All the scores I studied as a piano student used Italian terms for performance instruction, or their abbreviations: "rit." and "accel." etc.

I'm wondering - for my own compositions - whether I should uphold that tradition, or use English equivalents. It seems odd to write "molto vivace" in a score, when I mean "very lively". I know just enough phrasebook Italian to say "piu rubato", but I'd slip into English to write something like "with emphasis on the melody".

In scores I've produced already, I have used Italian instructions, like "ritardando". I'm thinking of editing them to use the word "slower" instead, and to use all-English annotations from now on.


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  • Though Italian is the traditional language in music, it is not exclusively used. From personal experience as a musicians, I have read scores that had markings in English, German, French, and Italian. College educated musicians these days are taught to read in all four languages as many scores were and are printed in both. In my own compositions I have used both English and Italian. 

    In the end, its all up to you. You can use either language or a mix of both if you like ( I have seen this done a number of times), as long as it is easy to read and gets your point across. 

  • Some Italian terms have become so entrenched that, arguably, they have become part of music terminology in English. For example, there are no "native" English terms for crescendo, diminuendo, forte, piano, tempo, etc.. They are Italian terms that have become practically a part of the English language (at least, that part of the English language that concerns music).  Any trained musician will have also encountered many more such terms (like allegro, adagio, staccato, pizzicato, arco, etc.) that the average layman may not be familiar with. There are also other less common terms that crop up once in a while.  All these terms lie on a spectrum from fully assimilated into English to being exclusively Italian, so the line is not as clear-cut as one might think.

    Having said that, though, there's been a trend lately of simply writing in English.  If you want to express some direction that's past your grasp of Italian, I'd recommend just writing it in English, and don't worry about the incongruity of having directions in multiple languages, since most common musical directions in English are assimilated from Italian anyway.

  • HS, you way "don't worry about the incongruity" and you hit the nail on the head: it's the incongruity that bothers me. And I should not let it bother me.

    It feels right that I should continue to use "mp" and "ff" (indeed all dynamic markings) because they are canonized like symbols, not abbreviations. Using some made-up english equivalent like "vq" to say "very quiet" would be ridiculous, like I'm trying to prove some kind of anglocentric point.

    But I'll discard tempo descriptions like "Allegro" and "Andante" in favour of anglosaxonicisms like "Slowly" and "Moderately Quick". And all in-staff annotations will also be in The Queen's English. With proper Canadian spellings, of course. :)

    Thanks for sharing your opinions!

  • Hooray for Canada! ;-)

    In my Fantasia Sonata, which is finished but the score still needs lots of work, I've been seriously considering just dropping all Italian except for the "standard set", in lieu of more descriptive markings like "Majestically", "Festively", "Resolutely", etc., instead of trying to stretch the limits of my near-nonexistent Italian. It's especially hard to write them in Italian because I want the performer to have a pretty wide latitude in interpretation, and I simply don't have the grasp of Italian to be able to express my intents (and the performer may not be able to interpret such abstract descriptions in Italian anyway!).

  • "Mahler's scores are filled with instructions to the conductor and almost all instructions and performance notes are in German."

    Yes, that's true.  

    "Since English is now the "lingua Franca" of the world, my opinion is that using English is entirely acceptable ..."

    I am not sure English is really the lingua Franca, or whether (if it is) it will be for long.

    Larger numbers of actual living people (perhaps even larger numbers of living musicians) speak Chinese and Hindustani (which includes Hindi and Urdu speakers).

    I think you should not be disallowed from using English, German, French or Italian.

    However, I would like to see much more Chinese, Hindustani, Arabic, Russian and Swahili in scores.

    Here for example, are notations for flutes and other instruments from

    ... 8608269471?profile=original Zhongguo Gudai Yinyue Shiliao Jiyao 中國古代音樂史料集要 (Beijing, 1962) pages 687–702 [1330–1333 ed.

  • This is a nice one too.  


  • Then there is this one in Hindustani:


  • Fredrick, the quote from the Mozart score.. Just Hilarious!  Thanks for that!

  • I wasn't sure when I read it, but surprised to discover that those words, translated from Italian ACTUALLY WERE in the Mozart score for the Horn Concerto:

    Horn Concerto No. 1 in D majorK.412/386b was written in 1791.

    I thought you were joking, Fredrick.  Bravo!

    That's quite astounding, and shows just how far ahead of his time Mozart truly was, and why Italian will never become anachronistic in scores.

    If he were alive today, he might have written his more obscene and lewd score comments in Sanskrit or in 11th century Mongolian, to escape detection.

    Fredrick zinos said:

    Somewhat off topic, below find a translation from the Italian of Mozart's instructions, printed in the original score and parts, for the soloist (Leutgeb) of one of the Mozart Horn concertos (K514?). The comments are printed proximal to the relevant passages.

    For you, Mr. Donkey—Come on—quick—get on with it—like a good fellow—be brave—Are you finished yet?—for you—beast—oh what a dissonance—Oh!—Woe is me!!—Well done, poor chap—oh, pain in the balls!—Oh God, how fast!—you make me laugh—help—take a breather—go on, go on—that's a little better—still not finished?—you awful swine!—how charming you are!—dear one!—little donkey!—ha, ha, ha—take a breath!—But do play at least one note, you prick!—Aha! Bravo, bravo, hurrah!—You're going to bore me for the fourth time, and thank God it's the last—Oh finish now, I beg of you!—Confound it—also bravura?—Bravo!—oh, a sheep bleating—you're finished?—Thank heavens!—Enough, enough

  • At this point, it may be that Italian expressions are unfamiliar enough for most so that they can be used as though they are technical jargon, which is good because they wouldn't carry the extra baggage and connotation of standard English terms. (Although "allegro" literally means "lively" and "con brio" literally means "with brilliance," it is common to take these terms to refer to "fast" and to something like "edgy.") So I find no reason to avoid using Italian expressions, so long as they are the common ones. (Tchaikovsky used "pochissimo piu mosso" in one of his string quartet movements, but usually one sees "poco a poco piu mosso" written ... that is, "little by little go a bit faster.")

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