Do you dream of singing in Italian, but fear that it might be too complicated or only reserved for the advanced singer? Well, consider that myth debunked! Despite the countless genres of music and singing styles that exist in musical literature today, very few things are as timeless as the Italian art song.
What is an art song?
As defined by the Cincinnati Song Initiative, an art song is a vocal music composition that is written for a solo voice and piano accompaniment. Art song is the genre for these types of compositions. Many times, art songs are performed in a recital style with a singer and pianist.
Another element of art song is the text; in art song, the text comes from a piece of poetry that is then set to music by the composer. In this way, an art song is very approachable as opposed to an entire opera, musical, or other large work of music.
Why do we study and sing in Italian?
Italian is referred to as a romance language, and it is a very easy language to sing in because of its Latin origin. In fact, many singers who travel to Italy find that just speaking warms them up to sing since Italian is such a naturally musical language!
Italian contains just seven vowel sounds, compared to English which has fourteen vowel sounds. Unlike English, Italian is less-subject to regionalism and contains much purer vowels due to the absence of what is called a “diphthong,” which simply is a term that refers to words that have multiple vowel sounds or a glide in the word. For example, the words “aisle,” “toy,” and “fine” are all examples of a diphthong. The omission of these sounds plus these bright and clear vowel sounds mentioned above make Italian a perfect language for singing.
The nature of pure vowels in Italian helps singers of all abilities find a free and relaxed vocal production. In many ways, going back to the basics solves a lot of vocal concerns, and in the case of the Italian language and singing technique, we can work on these vocal techniques and then apply that vocal knowledge to all genres.
Italian singing style & historical considerations:
Italian singing can be attributed to many different historical practices when discussing the history of singing. One of the most substantial was the “bel canto technique.” This is typically discussed as the ideal operatic singing technique, however, this also applies to art songs and other genres as “bel canto” directly translates to “beautiful singing.” The term bel canto refers to the notion that the beauty of the singing voice is the most important element of good singing. In other words, the singing and sounds speak for themselves.
If you want to learn more about bel canto specifically, here is a great article on bel canto on the TakeLessons blog.
You can practice bel canto with exercises from a singing teacher or with some of the famous books of vocal exercises that were mentioned in this article on melismatic singing that I recently wrote for the TakeLessons blog.
If you’re interested in additional resources, you can look at not only the Marchesi method but also the Vaccai and Garcia methods.
Italian is an excellent language for teaching resonance, vowel placement, and legato, among other things. Additionally, Italian art songs can help a singer solidify and apply the concepts of breath connection, phrasing, and chiaroscuro; an Italian-term meaning “light-dark,” which singers use to discuss the balance between having a rich vocal sound with just enough brightness.
Ready to get started?
Thankfully, there are many different books and compiled resources that you can access when studying Italian repertoire. Here are some of the most popular and approachable:
- 24 Italian Songs and Arias (Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics)
This book was the first one that many singers start with when working with a singing teacher or studying themselves, and there is a good reason for it! This book is the definition of “the greatest hits” when it comes to Italian songs.
- 26 Italian Songs and Arias (Alfred Music Edition)
This book is an edition that was compiled after the 24 Italian Songs and Arias; it includes a few extra songs, but it also has more resources for singers to learn their text and includes possible ornamentation ideas you can add. This book includes “the greatest hits” and a few extra songs.
- 28 Italian Songs and Arias (Schirmer)
This book includes great composer biographies and also includes text resources for singers. This book even includes a great amount of historical information for the songs that are included. This book does not include as many “greatest hits” but has some different repertoire.
- Gateway to Italian Songs and Arias (Alfred Music Edition)
This book includes additional pieces not found in some of the books listed earlier, still accessible by beginners.
Some music learning tips:
1) Use resources to learn the text if you do not speak Italian.
- This can be often purchased alongside the books listed above, or found on YouTube. If you are able to read transcriptions of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) then utilize those skills here.
- Pay extra close attention to open/closed vowels, word stress, single vs double consonants, and flipped vs. rolled [r]
2) Learn the text first and speak the text in rhythm before learning the musical pitches.
- As mentioned above, Italian is a naturally legato, connected language. Feel that connection before moving forward with singing. In other words, “sing” the Italian without the music.
3) Once you learn the pitches, work with a piano track.
- Listening to the piano accompaniment can help tremendously for the singer to feel supported when singing. Many tracks can be purchased with the books mentioned above or found on YouTube in your desired musical key.
4) Play with musical dynamics and dramatic ideas
- When it comes to art song, there really are no rules.
Finally, and above all, have fun and enjoy your Italian and vocal studies! There is so much beautiful repertoire in the history of Italian compositions. Good luck!