Italian has historically been the gold standard, but Mahler and Beethoven used German quite a bit, and French composers have used their language for a long time. David Gillingham once told me that sticking with one language is preferred, and most of the time I've used Italian (using Google Translate in case I wanted a specific mood).

What is most common in new music?

  • 1
    If you want to stick with Italian, you won't beat this direction written by a (nominally English) composer whose parents were a Sicilian opera-singer, and an Indian engineer who became a religious guru: " Non si deve usare qui il maledetto legato d’organista da chiesa anglicana" - "Don't play this in a stinking legato fashion like an English church organist" (!!!)
    – user19146
    May 26, 2016 at 0:44

2 Answers 2


I think that the standard Italian markings and terms (tempo marks (and the word "tempo" itself), dynamics, and articulations at the very least) are so ingrained into our musical language that we don't even think of them as Italian. In a sense, "legato" is the word for "smooth and connected" in the language of music, which is merely borrowed from Italian.

With that in mind, while I would agree that mixing languages is to be avoided, I think there's nothing wrong with marking your piece "allegro", indicating "cresc.", but then using "angrily" or some other uncommon style indication. Grainger is known for translating all of the common Italian markings to English ("louden" instead of "crescendo", "very fast" instead of "molto allegro", etc.), and the result is somewhat jarring to read. As an experienced musician, my brain actually translates these back into the Italian terms to interpret them.

From my experience, I believe this kind of mixture is common in new music, for increased specificity as you describe. And I think it's a failure of communication if you go through the effort to translate to Italian, and then the performer has to translate it back to know what you meant!


One advantage of using Italian is that one can reasonably expect people with different backgrounds to understand the markings. If I write in English, I cannot expect that every Russian, Mexican, Chinese, or Turkish (or whatever) musician will get the meaning at sight. I do expect them to get the Italian at sight (at least the common Italian terms.) These people can expect the same of me.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.