List of Italian musical terms used in English

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Many musical terms are in Italian because, in Europe, the vast majority of the most important early composers from the Renaissance to the Baroque period were Italian.[citation needed] That period is when numerous musical indications were used extensively for the first time.[1]

Italian terms and English translations[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
A cappella in chapel style Sung with no (instrumental) accompaniment, has much harmonizing
Aria air Piece of music, usually for a singer
Aria di sorbetto cum air A short solo performed by a secondary character in the opera
Arietta little air A short or light aria
Arioso airy A type of solo 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 embellished 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]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
Campana bell A bell used in an orchestra; also campane "bells"
Cornetto little horn An old woodwind instrument
Fagotto bundle A bassoon, a woodwind instrument played with a double reed
Orchestra orchestra, orig. Greek orkesthai "dance" An ensemble of instruments
Piano(forte) soft-loud A keyboard instrument
Piccolo little A tiny woodwind instrument
Sordun deaf, dull in sound An archaic double-reed wind instrument
Timpani drums Large drums
Tuba tube A large brass instrument
Viola viola, orig. Latin vitulari "be joyful" A medium-sized stringed instrument
Viola d'amore love viola A tenor viol with no frets
Viola da braccio arm viola A stringed instrument held in the arm, such as a violin or viola
Viola da gamba leg viola A stringed instrument held between the legs
Violoncello Violoncello was the original name for a cello. A large stringed instrument


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Alto high Second-highest vocal line
Basso low Or "bass;" the lowest vocal line
Basso profondo deep low A very deep bass voice
Castrato castrated A male singer, castrated before puberty so as to be able to sing soprano (now sung by women, conventional countertenors, or sopranisti)
Coloratura soprano colouring soprano A soprano specialised in complex, ornamented melody
Contralto against high Alto, esp. a female alto
Falsetto little false A vocal register immediately above the modal voice range
Falsettone Falsetto, sung using the usual techniques of modal voice register
Leggiero tenor See tenore di grazia
Musico musician Originally, a trained musician; later, a castrato or female singer
Mezzo-soprano middle-upper Between soprano and alto
Passaggio crossing A vocal range
Soprano upper The highest vocal line
Soprano sfogato unlimited soprano A soprano who has extended her upper range beyond the usual range of a soprano
Spinto pushed A forceful voice, between the lyric and dramatic in weight
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 tenor of grace or lightweight tenor A lightweight, flexible tenor voice
Tessitura texture A singer's comfortable range


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Accelerando accelerating Accelerating
Accompagnato accompanied The accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will.
Adagio ad agio, at ease Slow and easy (but not as slow as largo)
Adagietto a bit at ease 1. Slightly less easy than adagio (so slightly faster); 2. a short adagio composition
Affrettando becoming hurried Accelerating
Alla marcia as a march In strict tempo at a marching pace (e.g. 120 BPM)
Allargando broadening Slowing down and broadening; becoming more stately and majestic, possibly louder
Allegro joyful; lively and fast Joyful; moderately fast tempo
Allegretto a little bit joyful Slightly less joyful than allegro (so slightly slower tempo)
Andante walking At a walking pace; flowing; moderately slow tempo
Andantino a little bit walking Less of a walking pace than andante (so slightly quicker)
A tempo to time Return to previous tempo
Fermata held, stopped, orig. Latin firmo "make firm, fortify" Holding or sustaining a note
Grave grave, solemn Slow and solemn tempo (slower than largo)
Largo broad Slow and dignified tempo
Largamente broadly Slow and dignified tempo
Larghetto broad-ish Slightly less dignified than largo (so slightly faster tempo)
Lento slow Slow tempo
Lentando slowing Decelerating, slowing down
L'istesso tempo the same time At the same tempo
Moderato moderate Moderate tempo
Mosso moved, agitated Agitated
Presto prompt, quick; ready for action Very fast
Prestissimo very prompt, very quick Very very fast (above 200 BPM)
Rallentando slowing down Decelerating
Ritardando retarding Decelerating
Tardo slow, tardy Slow tempo
Tempo time The speed of music; e.g. 120 BPM (beats per minute)
(Tempo) rubato robbed Free flowing and exempt from steady rhythm
Tenuto sustained Holding or sustaining a single note
Vivace vivacious Fast and lively tempo (quicker than allegro)

Dynamics – volume[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
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
Marcato marked A note played forcefully
Messa di voce placing the voice A style of singing involving changing volume while holding a single note
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


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Affettuoso with feeling Tenderly
Agitato agitated, moved Excited and fast
Animato animated Animated, fast
Brillante brilliant Brilliant, radiant, 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 brio with power With vigour
Con fuoco with fire With fiery manner, hasty, powerful
Con moto with movement With movement, with energy, spirited
Con spirito with spirit With spirit
Dolce sweet Softly, sweetly
Drammatico dramatic Dramatic
Espressivo expressive Expressive
Feroce ferocious Fierce, heavy
Festoso happy festive, jolly
Furioso furious Angry, hasty
Giocoso playful Merry, spirited, playful
Grandioso great, grandiose Broad, noble, great
Grazioso gracious, graceful Graceful or charming
Lacrimoso lachrymose, teary Tearfully, sadly
Lamentoso Plaintively, Sadly Mournfully, Sorrowly
Maestoso majestic Stately, broad
Misterioso mysterious Mysteriously, secretively, enigmatic
Morendo dying Dying away
Pesante heavy Heavy, slowly, weightily
Risoluto resolved Resolved, decisive
Scherzando playful, joking Playful, joking
Solitario lonely Lonely, alone
Sotto (voce) under-voice, subdued (voice) Subdued, hushed
Sonore loud, resonant Full, broad
Semplicemente simply Simply
Slancio passionately hurl or fling; lance Enthusiastic
Tranquillo calm, tranquil Calm, soft, peaceful
Vivace vivacious Up-tempo, lively
Volante flying speedy but light

Musical expression (general)[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Usage
Molto very; much Comes before other terms; e.g. molto allegro ("very cheerful")
Assai very; aplenty Comes after other terms; e.g. allegro assai ("very cheerful")
Più more Comes before other terms; e.g. più mosso ("more moved/agitated")
Poco little Comes before other terms; e.g. poco diminuendo ("a little diminishing")
poco a poco little by little "Slowly but steadily." Comes before other terms; e.g. poco a poco crescendo ("increasing little by little")
ma non tanto but not so much Comes after other terms; e.g. adagio ma non tanto ("not quite at ease")
ma non troppo but not too much Comes after other terms; e.g. allegro ma non troppo ("not too joyful")
Meno less Comes before other terms, such as meno mosso ("less moved/agitated")
Subito suddenly, quickly Comes before or after other terms; e.g. subito fortissimo ("suddenly very loud")

Patterns within the musical score[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
Lacuna gap A silent pause in a piece of music
Ossia from o ("or") + sia ("that it be") A secondary passage of music which may be played in place of the original
Ostinato stubborn, obstinate A repeated motif or phrase in a piece of music
Pensato thought out A composed imaginary note
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, strict In a fugue, the repeating of a motif by a second voice before the first rendition is completed


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Attacca attach, begin 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 "fine") 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 from o ("or") + pure ("also") 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
Sole Group solo A piece or performance to be played by a designated group


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Acciaccatura crunching An extra, very fast grace note
Altissimo very high Very high
Appoggiatura leaning, supporting A type of ornament that creates a "yearning" effect
Arco bow Cancels col legno and pizzicato. (In any string passage, arco is usually expected, as it is the "default" approach; it is only ever written at the end of col legno or pizzicato passages.)
Arpeggio harp-like A chord with the notes spread out in time (rather than sounded simultaneously)
Basso continuo continuous bass Continuous bass accompaniment by chordal instrument(s) and bass instrument(s) (see figured bass.)
A bocca chiusa in closed mouth Wordless humming in a choral piece
Chiuso closed Calls for a horn to be muted by hand.
Coloratura colouration Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line
Coperti covered Of a drum, muted with a cloth
Una corda one string, cord On a piano, played with the soft pedal depressed
Due corde two strings On a piano, played with the soft pedal depressed (For why both terms exist, see Piano#Pedals.)
Tre corde or tutte le corde three strings or all the strings Cancels una corda
Glissando gliding, glossing A sweeping glide from one pitch to another used for dramatic effect
Legato tied A series of notes played with a smooth connection between them
Col legno with the wood Calls for a bowed instrument's strings to be struck with the wood of the bow (rather than drawn across with the hair of the bow).
Martellato hammered Of notes, strongly accented and detached
Pizzicato pinched, plucked Calls for a bowed instrument's strings to be plucked with the fingers.
Portamento carrying Playing with a sliding of pitch between two notes
Portato carried Played in a style between staccato and legato
Sforzando forcing Playing with strong, marked emphasis
Scordatura discord Alternate tuning (of strings)
Con sordino with sourdine (mute) With mute applied, esp. to string instruments
Senza sordino without sourdine (mute) With mute removed
Spiccato separated, distinct; standing out With a stringed instrument, played by bouncing the bow lightly on the strings
Staccato detached A form of musical articulation in which notes are distinct and separated from each other by short gaps
Staccatissimo very detached Forcefully exaggerated staccato
Tutti all Played or sung by the entire ensemble, rather than by just a soloist or principal player
Vibrato vibrating Played with rapid repetitive variation or undulation in pitch
Colla voce with the voice (For accompanists) In time with the singer's text, especially when slowing for textual effect


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Banda band Small music ensemble used as a supplement to the orchestra in an opera
Comprimario with the first Supporting role
Concertino little concert Smaller, more virtuosic group of musicians in a concerto grosso
Convenienze conveniences Rules relating to the ranking of singers in opera (primo, secondo, comprimario) in 19th-century Italian opera, and the number of scenes, arias, etc. that they were entitled to expect.[2] The convenienze are referred to in the Donizetti opera Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali.
Coro choir Ensemble of singers
Diva divine one (fem.) Leading female singer
Prima donna first lady Leading female role
Primo uomo first man Leading male role
Ripieno refilling or stuffing The larger group of musicians in a concerto grosso


Italian term Literal translation Definition
Bel canto beautiful singing 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. (Masc. pl. bravi; fem. sing. brava; fem. pl. brave.) The use of ! after a written expression of "bravo/a/i/e(!)" strongly emphasizes it.

Musical direction and staging[edit]

Italian term Literal translation Definition
Maestro master, teacher Conductor, music director, music teacher; also composer and other eminent musicians and singers
Maestro collaboratore collaborating master Assistant conductor
Maestro sostituto substitute/deputy master Assistant conductor
Maestro suggeritore master suggester/prompter Prompter
Stagione season A variety of formal organisation of players and crew in the staging of operas

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuccio, Giovanni. "Why Is Italian the Language of Music?". Happy Languages. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  2. ^ Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5

External links[edit]