List of Italian Music Words Used in English

A comprehensive guide to Italian music words, terms, and indications.

As you begin learning the violin, you might wonder, “why there are so many Italian words in my music?” And, the longer you learn and play written classical music, the more Italian music terms you’ll see!

It’s important to know what they all mean so you can play each piece of music the way it’s intended. Don’t worry about memorizing each and every term right away; you can download below a free booklet with all the terms, print it, and use it as a glossary when you come across new words in your music! (Or, you can bookmark this page 👍)

italian music words - definitions free download

FREE List of Italian Music Words and Definitions


In this article, I’ll go through the Italian music terms we see the most in sheet music – especially in violin music – including dynamics, tempo, characteristics, and directions. So let’s talk about what these words are, their definitions, and why they’re there!

Why Are So Many Musical Terms Written in Italian?

Italian composers were some of the first to write down music during the Renaissance era of music in the 1400s. They wanted to add more directions to achieve the desired sound. These composers began adding words in their language to their music to help guide players.

Italian music gained popularity throughout Europe, and, through the 19th century, most wealthy people who were able to learn music also learned other languages, including Italian. Therefore, they were able to read and understand the directions.

Now, fewer people may learn or know how to read Italian in addition to their native language, but the tradition of writing classical music with Italian terms has stuck. So now we learn those specific terms and follow them in our music.

Common Italian Terms and Endings

Before we get into the terms you’ll see most often, I want to briefly talk about some small Italian words and parts of words that we’ll see often. It’s helpful to know these little connecting words and suffixes to fully understand what’s being asked of you.


“issimo” is a suffix (an ending to a word). This just means very or extremely, and is added to the end of a word to make it meaningful. “Very quiet” or “very loud” are two examples.


The Italian word “con” just means “with.” You might see a few phrases that use this word.


“Poco” means “little.” This is another word you might see as part of a longer phrase.


“Più” means “more”, and is used in a few musical directions.

Italian Music Words for Tempo

The tempo of a piece of music is the speed: how fast, slow, or what character the composer would like you to play. We’ll organize our tempo terms from slow to fast.

In this section, I’ll mention bpm – this stands for beats per minute and is the number you can set a metronome to. If you’ve never heard of or used a metronome, I highly suggest reading about it on my online metronome page.

italian music words - tempo markings with bpm


Grave is the slowest speed, and tells us to play at a slow and solemn tempo. The metronome marking for grave is 20-40 bpm.


Largo means “slow and broad.” A general metronome marking is 40-60 bpm.


Larghetto also roughly means “slow and broad,” but generally a little quicker than largo. We usually play this tempo around 60-66 bpm.


Adagio should be played slowly, with great expression, and at around 66-76 bpm.


Andante is generally referred to as a “walking pace.” It’s a moderately slow tempo. A good metronome range for Andante is 76-108 bpm.


Moderato, as you might guess, is just a moderate speed. 108-120 bpm will give you about that tempo! If you’re trying to find a moderato tempo without a metronome, try thinking of a marching pace.


Allegretto is just a little faster than moderato, but slightly slower than our next tempo, Allegro.


Allegro is a very popular marking, and it’s known as fast and lively, or sometimes quick and bright. A good metronome range would be 120-156 bpm.


Vivace is a fun tempo! It’s lively, fast, and brisk. You might find this in a lively piece.


Presto is a tempo that’s very fast. It’s rapid and brisk! A common metronome marking for presto is between 168 and 200 bpm.


Prestissimo is even slightly faster than presto! Anything above 200 bpm is considered prestissimo.

Italian Music Terms for Dynamics

Italian words are also used for dynamics. Most dynamics are written with just a bold, italicized letter: the first letter of its name.

We’ll go from quietest to loudest, and then talk a bit about more nuanced dynamic terms.

italian music words - definitions and symbols of dynamic markings


Pianissimo is one of the quietest dynamics we can play. It’s a very, very soft piano; just a whisper of sound.


Piano is our quiet, or soft dynamic.

Mezzo piano

Mezzo piano is just a step above regular piano and is often referred to as moderately quiet.

Mezzo forte

Mezzo forte is moderately loud, not quite as big or heavy as forte.


Forte means loud!


Fortissimo is even louder than forte.


A crescendo can either be drawn under the music staff, or written out. It tells us to get loud gradually.

You might sometimes see a similar term, poco crescendo; this is just a smaller crescendo.


A decrescendo or diminuendo can also be written out or drawn underneath the staff. This tells us to gradually get quieter.


A sforzando tells us to play suddenly louder, on just the note marked sfz.

Italian Musical Terms for Tempo Changes

The tempo (the speed of the music) doesn’t always stay the same throughout an entire piece of music. Sometimes, we’ll see a direction to get slightly faster or slightly slower.

italian music words - Musical Terms for Tempo Changes


Ritardando (sometimes shortened to ritard or rit.) tells us to gradually get slower. This can happen anywhere within a musical composition.


Rallentando also means to gradually get slower, but I’ve found that this specific term is usually used towards the end of a piece, and therefore feels a little more final than a ritardando.


Accelerando is an Italian music term that tells us to get faster. You might see this in a really exciting section of music!


Stringendo is very similar to accelerando, in that it tells us to gradually play faster. However, stringendo literally means to tighten.

A tempo

After a tempo change like ritardando, the composer might want the musician to go back to the original tempo from the start of the piece. In this case, they’ll write “a tempo” to indicate that.

The “a” at the beginning of the “a tempo” term is pronounced “ah” instead of “ay,” which can help differentiate between referring to the starting tempo, versus referring to any tempo.


The term rubato tells us to give and take time. Instead of playing with a strict tempo, we can play with more of a free time. Use musical expression to guide the speed of the music – it should speed up and slow down naturally.


italian music words - fermata

When you see the fermata sign, you can sustain that note, chord, or a rest longer than you would normally play it.

Italian Terms for Articulation

Articulation tells us what a specific note should sound like, and almost changes the texture of the note. Examples of different articulations would be short, disconnected notes, or, in contrast, a smooth connection between notes.

italian music words - Musical Terms for Articulation


Legato is the Italian term for smooth and connected. These notes are all related to one another and should be played with no breaks in between. If a section of music is legato, you might see a lot of slurs.


Staccato is a short articulation, and notes are detached. It’s sometimes described as sharp or short. Staccato is notated with a dot either above or below every single note.


Arco means to play with the bow on the strings. This term is used almost exclusively for stringed instrument music.

Most violin songs should be assumed arco, although most pieces won’t explicitly say “arco” at the start. Most times, we’ll only see this term after a pizzicato section.


Pizzicato (shortened pizz.) tells us to pluck the string with a finger. When we see this marking, we’ll play every single note pizzicato until something tells us otherwise.

Col legno

Here’s another string-specific Italian music term: the phrase “col legno” means to play with the wooden side of the bow (the stick). This is common mostly in orchestra music, and makes a very unique pitched percussion sound!

Want to learn more bowing terms? Read All 25 Bowing Techniques

Italian Music Terms for Moods and Characteristics

Different moods and styles of playing are also referred to in Italian.

italian music words - Music Terms for Moods and Characteristics


Cantabile asks us to play in a singing style. You’ll want to play smoothly, lyrically, and gently. This is used often for warm, legato melodies.

Con brio

Here’s our first music term using the word “con”! Con brio means “with spirit.”


Dolce means sweet. Play gently, with expression.

Have you ever tried dolce de leche? It’s very sweet, right? Picture that as you play!


As you might guess, “espressivo” means expressively. It’s a good idea to play with vibrato if you see this marked!


Grazioso means “graceful.” It can also mean smooth or elegant.


Maestoso means “majestic.” You might see this in a processional that was meant for royalty or another very dignified-sounding piece.

Con Fuoco

“With fire” – if you see this marking, play in a fiery manner: heavy, with accents, and loud!


As you might be able to guess, agitato means agitated. You might see a lot of accents and loud dynamics. This is a good time to play heavy.

Italian Music Words: Techniques

Italian words are also used to denote specific playing techniques the composer would like to hear in any given spot. Here are a few popular techniques you might see written out.

italian music words - Terms of Popular Playing Techniques


Glissando (sometimes shortened gliss.) means to play an audible and continuous slide between two notes. In notation, it’s usually shown as a diagonal line between two different notes.


Chord notes played one by one either ascending or descending is known as an arpeggio. The word translates to “harp” – imagine the sound of a harp playing chord notes one by one all the way up. It’s a playing technique that’s done often on that instrument, anyway!


A portamento is an audible shift or slide from one note to the next. It might seem, at first, to be the same as a glissando, but a portamento is more of an ornamentation and doesn’t directly connect the two notes.

I think of a glissando to be loud and symmetrical, directly connecting the first and second notes. A portamento, however, is almost like a little sigh in between two notes.


Vibrato is the “wavy” sound you might hear when you listen to professionals play. Vibrato is a quick wavering in the pitch, going back and forth below and to the pitch. We also commonly hear vocalists sing with vibrato. It adds a sweetness and beautiful expression to the music.

Italian Music Words: Directions

In addition to tempo, dynamics, and techniques, some directions will also be written in Italian.

italian music words - Terms of Directions in Music


“Fine” means “end” in Italian. If you see “fine,” you’ve reached the end of the musical piece.

D.C. al Coda

italian music words - D.C. al Coda

D.C. stands for “Da capo” which translates to “from the beginning,” and “al” means “to the.” Once we see this term, we play from the beginning to the Coda sign (or the directions “to Coda”), then play the passage marked “Coda.”


italian music words - segno

Segno is a musical term that we don’t usually see written out; instead, we’ll often see the symbol. A segno is the beginning or end of a repeated section of music and is often paired with a fine – look at the next term for an example.

D.S. al Fine

D.S. al Fine stands for “Del Segno al Fine,” which tells us to return to the Segno sign and play until the Fine.


A cadenza is a section of brief, very showy improvisation. Cadenzas are mainly played by a solo instrument. It’s a moment for the soloist to show off, just before the end of either a movement or a full piece of music.

Con Sordino

Con Sordino means to play with a mute, or when you play a piano, it means to play without the use of the sustain pedal.

Senza Sordino

When you see senza sordino make sure to remove the mute. On piano, use of the sustain pedal.

I hope this overview of Italian music words and terms helps you gain a deeper understanding of your music. It’s always important to be familiar with the indications we find in sheet music!

italian music words - definitions free download

FREE List of Italian Music Words and Definitions


To learn more about the finer details in music, try reading about tremolo or trills next!

Did you encounter different Italian music words in your sheet music? Please let me know in the comments below, so I can improve this list!

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