Darling! Delighted to lean together until the dawn is livid with mist!
Wait, wait! Come back!
I guess it sounded better in Italian.
That line, “s’appoggi pure volentieri fino all’alba livida di bruma,” is from a song by Vinicio Capossela (see below), and I’m holding onto it for an evening in Rome, when I’m walking hand in hand with some future Italian sweetheart after a long, heavy dinner.
You can use it too, and learn lots more lovely—and overwrought—phrases by listening to Italian music. This post is here to launch you into that bewildering world.
Not only can you learn romantic phrases, but you can get tons of practice with the Italian language just by tuning in.
Why Learn Italian with Songs?
Music is great for acquiring more than just melodramatic bluster (although let’s face it, that’s a large reason that many of us want to learn Italian). Italian songs can expose you to all sorts of grammatical structures—phrasal verbs and conjugations, for example—and these are much easier to commit to memory with a melody attached.
The essential conflict for most learners in approaching Italian popular music is that the more interesting stuff tends to be too complex lyrically to follow when you’re starting out. On the other hand, the easier music tends to be what Italians call canzonacce (trashy pop songs—which are nevertheless culturally important). The playlist below tries to give you a bit of both worlds.
I put the following playlist together with musically-savvy Italian friends; it covers some of the great performers who are considered essential to the Italian pop world, and a few really cool up-and-comers.
We’ll start with the easiest tunes, so intermediate and advanced learners who are looking for a challenge might want to skip down towards the second half of this post. However, all of these songs are worth knowing!
Also, if you’re all about learning Italian with songs, then FluentU has something to offer for you!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU’s diverse video catalog includes Italian songs and music videos, but with a special twist. Each video comes with interactive captions that will teach you Italian vocabulary, so you can be singing the lyrics of some awesome hits while learning the language at the same time!
Now let’s talk tunes!
Learn Italian with Songs: 7 Wonderfully Melodramatic Tunes You’ll Love Singing
1. “La Cura” (The Cure) by Franco Battiato
As unbelievably sappy as this song can seem to foreigners, my Italians love it.
And, in any case, Franco Battiato is a musical hero in Italy, so if you want to speak the language you must at least be able to recognize the name when he comes up in conversations. “È un mito soltanto italiano,” I have been told, meaning that he’s a hero only to Italians.
The lyrics deal with how devoted the singer is to the objects of his affections. He will relieve her from pain, her mood swings, her obsessions and her delusions. How sweet.
2. “Il Pianto di una Madre” (The Cry of a Mother) by Irene Conti
This song by the lush-voiced Irene Conti doesn’t have too much tricky vocabulary, but knowing the themes involved can make it easier to get a handle on. The lyrics are on-screen in the video, and you can also get the full lyrics in the notes if you click over to YouTube.
It certainly seems at first that she’s singing about a woman holding her dying child (una madre sta gridando perché il figlio sta morendo — a mother is screaming because her son is dying).
And things get worse: people are complicity watching and the sacrificato (sacrificed one) is eaten as meat.
It turns out that we’re dealing with everyday meat-eating as seen from a rather vegetarian perspective here.
This message becomes clear in the last line, “vivere l’uomo come tale/come ogni altro animale.” (Man living like this/Like any other animal.) I’ve always found the irony in vegetarianism to be exactly there; we think we’re peers with other animals, therefore we can’t eat bear to eat them, but then if we remove ourselves from this natural process to become vegetarian, we think we in fact do have a moral superiority to animals.
Whatever the case, this song clearly wants to mesh our feelings about humans and animals.
3. “Buonanotte Fiorellino” (Good Night Little Flower) by Francesco De Gregori
This catchy lullaby could be sung to a baby, a lover or just, as the name suggests, a flower.
The lyrics are great to learn from because you get a lot of very simple vocabulary, though sometimes in diminutive form—fiorellino instead of fiore (flower), monetina instead of moneta (coin). The Italian diminutive comes into play frequently when you want to be cutesy, or of course just to talk about something being small or less consequential.
4. “Venderò” (I Will Sell) — Edoardo Bennato
The lyrics of this Bob Dylan-esque tune seem resigned to a capitalist world where everything can and will be sold.
The Italian future tense is in play (venderò is the first-person future of vendere, to sell), so at least this hasn’t happened yet. But a lot of things are headed for the auction block, from my shoes (le mie scarpe) to my craziness (la mia pazzia) to my defeat (la mia sconfitta).
In a world where everything has its price, at the end the singer says no one knows quanto costa la mia libertà (how much my freedom costs). Or, it’s possible to interpret this line as “my freedom is really exhausting/a drag” because mi costa can be used to talk about things that are wearing on you.
While the vocabulary remains pretty simple throughout, there’s a lot more to enjoy and to take apart in this song. Here’s a few hints on the trickier points:
- The first stanza calls up an image à la Pinocchio of a shop mannequin coming to life. The word manichino can also mean any inanimate figure, like “dummy.”
- An automa on the other hand is animate, but still lifeless: a robot. There are a lot of non-thinking entities in this capitalist universe, aren’t there?
- Raffaele is a Neapolitan version of “John Doe,” a blank whoever. The term throughout the rest of Italy is Mario Rossi.
- The line “non ha fatto il soldato ma ha girato” (he didn’t serve as a soldier but he traveled) had confused me until it was explained that, a number of decades back, the only way that many Italian men left their home city was through their military service. This was such a part of common culture that fare il soldato was almost synonymous with getting out to see the world (or at least other parts of Italy). This idea no longer applies.
5. “Amarsi un Po'” (Loving Each Other a Little) — Lucio Battisti
The lyrics to this song are pretty approachable.
Love is tricky; Lucio Battisti compares it to flying. “Per diventare noi, veramente noi, uniti, indivisibili, vicini, ma irraggiungibili.” (In order to become us, truly us, united, indivisible, close, but unattainable.)
You can use all of the song’s great adjectives to talk about your own life and loves. “È bella perché è irraggiungibile” (she’s beautiful because she’s unattainable) is something I found myself saying last week, recalling this song. I had a special Italian someone in mind, but I’m pretty sure that the phrase could apply to a lot of Italian someones.
6. “Che cos’è l’amor” (What Is Love?) — Vinicio Capossela
And we’re back to the song I mentioned in the introduction, whose lyrics ask what love is, then suggest we might as well ask the wind (il vento), the wardrobe (la guardarobiera) or the door (la porta).
It all seems rather hopeless, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the night and dawn (livid with mist!) together.
You’ll see the title (an abbreviated form of the standard che cosa è l’amore? — literally, what thing is love?) spelled a number of ways on the Internet, particularly with a double ss, as in the video title above. This isn’t surprising, as Capossela pronounces it with a hissed s instead of a z sound; this happens in some parts of Italy, and among some speakers.
The refrain “sono il re della cantina” translates as “I am the king of the wine cellar.” This can mean either that I really know my wines, or that I am a drunk.
7. “Voglio una pelle splendida” (I want beautiful skin) — Afterhours
The lyrics for this rock ballad could be interpreted in a few ways, but it’s definitely not an ode to moisturizers.
The key line to me is “voglio un pensiero superficiale/che renda la pelle splendida” (I want a superficial thought/that makes the skin beautiful).
There’s something beautiful in the superficial, the skin-deep, isn’t there? Or at least, such thoughts are much less terrifying and painful than those of deep, true love. After all, “l’amore [è] un rogo” (love [is] a bonfire/pyre), as the song tells us.
Each of the artists above has a world of other music to explore, and you can often find the lyrics for pop songs to help you study by searching for the name of the song plus testo (lyrics).
Particularly useful for Italian learners is the site LyricsTranslate.com, where users can submit their own translations for pop songs. There’s a large community of Italians on the site for whatever reason, and they love nothing better than to try to translate their favorite songs into English. Some of the translations are a bit messy, but then you can always submit your own version once you feel you’ve really gotten into the meaning of a song.
Another resource worth checking out is the celebrated blog of Piero Scaruffi, an Italian who writes in both English and Italian about rock and lots of other music; his guide to the history of Italian rock is a particularly good place to start your discoveries in the Italian musical universe.
Mose Hayward writes about music, languages, and 20-minute-road to noncommunicative fluency.