Italian Traditional Music

The multi-cultural origins of Italy’s popular music

A turn of the century hand-colored photo of traditional  “zampognari,”
popular interpreters of Southern and Central Italy’s popular music
(Giorgio Sommer/wikimedia)

We are all very much aware Italy has become a unified country only about a century and a half ago, in 1861, and we are used to consider pre-unification Italy as a political melting pot of states and principalities, often ruled over by foreign powers.

What we may not consider is the cultural influence that such fragmentation had imposed upon the peninsula for centuries, a fragmentation which, in fact, is still mirrored in many forms of local expression, from customs to language, from cuisine to music. Yes, traditional Italian music is not one and unified, but rather multifaceted: influenced greatly by the country’s political subdivision which, as said, helped harboring relatively independent forms of cultural and artistic development, Italian traditional music has also embraced, throughout time, geographically-based differences. Its northern regions, physically part of continental Europe, propose a traditional musical heritage steeped with celtic and slavic tones, especially when it comes to its strong tradition of coral or group singing. This is in stark opposition with the monodic singing style of Southern Italy, well rooted in its ancient Greek heritage. The South’s melodies and sounds are rich in arabic and oriental reminescences, result of centuries and centuries of cultural cross contamination. Traditional music of Central Italy carries both traditions, but has also a marked medieval accent to its compositions, especially those of Tuscany, Lazio and Abruzzo.

Music critics of the past were not always kind to traditional music. Often considered the product of a lesser culture, it lingered in cultural limbo for decades, only to be rediscovered, a bit as it happened with dialects, in relatively recent years, as a precious representation of Italy’s heritage and social history.

Learn here about the most representative and beloved types of Italy’s traditional music, a true mirror to the country’s history and many, varied cultural influences.



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