Italian: The Language That Sings Even when it isn't sung, the Italian language sounds like music, which is part of why Italian words are used to tell musicians how to play—presto, lento, adagio, forte. Commentator Miles Hoffman explains why Italian is the lingua franca of classical music.
NPR logo

Italian: The Language That Sings

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15090868" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Italian: The Language That Sings

Italian: The Language That Sings

Italian: The Language That Sings

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15090868" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A page of Beethoven's manuscript to his Symphony No. 9. getty images hide caption

toggle caption
getty images

In Terms of Italian

Hear Miles Hoffman's examples of Italian musical terms in action.

Pianissimo & Fortissimo

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15037978" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Andante Mistico

Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15037970" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Allegretto grazioso, ma non troppo presto, pero non troppo adagio, cosi, cosi, con molto garbo ed espressione (Mozart's comic instruction)

Mozart: Flute Quartet, K. 298

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15037974" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Crescendo

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15040264/15037969" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Even when it isn't sung, the Italian language sounds like music, which is part of why Italian words are used to tell musicians how to play—presto, lento, adagio, forte.

Miles Hoffman, author of The NPR Classical Music Companion, recently joined Renee Montagne to discuss the Italian jargon of classical music.

"So many of these musical forms—sonata, cantata, aria—started in Italy," Hoffman says.

"Plus, Italian musicians were in positions of prestige all over Europe, so it became the lingua franca."