Italian music traditions reach back into prehistory, and include a wide variety of musical forms, from traditional folk music to classical compositions, opera and rock.
Music is an integral part of Italian life, both in Italy itself and wherever Italians have settled. A quick glance at musical history offers ample evidence of the Italian love affair with this art form:
- Italian composers created the first symphonies, defined the eight-note octave, modified the string quartet and introduced innovations in musical scales, harmony and notation, which still employs traditional Italian terms like adagio, piano, legato and so on.
- Italian craftsmen invented musical instruments like the harpsichord and the bassoon, and refined others like the piano and the violin.
- Italians wrote the first book on dance and staged the first ballet (from the Italian word ballare, meaning 'to dance').
- Italian theatrical traditions such as the Commedia dell'Arte enabled the development of opera.
Here's a quick overview of the various forms of Italian music:
- Italian Folk Music
Each of Italy's 20 regions have developed their own unique musical styles, instruments and dances. Ballads (canti epico lirici) are more common in the north, while lyric songs (canti lirico monostrofici) are popular in southern Italy. Italian folk music also reflects the influences of various invaders, along with styles imported from other countries.
Traditional Italian folk instruments include the piano accordion, flute, and a variety of pipes (ciaramella and piffero), including bagpipes. Many rural communities support a brass band, which typically features clarinet, accordion, violin and drums.
Neapolitan songs are perhaps the most widely known examples of regional music, due to the fact that so many people from this region emigrated to other countries. Sicilian folk music is also performed in many countries where Sicilians have settled.
- Italian Opera
Unlike regional folk music, opera has become associated with an 'Italian' identity, despite originating in the northern city of Florence.
The 17th century was a revolutionary period in the development of European music, as the medieval music disseminated by troubadours gave way to harmonic madrigals and eventually opera. Over the centuries, operatic traditions were developed and refined by Italian composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi.
Italian opera dominated the international opera scene for centuries, until local language operas finally gained acceptance in the 19th century.
- Italian Classical Music
Italian classical music dates from the early 16th century, but it's difficult to separate it from opera because many classical composers wrote both. The most famous examples include Tomaso Albinoni, Francesco Cavalli, Antonio Cesti and Gaetano Donizetti. Other composers are known for their symphonies, concertos and sonatas, including Alessandro Marcello, Niccolò Paganini, Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Vivaldi.
A later form of classical music known as Instrumental Music dates from 1904 when Giuseppe Martucci composed his Second Symphony, initiating a trend away from the operatic style.
But the most popular symphonic music performed in Italy today is still the work of the 19th century Romantic composers, although innovative modern composers such as Luciano Berio, Sylvano Bussotti, Franco Donatoni and Luigi Nono have also inspired a loyal following.
- Sacred Music
Italy is the home of the Roman Catholic Church, which has a rich heritage of musical traditions. Unfortunately, none of its earliest music has survived, barring a few New Testament fragments of hymns and psalms. The Gregorian Chant was an a capella monophonic (single line melody) style of singing developed and performed by monks during the period 800-1000 AD. Along with Renaissance polyphony (or multi-line melodies), it was popular in church services until the early 1800s, when it lost favor to more entertaining music.
In the 1970s, Vatican II saw the demise of Latin-language music in church, with folk style singing replacing it for a time. This thankfully short-lived era was replaced by a return to more traditional hymns sung in the local language.
- Italian Rock/Popular Music
Since the 1950s gave birth to Rock & Roll, the most popular type of music in Italy has been rock music.
And while Italian rock bands don't generally make the charts in English-speaking countries, they enjoy great success within Italy and Europe. Some of the country's most popular rock singers and songwriters include Gianna, Nannini, Zucchero and Vasco Rossi.
Zucchero, in particular, has enjoyed an outstanding career spanning three decades, selling over 40 million records worldwide and collaborating with international artists including Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Miles Davis and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Then there's Ennio Morricone, one of the world's most prolific and influential film composers, whose early work includes the theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. In his 55-year career, Morricone has won numerous international awards, and garnered five Academy Award nominations for Best Music and Original Score.
A substantial number of popular singers from the USA and other English-speaking countries claim Italian ancestry, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Frankie Lane, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Frankie Valli, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna, Steven Tyler and Chris Isaak.
- Italian Rap Music
The development of rap music in Italy was greatly influenced by US rap artists. Today there are a great number of significant rap music scenes in Italy with accompanying fashions and lifestyles similar to those in America. But although the Italian rap beat closely resembles its American counterpart, the lyrics focus on social themes that are uniquely Italian.
It's been said that all Italians love to sing and make music. Some of us still have memories of grandparents clearing the floor after Sunday dinner to dance the tarantella while one of their brothers or cousins played the piano accordion. As the vino flowed and the darkness set in, the more vocally gifted among the gathering might launch into an operatic aria, with any number of enthusiastic volunteers joining in the chorus. Or perhaps the old songs were sung - Aballati or O Sole Mio, or some other traditional melody from the village where they were born. Their philosophy was simple - life was good as long as there was family, work, good food and music.
As the older generation of immigrants passed on, those traditions were lost. We're all too caught up in our modern, sophisticated lives, and most of us would feel faintly embarrassed to witness a scene like this. Times change and that's all fine. But, thanks to modern technology, the music lives on, and at least that's something we can enjoy at any time. Whether we lean towards rap, rock or classical music, Italian music offers something for everyone.
To browse through some of the selections available online, please click on Italian Music.