Glossary of Non-Italian Musical Terms

By Charles Moehnke

As musicians we all are familiar with Italian musical terminology. From our first glimpse of sheet music we are exposed to words like andante, crescendo, accelerando and meno mosso until they become a natural part of our lexicon.
However, many composers choose to write instructions in their native language, which can lead to some missteps during sight reading if you’re not familiar with terms across a wide variety of languages.

With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to share a short list of the common non-Italian musical terms as found in three sheet music collections from our shelves: Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder for voice and piano, Debussy Preludes, Book 1 for piano solo, and Segovia’s Master of the Guitar for classical guitar.

Let’s start with Kindertotenlieder. Mahler is known for his careful attention to articulation and phrasing within his music, but if you don’t speak German you may find yourself ignoring his instructions entirely. I’d suggest committing the following common German terms and phrases to memory. These will also come in handy when playing the works of Hindemith, Wagner or Schoenberg and other German sheet music written since the Romantic period.


Common German musical terms:

(sehr) ausdrucksvoll  (very) expressive
(etwas) bewegter  moving forward (a bit)
breit  broad
einfach  simple
fließend  flowing
fröhlich  joyful
heftiger  violently
immer sehr stark  staying loud; literally “always very much”
klagend  sonorous
langsam  slow
lebhaft  lively
lustig  cheerful
mässig  moderate tempo
mit Empfindung  with emotion
mit verhaltener Stimme  in a low or restrained voice
nach und nach  gradually
nicht eilen  not rushed
nicht schleppend  not dragging
nicht zurückhaltend  not held back
ruhig  softly
schlicht  simply
schmerzlich  sorrowful
schnell  fast
sehr getragen  very sustained
steigernd  increasing or swelling
traurig  sad
vorgetragen  brought out
wie zu Anfang  as at the beginning
zart  tenderly
zögernd  hesitant

As beautiful as French is, who can blame Debussy, Ravel, Satie and many other French composers for writing in their native tongue? Sometimes these composers almost entirely abandon the common Italian terms, and they can be quite verbose in their instruction, so Google Translator may be required for the less Francophilic among us. However, if you can commit this list to memory, you’ll be able to figure out most of the composers intention in a pinch, or in the case of the Debussy Preludes, you can always use the handy French sheet music glossary in the back!

Common French musical terms:

allant  moving
augmentant beaucoup  increasing greatly
avec humour  with humor
capricieux  capricious or playful
cédez  gradually slowing down
concentré  focused
doux  sweet, gentle
doucement  gently
douloureux  sad
égal  equal
emporté  passionate
en cédant  slowing down
en dehors  bring out
en serrant  pressing forward
estompé  softened
incisive  sharp and biting
léger  light and nimble
librement  freely
lointain  far away
marqué  marked or accented
modéré  moderate
moqueur  mocking
mouvt.  back to original tempo
au mouvt.  A Tempo
plus retenu  more held back
rageur  with anger
sans nuances  without shadings
sans presser  without rushing
sans rigueur  freely
sec  dry
serrez  getting faster
soutenu  sustain
trés doux  very sweet
trés souple  very flexible

While less common for most of us, classical guitarists will often run across Spanish markings. The following list from Segovia’s album is probably already familiar to the guitarists out there, but the rest of us will benefit when playing sheet music by Ponce, Rodrigo or Piazzolla, to name a few.

Common Spanish musical terms:

bien cantado  sing out; literally “sung well”
calmo  calm
cantando  singing
cediendo poco  giving way a little bit
claras ambas voces  make both voices clear
con calor  with passion; literally “with heat”
con dulzura  gently
con gracia  gracefully
destacado con humor  highlighted with humor
ligero  light
marcado  marked
mas animato  more animated
my ligado  connected; without pause
ritmico  rhythmic
suave  soft

Of course, if memorizing all these terms feels too much like you’re back in music theory class, you can always cheat and keep one of our pocket music dictionaries on hand!

Charles Moehnke is the Search Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in bassoon performance from Indiana University and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

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