Italian Words, Form, and Dynamics in Modern Music

Why not just say “get louder” instead of “crescendo”?

Why not just say “slow down” instead of “ritardando”?

Italian Words in Music

The Italian words that we use in music only exist because of the classical canon and the dawn of standardized Western staff notation. The Italian counterparts of these straightforward words are only relevant in a classical or jazz setting where sheet music is the staple. Outside of that, say in a popular setting, where sheet music is rare, there is no need for them. Speed up, and slow down are pretty clear and need no explanation. In fact, in popular musics, these Italian terms are just simply not used. Many times there are other words used to replace these Italian ones, but there are also terms that are exclusive to popular styles.

The Italian words that we use in music only exist because of the classical canon and the dawn of standardized Western staff notation.  The Italian counterparts of these straightforward words are only relevant in a classical or jazz setting where sheet music is the staple. Outside of that, say in a popular setting, there is no need for them. Speed up, and slow down are pretty clear and need no explanation.  In fact, in popular musics, these Italian terms are just simply not used. Many times there are other words used to replace these Italian ones, but there are also terms that are exclusive to popular styles
Italian Words, Form, and Dynamics in Modern Music

Steve Holley compiled a short list of musical terms that exist in popular styles, and many would never be uttered in a traditional or classical setting. He wrote a post for NAfME called “The Popular Music Ensemble Cheat Sheet.” It is a good overview of some of the terms you would come across. In his book “Coaching a Popular Music Ensemble” the appendix has a much more exhaustive list of terms typically used when coaching popular ensembles.

Some terms that I find myself using a lot are:

  • Groove – the overall feel of a song and whether everyone in the group is playing together as a tight group.
  • Pocket – sometimes used interchangeably with groove. It also takes into account the places inside and around the beat. We usually think of the beat as not a fluid substance, but in popular situations where rhythm is paramount, beat can be played with. You can lay on the back side of the beat or on the front (or top) side of the beat.
  • Push – an anticipation.
  • Blow – used to mean “take a solo.” It likely evolved from horn playing but is used for piano, guitar, and drums too.
  • Birdseye – a fermata.
  • Shots – usually used as a horn term to mean a single short accented (stacatto) note. Sometimes two shots can be used.
  • Pads – this is a keyboard term that typically uses pads as an effect to fade into the background and are usually held notes. Horn players who play long tones underneath the mix can be described as playing pads too.
  • Fill – when a drummer sets up the band before the next section. Usually between two and four beats long and commonly played at the end of a four or eight-beat phrase. Bass players have been known to play fills too.
  • Four to the floor – straight up rock pattern in 4/4 time.
  • Bring it down – bring the overall volume level down.
  • Doit – a horn term that describes the technique of sliding up to an indeterminate pitch.
  • Turn – this is used in baroque and classical music too but it is performed slightly differently in a jazz or popular tune. They are much more fluid and may or may not have specific pitches to them.
  • Fall – sliding down to an indeterminate pitch almost always at the end of a phrase.
  • Growl – vocal distortion and can be performed on horns too using a flutter tonging technique.
  • Vox – short for vocals.

Song Form

Traditionally, when talking about form in popular music, the form AABA is typically what is accepted. This is not entirely true. Popular music has very distinct forms that are different from, say a 32-bar form that the AABA form is typically associated with. Describing it as AABA is both too broad, and not clear enough to describe a typical popular song. The terms are different, and that’s okay, because the music is different. Here some terms that are commonly used to describe form of a popular song:

Intro – The beginning of the song. It could set up the chord progression for the song or present the listener with a the main riff of the song (a-la “The Final Countdown”), but either way, it is an introduction for the song.

Pre-verse – happens usually before the verse, sometimes in every verse sometimes only the second one. It could be a short melodic lick to lead into the verse. Pre-verses are quite rare but my band, The Sidewalks, commonly inserted them into our songs to help transition back into the verse and set the mood for those sections.

Verse – the part of the song that develops the poetry in the music, or progresses the story of the song and is typically void of “hooks.”

Pre-chorus – some songs insert these before the chorus. They are not chorus material and not verse material. However, they can be commonly associated with the second half of the verse. The lyrics are typically the same for every occurrence of the pre-chorus, but may change slightly. Sometimes the chord progression will change for the pre-chorus, sometimes it will not. A great example of a song with pre-choruses is “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne.

Chorus – the main theme of the song, typically with the same lyrics each time. It is usually the most easily recognizable section in a song. Sometimes the chord progression with change, sometimes it will not.

Bridge – This is a section of a song that is different than the rest of the music. It can be a solo break for an instrument, it could be a rhythmic development of the theme or it could be anything to change it up a bit for the listener. It could be a whole new development in the story of the song with completely different chords.

Outro – Not every song has an outro. They were common in the 80s on studio recordings where fade outs were typically used as a way to end the song in the studio. It is the opposite of an intro and if you think about it as and “outroduction” or “outrolude” (which are actually never used) then it makes sense.

A good chunk of songs have all of these parts, while others at least have a verse and a chorus. For the most part, the form of a song will go like this:

Intro–Verse 1–[pre-chorus]–Chorus–[pre-verse]–Verse 2–[pre-chorus]–Chorus–Bridge–[Verse 3]–Chorus–Chorus–[outro]

*square brackets are commonly omitted

A song that fits this form really well is A-ha’s “Take on Me” (minus the pre-verses, and the pre-choruses) with the typical 80s outro.

What are Dynamics Anyway?

We all know what dynamics are, right? Maybe not. In traditional instrumental and choral music, dynamics are the differences between the louds and the softs. Some call it a change in intensity of the sound. This can be applied to many popular ensembles that typically use acoustic instruments like drum set, or horns as well.

When electronic instruments and recorded musics are involved, dynamics become a little more complex. In any artform, if something is dynamic it is considered interesting, changing over time (like a dynamic character in a book) which take into account a number of different factors. Ethan Hein of NYU has an article explaining this phenomenon. Since intensity, in electronic music, can be reproduced with sound effects and other tricks, this is one reason dynamics becomes more…dynamic?…in recorded music. For example, amp distortion, on an electric guitar can be produced by turning everything up and distorting the speaker to the point of overload. Now, distortion can be reproduced with an effects pedal, giving the illusion of intensity. So, dynamics actually take into account timbral changes and adding other effects could also be considered a dynamic change as opposed to textural.

Consider, too, that some forms of distortion on electric guitars are simply not able to produce differences in loud and soft. Playing heavier on an electric guitar with distortion sometimes makes very little difference.

Loud and Soft? or High and Low?

As classically trained music educators we are taught to understand dynamics in a traditional sense; that loud and soft is always volume or intensity, and that high and low is always pitch. However, it may not be as clear cut as you think. When describing dynamics and pitch in recorded music–and many times, live popular settings too–the words “high” and “low” can refer to both volume and pitch.

A commonly used phrase in describing a sound in a recording or in a live setting is, “that [insert instrument or sound] is much too low in the mix,” meaning that the particular sound is too quiet and needs to be turned “up.” Another commonly-heard phrase is “that mic/instrument is really hot” or “that mic/instrument is way too high.” Both of these essentially mean that they are turned up too ‘high’ or that the gain levels needs to be adjusted. So when your learners describe a sound as “too high” when they mean “too loud,” they aren’t necessarily wrong to use that term.

The Outro

The Italian words we typically use in music to describe how to perform a passage just simply do not apply in popular settings. There are a number of terms used to describe many of the same things and many other techniques and concepts that do not come up in classical settings. As well, common definitions that we associate with music are not necessarily the same across genres.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

What are the terms that you use?

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