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The Origin of Musical Notation
Italian Monk Creates System of Syllables

The Origin of Musical Notation > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

When You Know the Notes to Sing, You Can Sing Most Anything
The first phrase of the hymn begins on c and each of the other phrases begins one scale degree higher than its predecessor. Guido discovered that using syllables to teach chants made it possible for his singers to learn new chants more quickly (although he probably didn't expect Julie Andrews to know that either.) Those seven syllables sound remarkably similar to the Italian pronunciation of the same words.

The Italian language also factors into musical notation in other ways. The sound of music is the domain of tempo or the relative speed of a composition. The words to describe tempo are traditionally in Italian and number into the hundreds. When the practice of specifying a particular tempo evolved during the Renaissance, Italy was the center of musical learning. As many musicians came to study the state of the art practices, they carried those advanced practices back to their own countries. Centuries later, Italian remains the universal musical language for tempo and dynamics, among other things.

Tempo markings are found above the score at the beginning of a composition, or above the score where a change is specified. One term or occasionally a few of them is sufficient to not only govern the tempo, but the general mood of the music.

Italian Tempo Marking Vocabulary List
Click to hear the highlighted word spoken by a native speaker.

  • adagio — faster than largo, but still slow and peaceful or thoughtful, sometimes sad
  • adagietto — slightly faster than adagio
  • allegro — fast and/or lively
  • andante — a medium pace, not slow, not fast—sometimes referred to as a walking pace
  • largo — very slow
  • larghissimo — as slow as reasonably possible
  • moderato — a moderate speed, similar to andante
  • presto — very fast
  • prestissimo — as fast as possible
  • accelerando — going faster
  • ritardando — slowing down
  • a tempo — cancels ritardando and accelerando and directs the performer to return to the original speed
Next page > The Hand of Music > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

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