If you lend your ear to classical music from time to time, or try to reproduce it on some instrument, you've probably noticed: Italian is the overwhelming choice for musical directions. There is a good reason for this: during the Renaissance when the notion of giving some direction to musical scores first started catching on (musical notation itself is way older than that), many of the important composers were Italian - and it was natural for them to use their own language.
Many of the commonest words denoting musical directions, and compositions that incorporate them, have become naturalized in English. A few of them also have cognates in English, making it fairly easy to guess their meaning on the basis of resemblance to some English word, like accelerando or agitato. On the other hand, the resemblance of largo to large isn't a huge help in trying to guess that it means "slow." For that, you need either a musical education, or the Visual Thesaurus to learn about the words that give the directions to musical works.
A walk on the slow sideThe VT portrait of slow is a pretty wide ranging one, but a whole section of it is devoted to musical terms that mean slow: you'll see these ranging, pretty much from the slowest to the fastest of the slows, on the left side of the picture: lentissimo to moderato. You may be thinking: isn't this like asking how long a piece of string is? What's the scale of all this compared to some independent standard?
Bring andante to the center and the picture simplifies considerably: it occupies a node at the intersection of a noun, adjective and adverb, because it can be used as all of these in music. If you put your cursor on the noun node (the red dot) you'll see the definition of andante - a walking pace - and that's what young music students learn to associate with andante: one beat per step, at an average walking pace. By happy coincidence, you'll see on the same map the word pacing. If English were the language of choice for musical directions, we'd probably talk about pacing rather than tempo in music. But tempo, of course, comes from Italian, and pacing is the same thing as: walking!
If you're wondering what happens on the other side of andante, fast will give you the picture: a handful of Italian words that indicate a faster-than-average tempo, ranging from andantino -which is just a little faster than the fast end of slow - to prestissimo and allegretto, which are foremost in fastness. Composers have traditionally used most of these words denoting tempo to characterize entire movements, especially the movements of sonatas, concertos, and symphonies.
Forte-ficationsTempo is only one way that composers have to micromanage the performance of their music. Another way is dynamic directions: they deal with the loudness of the music and changes therein; many of these words are naturalized in English with figurative uses, but their roots are in music. Take a look at crescendo and you'll see that it links to the two things most pertinent to it: increasing and volume. Its opposite is decrescendo, which you should see connected on the same wordmap by a dotted red line: diminuendo, which should now be in view, means about the same thing.
Forte arrives in English from two directions: French and Italian, and some of the words you see on its map have to do with the French connection, but the Italian connection is about music, and about loudness. You'll see piano there as its opposite. Piano is the short form for the 88-keyed instrument you know and love, but it means soft as a musical direction. The piano's full name is the pianoforte, and it's a good justification for keeping Italian in the musical picture: who'd play the thing if it were called the softloud?
Come on baby light my fuocoMoods deal with the feelings that accompany music, and suggest what the performer ought to express, with a view to transmitting it to the listener. If you're reading the liner notes of your latest CD of Chopin Etudes, you'll notice that the Polish composer who lived in Paris did not content himself with Italian tempo directions: some pieces are given what we call "mood" directions as well. You can explore the unfamiliar terms by approaching them from the other direction: see what the Italian means in English by searching the Visual Thesaurus in Italian. The beauty of these word pictures is that you get not a single word translation, but a number of word associations that give you a better picture of what the word really means, musically. Allegro con brio, for example, suggests that it's time to get lively and happy. And if you're going to play a piece con fuoco, you're going to have to ignore that age-old advice about never playing with fire!
If music be the food of love, play onWe've really only scratched the surface of the influence of Italian on the world of music. If you're in tune for more, keep open the VT and have a look at this page,
where you can find the names of instruments and voices in English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. If you're really hardcore, you may want to check out some of the terms in Italian, French, or German by searching in one of those languages in the Visual Thesaurus and get ready for a brain-busting lesson in etymology!
One of the best sites on the web for exploring all things musical is Grove Music Online; they're at
If your local public library is your ISP or if your computer has a cookie on it from any library you belong to, you'll get full access to the site. If not, you'll enjoy this site much more by accessing it from a library.
If you're now totally inspired to go and compose your own concerto - and we hope you are - pop open the lid on that sturdy old upright in the corner of the Language Lounge and have a go! Here's a site that lets you print out several varieties of staff paper to capture your notes:
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves
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