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)|
|immer sehr stark||staying loud; literally “always very much”|
|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|
|sehr getragen||very sustained|
|steigernd||increasing or swelling|
|wie zu Anfang||as at the beginning|
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:
|augmentant beaucoup||increasing greatly|
|avec humour||with humor|
|capricieux||capricious or playful|
|cédez||gradually slowing down|
|en cédant||slowing down|
|en dehors||bring out|
|en serrant||pressing forward|
|incisive||sharp and biting|
|léger||light and nimble|
|marqué||marked or accented|
|mouvt.||back to original tempo|
|au mouvt.||A Tempo|
|plus retenu||more held back|
|sans nuances||without shadings|
|sans presser||without rushing|
|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”|
|cediendo poco||giving way a little bit|
|claras ambas voces||make both voices clear|
|con calor||with passion; literally “with heat”|
|destacado con humor||highlighted with humor|
|mas animato||more animated|
|my ligado||connected; without pause|
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.