Italian musical terms used in English

A great many musical terms are in Italian. This is because many of the most important early composers in the renaissance period were Italian, and that period is when numerous musical indications were used extensively for the first time[citation needed]. (See also sheet music.)

Here are some of these expressions:


Italian term Literal translation Definition

Musical forms

A cappella in chapel style Sung with total no instrumental accompaniment
Aria air A song, esp. one from an opera
Arietta little air A short or light aria
Ballabile danceable (song) to be danced to
Battaglia battle An instrumental or vocal piece suggesting a battle
Bergamasca from Bergamo A peasant dance from Bergamo
Burletta a little joke A light comic or farcical opera
Cadenza falling A florid solo at the end of a performance
Cantata sung A piece for orchestra and singers
Capriccio caprice A lively piece of music
Coda tail The end of a piece
Concerto concert A work for one or more solo instruments accompanied by an orchestra
Concertino little concert A short concerto; the solo instrument in a concerto
Concerto grosso big concert A Baroque form of concerto, with a group of solo instruments
Intermezzo interval A short connecting instrumental movement
Libretto little book A work containing the words to an opera or musical
Opera work A drama set to music for singers and instrumentalists
Opera buffa humorous opera A comic opera
Opera seria serious opera An opera with a serious, esp. classical theme
Sonata sounded A composition for one or two instruments in sonata form

Musical instruments

Piano(forte) soft-loud A keyboard instrument
viola viola, orig. Latin vitulari "be joyful" A medium-sized stringed instrument
(Violon)cello Small violone (violone means "big viola") A large stringed instrument
Viola da gamba leg viola A stringed instrument held between the legs
Viola da braccio arm viola A stringed instrument held in the arm, such as a violin or viola
Viola d'amore love viola A tenor viol with no frets
Tuba tube A large brass instrument
Piccolo little A tiny woodwind instrument
Timpani drums Large drums
Cornetto little horn An old woodwind instrument
Campana bell A bell used in an orchestra; also campane "bells"
Orchestra orchestra, orig. Greek orkesthai "dance" An ensemble of instruments


Soprano upper The highest vocal line
Mezzo-soprano middle-upper Between soprano and alto
Alto high Second-highest vocal line
Contralto against high Alto, esp. a female alto
Basso low Or "bass;" the lowest vocal line
Basso profondo deep and low A very deep bass voice
Castrato castrated A male singer, castrated so as to be able to sing soprano (now sung by women, conventional countertenors, or sopranisti)


Tempo time The speed of a piece of music
Largo broad Slow and dignified
Larghetto a little bit broad Not as slow as largo
Lentando slowing Becoming slower
Lento slow Slow
Adagio ad agio, at ease Slow, but not as slow as largo
Adagietto little adagio Faster than adagio; or a short adagio composition
Andante walking Moderately slow, flowing along
Moderato moderately At a moderate speed
Allegretto a little bit joyful Slightly slower than allegro
Largamente broadly Slow and dignified
Mosso moved Agitated
Allegro joyful; lively and fast Moderately fast
Fermata stopped Marks a note to be held or sustained
Presto ready Very fast
Prestissimo very ready Very very fast, as fast as possible
Accelerando accelerating Accelerating
Affrettando becoming hurried Accelerating
Allargando to slow and broaden Slowing down and broadening, becoming more stately and majestic, possibly louder
Ritardando to slow Decelerating
Rallentando becoming progressively slower Decelerating
Rubato robbed Free flowing and exempt from steady rhythm
Tenuto sustained Holding or sustaining a single note
Accompagnato accompanied The accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will
Alla marcia as a march In strict tempo at a marching pace (e.g. 120 bpm)
A tempo to time Return to previous tempo

Dynamics - volume

Calando quietening Becoming softer and slower
Crescendo growing Becoming louder
Decrescendo shrinking Becoming softer
Diminuendo dwindling Becoming softer
Forte strong Loud
Fortissimo very strong Very loud
Mezzo forte half-strong Moderately loud
Piano gentle Soft
Pianissimo very gentle Very soft
Mezzo piano half-gentle Moderately soft
Sforzando strained Sharply accented


Affettuoso with feeling Tenderly
Agitato agitated Excited and fast
Animato animated Animated
Brillante brilliant Brilliant, bright
Bruscamente brusquely Brusquely - abruptly
Cantabile singable In a singing style
Comodo easily Unrestrainedly
Con amore with love with love
Con fuoco with fire with fiery manner
Con brio (Con Spirito) with spirit With spirit
Con moto with movement With movement
Dolce sweetly Sweet
Grazioso graciously or gracefully With charm
Maestoso majestic Stately
Misterioso mysterious Mysteriously, secretively, enigmatic
Scherzando playfully Playfully
Sotto subdued Subdued
Semplicemente simply Simply
Vivace vivacious up-tempo

Musical expression (general)

Molto very Used with other terms, such as molto allegro
Assai very Used with other terms, such as allegro assai
Più more Used with other terms, such as più mosso
Poco little "a little". Used with other terms, such as poco diminuendo
Poco a poco little by little "little by little", "slowly but steadily". Used with other terms, such as poco a poco crescendo
ma non troppo but not too much But not too much, such as allegro ma non troppo
Meno less Used with other terms, such as meno mosso


Attacca attach Proceed to the next section without pause
Cambiare change Any change, such as to a new instrument
Da Capo (al fine) from the beginning (to the end) Abbreviated as D.C., informs the performer to go back to the beginning (capo) (finishing where the part is marked "fine")
Dal Segno to the sign Abbreviated as D.S., informs the performer to repeat a specific section marked by a sign (segno)
Divisi divided Instructs one section to divide into two or more separate sections, each playing a separate part. Often these separate parts are written on the same staff.


Altissimo very high Very high
Arpeggio harp-like A chord with the notes spread out in time
Acciaccatura crushing An extra, very fast grace note
Appoggiatura leaning A type of ornament
Basso continuo continuous bass Continuous bass accompaniment (see figured bass.)
A bocca chiusa mouth closed Wordless humming in a choral piece
Chiuso closed Calls for a horn to be muted by hand
Coll'arco with the bow Cancels "col legno" and "pizzicato" (in a string passage, arco is usually expected and is not written.)
Colla voce with the voice A note to accompanists to play with (in time with) the singer, especially when slowing for textual effect
Col legno with the wood Calls for a bowed instrument to be struck with the wood rather than the hair of the bow
Coloratura coloration Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line
Con sordino with mute Calls for mute to be applied, esp. to string instruments.
Senza sordino without mute Calls for mute to be removed, esp. from string instruments.
Pizzicato plucked Calls for a bowed instrument to be plucked with the fingers
Coperti covered Of a drum, muted with a cloth
Una corda one string With the soft pedal, on a piano
Due corde two strings With the soft pedal, on a piano. For why both terms exist, see piano.
Tre corde or tutte le corde Three strings or all the strings Cancels an una corda
Scordatura mistuning Alternate tuning (of strings)


Prima donna first lady Leading female role
Primo uomo first man Leading male role
Comprimario/a con primario, with the first A supporting role
Concertino little concert The smaller, more virtuosic, group of musicians in a concerto grosso
Ripieno filling or stuffing The larger group of musicians in a concerto grosso


Bel canto beautiful voice Any fine singing, esp. that popular in 18th and 19th c. Italian opera
Bravura skill A performance of extraordinary virtuosity
Bravo! skillful a cry of congratulation to a male singer or performer. Fem. brava, pl. bravi, brave

Musical direction

Maestro Master, teacher Conductor, music director, music teacher, also composer and other eminent musicians and singers
Maestro sostituto Deputy master Assistant conductor
Maestro collaboratore Collaborating master Assistant conductor
Maestro suggeritore Master prompter Prompter

See also

  • Musical terminology

External links

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