The Italian Commands of Piano Music

Italian Music Glossary for Piano

Many musical terms appear frequently in piano music; some are even meant exclusively for the piano. Learn the definitions of the commands you'll need as a pianist.

       ●  View terms:   A – D  E – L  M – R  S – Z



Piano Commands S

▪  scala musicale: “musical scale”; a series of notes following a specific pattern of intervals; a musical key. Examples of musical scales include:

  • Scala cromatica (chromatic scale): Containing every half note within an octave.

  • Scala diatonica (diatonic scale): Made with a pattern of 5 whole step intervals and 2 half steps (with no more than three, and no less than two whole steps in a row).

  • Scala maggiore (major scale): A diatonic scale with a happy character.

  • Scale minore naturale (natural minor scale): A diatonic scale with a somber mood.

  • Scala minore armonica / scala minore melodica harmonic minor and melodic minor scales, respectively.

▪  scherzando: “playfully”; to play in a joking or light-hearted and happy manner when used as a musical command. Often used to describe or title a musical composition that has a playful, child-like character.

 ▪  scherzandissimo is a command that means “very playful.”
 ▪  scherzetto refers to a shorter scherzando.

▪  scherzosamente: used as a command synonymous with scherzando.

▪  seconda maggiore: “major 2nd”; refers to the common interval consisting of two half steps; a whole step.

Also tono.

▪  seconda minore: “minor 2nd”; a half-step interval (a semitone). Also semitono.

▪  segno: “sign”; refers to a symbol involved in a complex system of musical repeats. In word form, most often abbreviated D.S. (dal segno).

▪  semitono: “semitone”; the smallest interval between notes in modern Western music, commonly called a half step.

In Italian, this is also referred to as a seconda minore: “minor second interval.”

▪  semplice / semplicemente: “simply”; to play a passage with no frills or ornamentation; to play in a straight-forward manner (but not necessarily without expression).

▪  sempre: “always”; used with other musical commands to keep their effects constant, as in sempre accentato: “accentuation throughout.”

▪  senza: “without”; used to clarify other musical commands, as in senza espressione: “without expression.”

▪  senza misura / senza tempo: “without measure / time”; indicates that a song or passage may be played without regards to rhythm or tempo; to have rhythmic freedom. See rubato.

▪  senza sordina / sordine: “without mutes [dampers]”; to play with the sustain pedal depressed, so the dampers have no muting effect on the strings (dampers are always touching the strings unless lifted with the sustain or sostenuto pedals).

Note: Sordine is the plural, although sordini is sometimes written.

▪  serioso: “seriously”; to play in a serious, contemplative manner without jest or playfulness; also seen in the descriptive titles of musical compositions, as in the third movement of Ferruccio Busoni's huge Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39, pezzo serioso.

▪  (sfz) sforzando: an indication to make a strong, sudden accent on a note or chord; means subito forzando: “suddenly with force.”. Sometimes written as a note-accent. Similar commands include:

  • (sfp) sforzando piano: to follow a strong accent with (p) piano

  • (sf) subito forte: to suddenly play in (f) forte

▪  (smorz.) smorzando: to gradually slow down and soften the notes until nothing is heard; a diminuendo that fades very slowly, often accompanied by a very gradualritardando.

▪  solenne: “solemn”; to play with quiet reflection; also commonly seen in the titles of musical compositions, as in the first movement of Busoni's Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39 – Prologo e Introito: Allegro, dolce e solenne.

▪  sonata: “played; sounded”; a style of musical composition that usually includes two or more movements, which is written for instruments (or one solo instrument) and not voice.

Originally, two main forms of composition included the sonata (played [with instruments]) and the cantata (sung [with voices]).

 ▪  sonatina is a shorter or less complex sonata.

▪  sopra: “above; over”; often seen in octave commands, such as ottava sopra, which instructs a pianist to play notes an octave higher than written on the staff.

▪  sordina: “mute”; refers to piano dampers, which rest on the strings at all times (unless lifted by a pedal) to limit the duration of their resonance.

▪  sostenuto: “sustained”; the middle pedal on some pianos which is sometimes omitted. (Not to be confused with the sustain pedal, which lifts all the dampers at once.)

The sostenuto pedal allows certain notes to be sustained while other notes on the keyboard are unaffected. It is used by hitting the desired notes, then depressing the pedal. The selected notes will resonate until the pedal is released. This way, sustained notes can be heard alongside notes played with a staccato effect.

Sostenuto as a musical symbol may refer to the tenuto.

▪  spiritoso: “with much spirit”; to play with palpable emotion and conviction; also seen in descriptive titles.

▪  staccatissimo: to play with an exaggerated staccato; to keep notes very detached and brief; marked in the following ways:

  • As triangular accents above or below notes

  • The written term staccatissimo alongside standard staccato marks; common in hand-written compositions.

▪  staccato: to make notes brief; to detach notes from one another so that they do not touch or overlap. This effect on articulation contrasts that of the legato.

Staccato is marked in music with a small black dot placed above or below a note (not to its side like a dotted note).

▪  stretto: “tight; narrow”; to press into quick acceleration; a crowded accelerando. See stringendo.

Stretto pedale can be seen in passages that contain a lot of sustain pedal markings. This instructs the pianist to remain agile on the pedal so that the distinction between pedaled and non-pedaled notes remains clear and crisp.

▪  stringendo: “pressing”; a rushed, nervous accelerando; to hastily increase the tempo in an impatient manner. See affrettando.

▪  subito: “quickly; suddenly.”; used alongside other musical commands to make their effects immediate and abrupt.



Piano Commands T

▪  tasto: “key,” as in a key on the piano keyboard. (A musical key is tonalità.)

▪  tempo: “time”; indicates the speed of a song (the rate at which beats are repeated). Tempo is measured in beats per minute, and is indicated at the beginning of sheet music in two ways:

  1. Metronome marks: ♩ = 76

  2. Tempo terms: Adagio is around 76 BPM

▪  tempo di menuetto: to play “in the tempo of a minuet”; slowly and gracefully.

▪  tempo di valse: “waltz tempo”; a song or passage written with the rhythm of a waltz; 3/4 time with an accent on the downbeat.

▪  : “strict time”; instructs a performer to take no liberties with the rhythm of the music; to play in time exactly as written.

▪  tempo ordinario: “normal, ordinary tempo”; to play in a moderate speed (seetempo comodo).

As a time signature, tempo ordinario refers to 4/4 time, or common time. In this case it is also known as tempo alla semibreve.

▪  tempo primo: “first tempo”; indicates a return to the song's original speed. Often written in sheet music as tempo I. See come prima and a tempo.

▪  tempo rubato: “robbed time.” By itself, rubato indicates that the performer may take liberties with the articulation, dynamics, or overall expressiveness of a song for dramatic effect. However, rubato most commonly affects tempo.

See ad libitum, a piacere, and espressivo.

▪  teneramente: “with tenderness”; to play with delicate care and mindful volume; also con tenerezza. See delicato.

▪  tenuto: “held”; to stress a note's full value; to hold a note without breaking the rhythm of the measure or the normal value of the note. Tenuto can be understood by realizing that, although you may play a note inside its actual length, there are normally very brief breaths in between notes. However, tenuto does not create the effect of alegato, because each note remains distinct. Marked in sheet music with a brief horizontal line above or below the affected notes.

▪  timbro: “timbre”; also known as tone color. Timbre is the specific quality of a voice that makes it unique; the difference between two notes played at the same volume with the same articulation. For example, listening to an electric guitar vs. an acoustic, or a bright upright piano compared to a massive concert grand, the difference you're observing is timbre.

▪  tonalità: a musical key; a group of notes on which a musical scale is based. A piano key is tasto.

▪  tono: “[whole] tone”; refers to the common interval consisting of two semitones; awhole step (M2). Also called seconda maggiore.

▪  tranquillo: “tranquilly”; to play in a relaxed manner; calmly.

▪  : “three strings”; indication to release the soft pedal (which is also called the una corda pedal); to end the effects of the soft pedal.

The una corda, meaning “one string,” works to soften volume by allowing only one string per key to resonate. Since most pianos keys have three strings each, tre cordeindicates a return to all strings.

▪  tremolo: “trembling; shaking.” In piano music, a tremolo is executed by repeating one note or chord as rapidly as possible (not always at a loud or obvious volume) to sustain pitch and prevent note decay.

Tremolo is indicated in sheet music with one or more slashes through the note stem. A single slash indicates the note should be played with eighth-note divisions; two slashes indicates sixteenth-note divisions, and so on. The length of the main note explains the total duration of the tremolo.

▪  tristamente / tristezza: “sadly; sadness”; to play with an unhappy, melancholy tone; with great sorrow. May also refer to a musical composition with a sad character, usually in a minor key. See con dolore.

▪  troppo: “too [much]”; usually seen in the phrase non troppo, which is used with other musical commands; for example, rubato, ma non troppo: “take liberties with the tempo, but not too much.”

▪  tutta forza: “with all your force”; to play a note, chord, or passage with an extremely heavy accent.



Piano Commands U

▪  una corda: “one string.” The una corda pedal is used to enhance the timbre of softly-played notes, and helps exaggerate a low volume. The soft pedal should be used with notes that are already played softly, and will not produce the desired effect on louder notes. See tre corde.



Piano Commands V

▪  valoroso: “with valor”; to portray a brave and courageous character; to indicate a strong, prominent volume and tone.

▪  vigoroso: “with vigor”; to play with great enthusiasm and force.

▪  vivace: “lively”; indication to play in a very quick, upbeat tempo; faster thanallegro but slower than presto.

▪  vivacissimo: “very quick and full of life”; to play extremely fast; faster thanvivace but slower than prestissimo.

▪  vivo: “lively; with life”; to play with a very quick and lively tempo; similar to allegrissimo; faster than allegro but slower than presto.

▪  (V.S.) volti subito: “turn [the page] suddenly.” In piano music, this command instructs a pianist's assistant to be an alert sight-reader and keep up with the fast-paced music being played.


Piano Commands Z

▪  zeloso: “zealous”; to play with zeal and eagerness; most likely to be seen in the title of a musical composition, although it remains rare.



Forming Piano Chords
 ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
 ▪  Left Hand Chords With Fingering
 ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
 ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance
 ▪  Different Types of Arpeggiated Chords

Piano Care & Maintenance
 ▪  Best Piano Room Conditions
 ▪  How to Clean Your Piano
 ▪  Safely Whiten Your Piano Keys
 ▪  Signs of Piano Damage
 ▪  When To Tune Your Piano