments.

ADAGIO
Meaning “at ease,” this term refers to a musical piece played at a fairly calm and slow pace.

ALLEGRO
Meaning “cheerful,” this term indicates to a performer that a piece ought to be played at a moderately fast and lively pace.

ARPEGGIO
From the verb meaning “to play the harp” (arpeggiare), this term indicates to a player that notes must be strummed or plucked in succession, not simultaneously.

FORTE
An indication of volume, forte tells the performer that a piece is to be played loudly. Fortissimo means it is to be played loudest of all.

PIANO
Another indication of volume, piano tells the performer that a piece is to be played softly. Pianissimo means it is to be played softest of all.

PIZZICATO
This term, literally meaning “pinched,” refers only to stringed instruments. When it is written, instruments should be plucked rather than bowed.

STACCATO
When this term is written, notes should be played in a sharp, discrete, and choppy manner in order to emphasize each one.

TREMOLO
When this term is written, notes should be played in a “tremulous” manner in order to achieve the effect of a trembling and wave-like sound.

VIBRATO
When this term is written, notes should be played so as to slightly and rapidly vary in pitch, achieving a “shaking” sound.