If you've ever so much as looked at a piece of sheet music, you've probably seen Italian musical terms. While some of the Italian in music is now a little dated, music Italian can still teach you a lot about writing and speaking modern Italian.

In this article, I will show you how to use Italian music terms to improve your Italian, especially your Italian grammar, which turns up surprisingly often in music terms.

You don't have to know anything about Italian music terms to read this article, though if you do want, you can consult this list of Italian music terms.

A pair of glasses sitting on some sheet music

Key Italian vocab in music

In musical Italian, you will also come across some words that are very common in Italian. Music Italian will have familiarised you with such basic words as non, "not"; ma, "but" and e, "and", but also with other important words like molto, troppo and poco.

molto "many", "much", "often"

Molto is a very common Italian word which can either be used as an adjective or adverb:

  • molto/a, the adjective, means "many" or (for uncountable nouns) "much/a lot of" (e.g. molti gatti, "many cats"; molto gelato, "a lot of ice-cream")
  • molto, the adverb, means "much" and "very".

Note that the adjective changes form according to the gender and number of the noun it agrees with, whereas the adverb is invariable (i.e. cannot change).

troppo "too (much)"

Troppo, which you may recognise from the music term ma non troppo ("but not too much"), is another word than can either be an adjective or an adverb:

  • troppo/a, the adjective, means "too many", "too much" (e.g. troppi gatti, "too many cats").
  • troppo, the adverb, means "too" (e.g. troppo forte, "too loud").

poco "little"

Poco is an extremely useful word in Italian, which is often shortened to po'. It is used in several idiomatic phrases, such as:

  • un po' "a little [adjective]" (e.g. un po' corto, "a little short") and un po' di, "a little bit of [noun]" (e.g. un po' di gelato, "a little bit of ice-cream").
  • poco a poco, "little by little", which you may recognise from music.
  • poco prima/dopo, "shortly before/after"

Others

Other words that you often see in music which will also are useful in real Italian include:

sempre "always"
stesso "same"
tempo "time"
mezzo "half"

A close up of some sheet music with directions in Italian

con moto/alla marcia: Adjectival phrases in Italian

Among Italian music terms are many examples of Italian adjectival phrases such as con moto ("with movement") or alla marcia ("like a march"). Italian seems to have so many of these phrases because Italian can't can place two nouns together, making one of them into an adjective (e.g. "strawberry icecream"), like English, so has to use an adjectival phrase using a noun and a preposition (e.g. gelato alla fragola "strawberry icecream").

In general, Italian uses adjectival phrases more often, even when an adjective could be used, which is why we see them so often in music directions.

Gelato in a cup on a counter

più forte and fortissimo: Comparatives and Superlatives

Some of the most basic music terms are forte ("loud") and fortissimo ("very loud"), piano ("quiet") and pianissimo ("very quiet"). Fortissimo and pianissimo are also excellent examples of Italian relative superlatives.

Music might have also introduced you to più (e.g. piu forte, "louder") and meno (e.g. meno forte, "less loud"), which are used in forming the Italian comparative and absolute superlative.

The comparative and the superlative are forms of an adjective (though they are used with adverbs as well) that indicate that the adjective is more, less, most or least of what it usually is (e.g. fortissimo, "very loud"; meno forte, "less loud").

più/meno: the Italian Comparative

The comparative of forte in Italian is not mezzo-forte ("semi-loud"), but più forte ("louder/more loud") or meno forte ("less loud"). The comparative is used in Italian when trying to say that something is more or less than something else.

For comparison between two nouns, we use a construction of noun 1 + essere + più/meno + adjective + di + noun 2, for example:

Il gatto è più felice dell'uomo.
"The cat is happier than the man."
Il gatto è meno felice dell'uomo.
"The cat is less happy than the man."

For comparisons between other parts of speech, like adjectives, verbs, adverbs and prepositions, we use che ("that", "than") instead of di. Here is a fuller explanation of comparatives and a list of irregular comparatives and superlatives.

il più forte: the Italian Relative Superlative

When used with the definite article, più or meno form the relative superlative which means "the most X [of a group of things]". We form it using the construction definite article + noun + più/meno + adjective + di + noun, for example:

Il gatto più forte dei nostri gatti "the loudest cat out of our cats."
Il gatto meno forte dei nostri gatti "the least loud cat out of our cats."

fortissimo: the Italian Absolute Superlative

The absolute superlative in Italian means "very X" (e.g. fortissimo, "very loud"). However, unlike with the relative superlative, the absolute superlative is not "very something" in relation to anything else (but a quantity expressed to the highest degree in and of itself). It is formed by adding the ending -issimo to the stem of the positive (normal) adjective, for example:

forte > fortissimo
piano > pianissimo

An extreme close up of sheet music in deep shadow

largetto/falsetto: Italian Diminuitives

Words like largetto ("a little broad"), allegretto ("a little joyful"), falsetto ("little imitation") and concertino ("little concert") are examples of Italian diminuitives. A diminuitive is a version of a noun or adjective that means "a little [noun]", a smaller, cuter version of [noun], though the meaning can change further, as "a little [noun]" could be something completely different (e.g. un sasso, "rock" becomes un sassolino, "pebble").

There are three ways of forming Italian diminuitives, replacing the ending of the word with -etto, -ino or -ello (or, for a feminine noun, -etta, -ina or -ella). There are no real rules about which suffix to use to form a diminuitive and some words form different diminuitives with different meanings using different suffixes, for example casa, "house" has the diminuitive casetta which means "little/cosy house" and also the diminuitive casino, which means "brothel".

However, we don't usually have to worry about how to form a diminuitive, because diminuitives are mosly used for certain words for which diminuitives are already established. Some examples include:

poco ("little") > un pochino (" a tinsey little bit", "a smidgen")
sasso ("rock") > sassolino ("pebble")
cavallo ("horse") > cavollino ("toy horse")
mamma ("mum") > mammina ("mummy")

A side view of sheet music at a piano

staccato/andante: Participles

Participles, i.e. verbal adjectives, are useful things to know in Italian, as in Italian music terminology. There are two types of Italian participle: past participles (e.g. staccato, "detached") and present participles (e.g. andante, "walking").

staccato/tenuto: Past Participles

Italian past participles are rather common in music (e.g. staccato, "detached"; legato, "tied"; tenuto, "held"), but also in real Italian. Past participles are verbal adjectives that mean [verb]ed (e.g. "detached", "tied", "held" etc.).

Formation

Regular past participles are formed by adding -ato to the stems of -are verbs, -uto to the stems of -ere verbs, and -ito to the stems -ire verbs, e.g.

staccare > staccato
tenere > tenuto
finire > finito

The participle changes form in the singular and plural like a normal adjective (except when it is used with avere as an auxiliary):

Masculine Feminine
Singular staccato staccata
Plural staccati staccate

However, since the past participle is so common, many common verbs have irregular past participles. Here are a few of the most common:

Verb Past Participle English Translation
essere stato to be
fare fatto to do
dire detto to say
venire venuto to come
nascere nato to be born
morire morto to die
vivere vissuto to live
chiudere chiuso to close
bere bevuto to drink

Strangely, some common verbs like andare and the modal verbs (volere, "to want"; potere, "to be able to"; dovere, "to have to") have regular participles. That said, I strongly recommend taking a more complete list of verbs with irregular past participles.

In Compound Tenses

Past participles are most commonly used as part of compound verbs in compound tenses (i.e. in tenses that are formed with the auxiliary verbs essere and avere), for example:

Ho mangiato una mela. "I ate an apple".
Siamo stati al parco. "We went to the park."

This use is too complicated to explain here, but it is similar to English phrases like "I have eaten", where "eaten" is a past participle and "have" is an auxiliary verb. The passato prossimo is only Italian compound tense you are likely to encounter.

As Adjectives

Past participles can also be used as adjectives, either agreeing with a noun or on their own, which is how we see them in music (for example, a direction for staccato). Here are some examples of Italian past participles used as adjectives:

una porta chiusa "a closed door"
un albero morto "a dead tree"
il fiume gelato "the frozen river"

andante: Present Participles

Andante is a common music term which means "walking", "at a walking pace", but it is also an example of the rare Italian present participle.

The Italian present participle is a verbal adjective that means [verb]ing (e.g. "walking", "running", "dying"). It is formed by adding -ante to the stem of -are verbs and -ente to the stems of -ere and -ire verbs, e.g.

andare > andante
correre > corrente
morire > morente

The present participle's usage is limited to be being used as an adjective that modifies a noun and replaces a relative clause (or in some instances an adjectival phrase) for example:

l'uomo morente = l'uomo in punto di morte = l'uomo che sta per morire
"the dying man = the man on the point of death = the man who is about to die

However, it should be used with caution, as it is far more common to use a relative clause or adjective phrase (if there is one).

Sheet music with lyrics in French on a stand

crescendo/decrescendo: The gerundio

However, unlike in English, the Italian present participle cannot be used in phrases like "he is running", but we must use a different part of the verb called the gerundio (the "gerund"), which also means [verb]ing. The gerundio is also seen in music, in terms like crescendo ("increasing"), decrescendo ("decreasing"), diminuendo ("reducing") and glissando ("skating over").

Formation of the gerundio

The gerundio is formed by adding -ando to the stem of -are verbs and -endo to the stems of -ere and to -ire verbs, e.g.

glissare > glissando
crescere > crescendo
diminuire > diminuendo

gerundio for Present Continuous

For "he is running", Italian uses lui sta correndo instead of lui è corrente. (The difference between the present participle and gerundio is complicated so we won't go into more detail).

The present continuous is formed from the gerundio and the verb stare ("to stay, to be"). This is simply done by using the correct form of stare followed by the gerundio (i.e. stare + gerundio = to be [verb]ing). For example:

Sto facendo lo shopping. "I am doing the shopping."

Stiamo andando al centro. "We are going into the city."

Stavano trovando un gatto spesso. "They often found a cat."

Stare is an irregular verb, so have a look at the WordReference page of how to conjugate stare.

Other Uses of the gerundio

The gerundio can be also be used to replace clauses of time ("while"), cause ("since"), condition ("if"), manner ("by") and contrast (with the preposition pur) when the subject in both clauses is the same. For example:

  • Mentre mangiava ancora, il gatto è andato. = Mangiando ancora, il gatto è andato.
    "While he was still eating, the cat went out." = "Still eating, the cat went out."

  • Perché prendo il bus, non sono in ritardo mai. = Prendendo il bus, non sono in ritardo mai.
    "Since/because I catch the bus, I am never late." = "Catching the bus, I am never late."

  • Se fai colazione, sarai felice. = Facendo la colazione, sarai felice.
    "If you eat breakfast, you will be happy." = "(By) eating breakfast, you will be happy."

  • Tramite canzone, la principessa ha convinto il dragone per dormire. = Cantando, la principessa ha convinto il dragone per dormire.
    "Through song, the princess convinced the dragon to go to sleep." = "(By) singing, the princess convinced the dragon to go to sleep."
    (Note that in this example, the gerundio may replace an adjectival phrase, and not a verb).

  • Anche se mangia tutto il cibo, il gatto non è pieno. = Pur mangiando tutto il cibo,il gatto non è pieno.
    "Even though he eats all his food, the cat is not full."

There is also the gerundio passato, but this form is beyond the scope of this article. There are also several verbs which form an irregular gerundio.

Two people playing the guitar on a beach while the sun sets

Conclusion

Who knew that Italian music terms contained all of that difficult grammar? If you are still confused about some of things I have explained in this article, I would highly recommending buying yourself a copy of the Italian grammar workbook Gramm.it for English Speakers which is worth its weight in gold as a guide to Italian grammar.
Speechling also has some very good (and free) resources such as our Italian Language Quiz, our free Fill in the Blank Excercises and our Italian Vocabulary Flashcards to help you improve your Italian grammar and Italian in general.