One fun way to learn Italian is to learn songs written in Italian; not only is it an effective way of learning, but it also gives you a window on Italian culture.
Opera and Classical Music
For many years, Italian was the standard language of opera, so even Germans wrote operas in Italian. The language is sometimes old-fashioned/stilted/poetic (for example, they tend to use Voi as a singular "you" and leave off the final "e" in verbs so that cantare ("to sing") becomes cantar) but it is nevertheless quite similar to the modern language. Here are some classic, popular songs from opera and other classical music:
- La Dona è mobile from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi - where the Duke of Mantua complains about how women are fickle; Luciano Pavarotti performs an outstanding version of this song. Lyrics and translation.
- Largo al Factotum from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) by Rossini - known for its "Figaro, figaro, figaro!" patter, in this classic aria Figaro, the eponymous barber of Seville, complains that he is overwhelmed by customers desiring his services, especially when it comes to matchmaking. Lyrics and translation.
- Nessun dorma from Turandot by Giacomo Puccini - nobody sings this tenor showcase like Pavarotti.
- Madamina, il catalogo è questo from Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart - in this fun "catalogue aria," Leporello lists the exploits of his master, Don Giovanni; see a great version sung by Stefano De Peppo
- Libiam ne' lieti calici from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi - this Brindisi or "Drinking Song" is a classic duet.
- Duettino Sull'Aria from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by W. A. Mozart - you may remember this as the song that is played over the prison loudspeakers in The Shawshank Redemption. Ironically, although Morgan Freeman's character says "I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words...", the two women are actually singing about luring a man into a trap to expose his infidelity!
- O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. Lyrics and translation.
- Con te Partirò - technically not "classical" (it was written in 1995) but popularized by classical tenor Andrea Bocelli, this beautiful love song (lyrics and translation) also has a bilingual English-Italian version called "Time to Say Goodbye." The Spanish-language version, "Por ti Volare," was featured in the movie Stepbrothers.
Traditional and Folk
The following are older, "classic" Italian songs. See this Italian folk music page for more lyrics.
- Italian National Anthem - otherwise known as L'Inno di Mameli ("Mameli's hymn") or Il Canto degli Italiani ("The Song of the Italians"). See a more thorough translation and a moving version sung by a 9 year old for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. It was (controversially) used in a sock commercial with slightly altered lyrics.
- Bella Ciao - this moving song about the Partisans (anti-Fascist resistance fighters during World War II) is popular at soccer games....and for some reason, revered by some Communists.
- Arrivederci Roma - this song about saying "Goodbye (to) Rome" is considered a classic; Mario Lanza sings it in The Seven Hills of Rome.
- Parlami d'amore Mariù - a love song written in 1932; it features in two commercials for Dolce and Gabbana's "Light Blue" fragrance, both filmed at the Capri Faraglioni sea mounts; lyrics and translation (also lyrics and (partial) translation).
- Nel blu dipinto di blu - otherwise known as "Volare," this 1958 song by Domenico Modugno has been covered dozens of times; the best known such cover in the States is the Gypsy Kings' Spanish-Italian version. Lyrics and translation.
- Tu Scendi dalle Stelle - one of the few "native" (not translated from another language, like Astro del Ciel (from Silent Night/Stille Nacht), Il Tamburino (from The Little Drummer Boy), Gesù Bambino (from Adeste Fidelis)) traditional Christmas songs in Italian. Other Christmas carols: La Canzone di Zampagnone, Dormi dormi bel Bambin and Mille Cherubini in Coro.
- Una Lacrima sul Viso - a song by Elvis-like Bobby Solo, which became a worldwide hit in 1964; it's about two people who have been in love with each other but didn't realize it was requited until one noticed "a tear upon your face".
Rock and Pop Music
The following are more popular songs you might hear on the radio, especially on Kiss Kiss Italia; you can check out which songs are popular in Italy at the Italy Top 20 listing, MTV's Hitlist Italia, or Euro200's Italy Top 50 list. Many lyrics are translated on allthelyrics.com
- Various Artists - Domani 21 Aprile - a benefit song with an all-star lineup produced to aid victims of the 2009 earthquake in Abruzzo. It's like the Italian version of "We are the World". See Deirdre Straughan's great website for lyrics and translation (alternate version here).
- Giorgia - Di sole e d'azzurro - "the sun and blue sky," a beautiful song with a beautiful performance at the 2001 Sanremo festival
- Gianna Nannini - Salvami - a cry for help ("Save me"), this song ranges from low and gravel-y to high and soaring.
- Giusy Ferreri - was the first winner of the Italian version of X Factor (like American Idol), with a low Amy Winehouse-like voice; she has had several hits:
- Non ti scordar mai di me - literally "Don't you ever forget about me"; its refrain is "non è un piccolo particulare," known by some Americans (okay, maybe just Kendall) as "the Licola song". Lyrics and translation.
- Novembre - "November", a defiant and somewhat sad song. Lyrics and translation.
- Stai Fermo Lì - "Stop Right There", an angry but catchy song.
- Come Pensi Possa Amarti
- Ma il cielo è sempre più blu - a 2009 remake of a song originally recorded by Rino Gaetano in 1975. The original appears in a patriotic advertisement for Monte dei Paschi di Siena (a bank).
- Noemi - famous for calling Berslusconi her "daddy," leading to speculation that she was his illegitimate daughter
- Luciano Ligabue - a rock guitarist and singer who has some cool tunes
- Zero Assoluto - this duet ("absolute zero"--perhaps they studied physics?) has had a few hits:
- Per dimenticare
- Cos'è Normale
- Jovanotti - Lorenzo Cherubini is a rapper/singer with various world influences
- Alessandra Amoroso - Senza Nuvole, a little whiny but catchy
- Alex Britti - Buona Fortuna - a song with a Jazzy beat Lyrics and translation.
- Eros Ramazzotti - Parla Con Me - many of Ramazzotti's songs sound whiny but this one is catchy
- Raf - Per Tutto Il Tempo - fun song with a driving beat, talks about love "for all time"
- Gemelli Diversi - Vivi per un miracolo - the biggest hit from these Italian rappers, with the refrain "c'e l'hai un attimo per me?" ("Do you have a moment for me?")
- Fabrizio Moro - Pensa - an inspiring anti-Mafia song
- Marco Carta - won the 2009 San Remo Festival with the song "La Forza Mia"; he followed that up with the catchy "Dentro ad ogni brivido"
- Marco Mengoni - Dove si vola - another X Factor winner (sounds like a girl!)
- Fiorella Mannoia - Ho Imparato a Sognare - a 2009 cover of a 1997 song by Negrita; an inspirational song, it talks about how "I learned to dream" early in life. (Partial) lyrics and translation.
- Sal da Vinci - Il Mercante di Stelle is a love song with hokey lyrics about a guy giving "the most beautiful stars in the heavens to she who opens her heart to me"...but it will stick in your head forever!
- Ron e Tosca - Vorrei Incontrarti Fra Cent’Anni - a song that reminds me of Extreme's "More than Words"
- Toto Cutugno - L'italiano - a song that won the Sanremo music festival in the 80s, which references various Italian stereotypes
Many of the songs Americans consider to be "Italian" are actually Neapolitan songs, in the distinct Neapolitan language. The following are some of the most famous Neapolitan songs (Canzoni Napoletane):
This song about how "you want to be American" was originally performed by Renato Carosone (on the left), known to Americans after its appearance in The Talented Mr Ripley. More recently, it was sampled in the 2010 hit by Australians Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP, "We No Speak Americano" (music video). Lyrics and translation. This song is also a funny example of the "mammone" (roughly "mamma's boy") stereotype of Italian men who stay dependent on their mothers well into adulthood.
"Soul and Heart," another wistful Neapolitan song in which the singer begs his now-distant lover to come close again, explains the joke behind Anema e Cono (a gelateria in Pozzuoli) and Anema e Cozze (a restaurant near Castel dell'Ovo in the Santa Lucia district). Beautiful version by Roberto Murolo (on the left). Lyrics and translation.
"Black Tambourine Dance," tells the story of a half-Black, half-Italian boy growing up in Naples, whose father was an American GI. The tammuriata is a traditional Southern Italian dance, much like the tarantella ("tarantula dance"). Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare plays this song with a lot of energy (on the left). What is that farting noise in the background?! It's a traditional Neapolitan instrument called a putipù!
- Maruzzella - This haunting song, about a man standing on a beach calling after his former lover, Maruzzella, is sung beautifully by Massimo Ranieri. Lyrics and translation.
- A Città 'e Pulecenella - an unofficial anthem for the city (here performed by Sal da Vinci), written by Claudio Mattone, explains "How beautiful is the City of Pulcinella". Lyrics with a translation in (standard) Italian. The lyrics do a great job of describing Naples' 1000 contradictions, such as contrasting the beauty and glory of the city with the disrespectful behavior of "a handful of ruffians" (a veiled reference, I think, to the Camorra), joking that the only time when downtown has no traffic is at 5 AM, and asking whether people disobey laws because "that's how it's always been done" or just out of spite!
- Vesuvio - a more modern Neapolitan song by a group called Spaccanapoli, done in the style of a tammuriata, which was used in an episode of The Sopranos. It talks about the mountain menacing the population around it.
- Core 'ngrato - A song to a former lover about her "ungrateful heart." Lyrics and translation.
- Dicitencello vuje - one of the Neapolitan songs in the Three Tenors' repertoire (along with 'O Sole Mio); see Sound of Thuder's blog post for lyrics, translation, clips, and more (I personally think it sounds a lot like The Godfather Waltz from the movie trilogy)
See Italamerica.org to learn about more Neapolitan songs.
There are a handful of songs that Americans think of being "Italian" but were actually written by Americans; still, they are still fun (and popular with Italians and Italian Americans alike):
Jeff Matthews' Naples: Life, Death & Miracles has an article explaining the phenomenom of the "pseudo-Neapolitan song"