The adopted language of musical instruction is Italian, so it might be appropriate to rename this article “8 terms only musicians and possibly Italians understand.”

The romantic explanation for this is that Italian is a musical sounding language, and using it adds to the beauty of the compositions. However, the reality is that Italian is the chosen language of music because the first person to formalize the writing of notes was an Italian. A thousand years ago, Guido of Arezzo created something similar to the heads-and-stems note representations that we know today.

Over the next few centuries, musicians wanted to add some more detail to their manuscripts, and they started to include some descriptive words — electing to do so in the original manuscript language.

Here, we’re going to look at some of those words (as well as some of the English additions that came later):


This is one of the words describing the speed or tempo that a piece should be played at. Andante means a walking, moderate pace.


Literally translated, largo means wide or broad. However, in a musical context, largo also relates to pacing and means the piece should be played quite slowly.


Crescendo relates to the volume, or more specifically a volume change. This is where the piece gets louder and louder for the duration of the crescendo. This word has transcended its use in music, and is often used for culminations of multiple events or actions.


The first non-Italian word in this list. The downbeat is the first beat in a bar, often identified by a conductor.


Forte means loud or strong. It is also used outside of music, to describe activities that people are good at. For example “writing about musical terms is my forte.” Fortissimo is even louder or stronger than forte.


No, we’re not talking about the instrument. In musical writing, piano is the opposite of forte, meaning quiet or soft. The fantastic sounding pianissimo is, of course, even quieter or softer.


Every song that you’ve ever heard, or in fact that has ever been composed, has used the same 12 notes – seven letters and five accompanying sharps and flats. The sharps and flats make the corresponding letter note one step higher or lower. A middle C and a high C are seven notes and eight steps apart, hence why those notes are known as an octave.


No, we’re not talking about the bubbly stuff you add to your gin. The tonic is the main note in a scale or key. So, if a piece is in the key of A, then A is the tonic note, as it's the first note in the scale.