List of Italian musical terms used in English

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Many musical terms are in Italian, and many of the most important early composers from the Italian Renaissance to the Baroque period were Italian, and that period is when numerous musical indications were used extensively for the first time.[citation needed]

Some of the expressions include:

Musical forms[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
A cappella in chapel style Sung with no (instrumental) accompaniment, has lots of harmonizing
Aria air Piece of music, usually for a singer
Aria di sorbetto sorbet air A lesser aria within an operaral
Arietta little air A short or light aria
Arioso airy A type of solo vocal piece during an opera or operetta
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
Cabaletta from copola (couplet) A two-part musical form
Cadenza falling A florid solo at the end of a performance
Cantata sung A piece for orchestra and singers
Capriccio caprice A lively piece, free in form, often used to show musical skill
Cavatina small instrumental tone A simple melody or song
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
Da capo aria from the head aria A three-section musical form
Dramma giocoso jocular drama A form of opera
Dramma per musica drama for music Libretto
Fantasia fantasy A musical composition or “idea” typified by improvisation
Farsa farce A one-act comical opera
Festa teatrale theatrical party A genre of opera
Fioritura flowery A highly embellised vocal line
Intermedio intermediate A short connecting instrumental movement – an intermezzo
Intermezzo interval A short connecting instrumental movement
Libretto little book A work containing the words to an opera, musical, or ballet
Melodramma melodrama A style of opera
Opera work A drama set to music for singers and instrumentalists
Opera buffa humorous opera A comic opera
Opera semiseria semi-serious opera A variety of opera
Opera seria serious opera An opera with a serious, esp. classical theme
Operetta little opera A variety of light opera
Oratorio oratory Large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists
Pasticcio pastiche A musical piece containing works by different composers
Ripieno concerto padding concert A form of Baroque concerto with no solo parts
Serenata Serenade A song or composition in someone’s honour. Originally, a musical greeting performed for a lover
Soggetto cavato carved subject A musical cryptogram, using coded syllables as a basis for the composition
Sonata sounded A composition for one or two instruments in sonata form
Verismo realism A genre of operas with scenarios based on contemporary everyday life

Musical instruments[edit]

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
Fagotto bass oboe A bass woodwind instrument played with a double reed.
Sordun deaf, dull in sound An archaic double-reed wind 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
Coloratura soprano colouring soprano A soprano specialised in complex, ornamented melody
Soprano sfogato unlimited soprano A soprano who has extended her upper range beyond the usual range of a soprano
Spinto soprano pushed soprano A soprano whose voice, while normally of lyric weight and fluidity, can be pushed to a more forceful weight
Squillo ringing The resonant clarity of an operatic singer’s voice
Tenore contraltino A tenor voice capable of a slightly higher range of sustainable notes than usual
Tenore di grazia or ‘’’Leggiero tenor’’’ A lightweight, flexible tenor voice
Tessitura texture A singer’s comfortable range
Falsetto little false A vocal register immediately above the modal voice range
Falsettone Falsetto, sung using the usual techniques of modal voice register
Castrato castrated A male singer, castrated so as to be able to sing soprano (now sung by women, conventional countertenors, or sopranisti)
Musico musician Originally, a trained musician; later, a castrato or female singer
Spinto pushed A forceful voice, between the lyric and dramatic in weight
Passaggio crossing A vocal range


Tempo time The speed of music e.g. 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Grave solemn Slow and solemn, slower than largo
Largo broad Slow and dignified
Larghetto a little bit broad Not as slow as largo
Lentando slowing Becoming slower
Lento slow Slow
Tardo 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 at a walking pace Moderately slow, flowing along
Andantino slightly faster than andante slightly faster than andante
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
Vivace fast “Faster and more lively than Allegro”
Fermata stopped Marks a note to be held or sustained
Presto soon, quickly Very fast
Prestissimo very soon, very quickly Very very fast, as fast as possible
Accelerando accelerating Accelerating
Affrettando becoming hurried Accelerating
Allargando slowing and broadening Slowing down and broadening, becoming more stately and majestic, possibly louder
Ritardando slowing down 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
L'istesso tempo Same speed At the same speed

Dynamics – volume[edit]

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
Marcato marked A note played forcefully
Mezzo forte half-strong Moderately loud
Piano gentle Soft
Pianissimo very gentle Very soft
Mezzo piano half-gentle Moderately soft
Sforzando strained Sharply accented
Stentato in the manner of Stentor Loud, boisterous
Tremolo trembling A rapid repetitive variation in the volume (or pitch) of a tone
Messa di voce placing the voice A style of singing involving changing volume while holding a single note


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
Colossale colossal In a fashion which suggests immensity
Comodo convenient Comfortably, moderately
Con amore with love With love
Con fuoco with fire With fiery manner
Con brio with bright brightly
Con moto with movement With (audible) movement
Con spirito with spirit With spirit
Dolce sweetly Sweet
Espressivo expressive Expressively
Festoso happy With happiness
Furioso furious With passion
Grazioso graciously or gracefully With charm
Lacrimoso teary Tearfully, sadly
Maestoso majestic Stately
Misterioso mysterious Mysteriously, secretively, enigmatic
Pesante heavy Heavy, slowly, sadly
Risoluto resolved Resolved, decisive
Scherzando playfully Playfully
Sotto subdued Subdued
Semplicemente simply Simply
Slancio passion Enthusiasm
Vivace vivacious Up-tempo

Musical expression (general)[edit]

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 tanto but not so much Used with other terms, such as adagio ma non tanto
ma non troppo but not too much Used with other terms, such as allegro ma non troppo
Meno less Used with other terms, such as meno mosso
Subito suddenly, quickly Used with other terms, such as subito fortissimo

Patterns within the musical score[edit]

Lacuna gap A silent pause in a piece of music
Ossia alternatively A secondary passage of music which may be played in place of the original
Ostinato stubborn A repeated motif or phrase in a piece of music
Ritornello little return A recurring passage in a piece of Baroque music
Segue it follows A smooth movement from one passage to another with no pause
Stretto tightened In a fugue, the repeating of a motif by a second voice before the first rendition is completed
Pensato thought A composed imaginary note


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 from 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.
Oppure otherwise Informs the player of alternative ways to play a passage. See Ossia.
Solo alone A piece or performance to be played by a single musician


Altissimo very high Very high
Arpeggio harp-like A chord with the notes spread out in time (rather than sounded simultaneously)
Acciaccatura crushing An extra, very fast grace note
Appoggiatura leaning A type of ornament that creates a "yearning" effect
Basso continuo continuous bass Continuous bass accompaniment by chordal instrument(s) and bass instrument(s) (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, as it is the "default" approach, and is not written except at the end of col legno or pizzicato passages.)
Colla voce with the voice A note to accompanists to play with (in time with) the singer's text, especially when slowing for textual effect
Col legno with the wood Calls for a bowed instrument's strings to be struck with the wood of the bow rather having the hair of the bow drawn over the strings
Coloratura coloration Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line
Glissando glide A sweeping glide from one pitch to another used for dramatic effect
Legato tied together A series of notes played with a smooth connection between them
Martellato hammered Notes are strongly accented and detached
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
Portamento carrying A sliding of pitch between two notes
Portato carried A style of playing between staccato and legato
Sforzando using force Played with strong, marked emphasis
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
Spiccato separated Playing a stringed instrument by bouncing the bow lightly on the strings
Tutti all A direction for the entire ensemble to play or sing, rather than just a soloist or principal player
Staccatissimo very detached Forcefully exaggerated staccato
Staccato detached A form of musical articulation in which notes are distinct and separated from each other by short gaps
Scordatura mistuning Alternate tuning (of strings)
Vibrato vibrating A rapid repetitive variation or undulation in the pitch of a tone


Prima donna first lady Leading female role
Primo uomo first man Leading male role
Banda band A small music ensemble used as a supplement to the orchestra in an opera
Comprimario con primario, with the first A supporting role
Concertino little concert The smaller, more virtuosic, group of musicians in a concerto grosso
Coro choir An ensemble of singers
Diva female deity A leading female singer
Ripieno filling or stuffing The larger group of musicians in a concerto grosso
Convenienze conveniences The rules relating to the ranking of singers in opera


Bel canto beautiful voice Any fine singing, esp. that popular in 18th- and 19th-century 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. The use of ! after "Bravo/a/i/e(!)" strongly emphasizes the written expression.

Musical direction and staging[edit]

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
Stagione season A variety of formal organisation of players and crew in the staging of operas

See also[edit]

External links[edit]