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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

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Next UK ABRSM Online Theory Exams Grades 1-5:
16th March 2021
Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8:
Sat 8th May 2021

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18. Foreign Terms

Grade One Music Theory Lesson 18: Foreign Musical Terms (Updated July 2020)

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 1   Trinity Grade 1   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 


Italian Terms

In Grade One Music Theory (Trinity and ABRSM), you need to know what a handful of Italian terms mean in music.

People often wonder why most musical terms are in Italian and not another language, but actually lots of other languages have been used by composers, in particular German and French. Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance Era (from about 1350 onwards), and was the place where classical music really took off a few centuries later. Composers from many countries used Italian terms because they were associated with musical excellence, and were understood around the world. Today people think of Italian terms as the normal language in music. 

From the Grade 4 music theory exam onwards you'll need to know foreign terms not only in Italian, but also in French and German!


List of Terms

Here is a complete list of all the Italian terms for ABRSM Grade One Music Theory. Terms required by Trinity are marked with a star *.

It's easier to learn foreign terms if you learn them in groups, and only try to learn a few each day. 

The strongest syllable is in italics


Italian Term Pronunciation Abbreviation English Meaning
A tempo a tempoh   At the original speed /time
Accelerando a-che-le-ran-doh Accel. Gradually getting faster
Adagio a-dah-jioh   Slowly
Allegro* a-le-groh   Quickly
Allegretto a-le-gre-toh   Fairly quick
Allegro moderato    a-le-groh mo-de-ra-toh   Moderately quick
Andante* an-dan-te   At a walking pace
Moderato* mo-de-ra-toh   Moderately
Rallentando ra-len-tan-doh Rall. Gradually getting slower
Ritardando ri-tar-dan-doh Rit. Gradually getting slower
Ritenuto* ri-ten-oo-toh Rit., Riten. Held back
Crescendo* cre-shen-doh Cresc. Gradually getting louder
Decrescendo dee-cre-shen-doh Decresc. Gradually getting quieter
Diminuendo* di-mi-nyu-en-doh Dim. Gradually getting quieter
Forte* for-tay F Loud
Fortissimo* for-tis-i-moh FF Very loud
Mezzo forte* met-zoh for-tay MF Moderately loud
Mezzo piano* met-zoh pya-noh MP Moderately quiet
Pianissimo* pya-ni-si-moh PP Very quiet
Piano* pyah-noh P Quiet
Cantabile kan-tar-bi-lay   In a singing style
Legato* li-ga-toh   Smoothly
Staccato* sta-kar-toh   Short and detached
Da capo da ka-poh DC From the beginning
Fine fee-nay   The end
Mezzo met-zo M Half



If you are taking the Trinity exam, you will also need to be able to recognise an ostinato. An ostinato is a short musical pattern which is used as an accompaniment, and is repeated over and over again, while the music around it changes. The words “riff” and “loop” have basically the same meaning, but “ostinato” is the word most often used when we talk about classical music.

Here is an example of an ostinato. It is in the left hand (bass clef) part of this piano piece. The pattern in bar 1 is repeated in bars 2, 3 and 4:




Ostinato patterns can also be made with just rhythm and no melody. A famous example is Ravel’s “Bolero”, which uses an ostinato played by the snare drum, all the way through the piece: