Foreign words and musical notes
Anyone who’s ever had to learn to read sheet music will know what I mean when I say that it can sometimes literally be like learning another language. Besides parsing those tricky lines, dots, tails, and bars, there are also the snatches of foreign languages – mostly Italian, along with the occasional word of French, German, and Latin thrown in for good measure. A quick glance at a page of sheet music reveals words like adagio, legato, staccato, piano, forte, crescendo, and diminuendo, looming in the white spaces between illegible staves of musical content.
If you’re anything like me, you might have had a moment in that first music lesson – following your instructor’s explanation that piano means soft in Italian, and signals the musician to be play quietly – where you wondered, “But why Italian in the first place? And haven’t I seen that word coda somewhere else? (And what’s so soft about a piano, anyway?!)”
An Italian hegemony
The tendency towards Italian in terms of musical directions is easily explained by a close look at the history of Western music. Home to early musical innovators, including Guido de Arezzo, who invented musical staff notation in the early 10th century, Italy was also a hotbed of musical change in the late Renaissance. In fact, the revolutionary new ideas about music that were emerging in Florence at that time are viewed by historians as marking the end of the Renaissance period and the start of the Baroque period.
The Italian influence on music at that point was so great that the entry on the Baroque period in The Oxford Companion to Music, 11th edition, observes that “until its final decades the Baroque was an era of Italian musical hegemony.” That hegemony is especially evident when looking at the musical forms that appeared in Italy during this time, including the partita, concerto, rondo, toccata, cantata, and especially the opera. When these musical forms and other new ideas about music circulated around Europe, it was only natural that the Italian language went along with them. Hence we end up with German-speaking Johann Sebastian Bach writing cantatas with sections marked as andante.
While there are several German and French terms that come into occasional use, thanks to composers writing directions in their native languages, these terms are hardly as ubiquitous as their Italian counterparts. Sometimes new words were introduced in order to address musical innovation. For instance, Wagner’s development of short musical phrases to call attention to an action, person, place, or idea in his operas led to the spread of the term leitmotif, which literally translates from German as “leading motive”.
Escaping the music
While it’s no surprise that musical terminology has crossed over into other arts – an essay discussing leitmotifs in a novel is by now a routine class assignment – several musical directions have expanded beyond their musical context. Coda, for example, once exclusively referring to the concluding passage of a musical movement or piece, has come to refer to any concluding event, remark, or gesture.
Another example is segue – the third person singular present of seguire (“to follow” in Italian) — which began as a note to the performer to continue without interrupting to the next section (“it follows”). Segue has since moved on to a more figurative meaning, referring to any transition from one thing to another. The word can be used as either a noun or a verb that marks that transition. My favorite Oxford English Dictionary (OED) citation for this figurative sense of segue is undoubtedly the one from the 1978 Illustrated “New Musical Express” Encyclopaedia of Rock, which asks, “How do the world’s most celebrated adolescents [sc. the Rolling Stones] segue into middle age?”
Another popular term that has made a similar break from musical context is crescendo, which refers to a gradual increase in volume. (Its companion, diminuendo, while also used outside musical contexts, is not nearly so popular.) While crescendo can refer to any increase in intensity, modern readers would be more familiar with the colloquial sense, especially in the phrase to reach a crescendo. Although similar to the original use, there is a slight shift in meaning here, such that crescendo actually refers to the peak or utmost point of a rise in volume or intensity, not the rise itself. F. Scott Fitzgerald is cited in the OED as using this sense in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby: “The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.”