The instrument we know as the piano is called il pianoforte in Italian. What made it special when it was invented was that it could be played both piano (softly) and forte (loudly). Many of us are familiar with these musical terms, but actually, forte and piano are ordinary words (used as both adjectives and adverbs) and much of the time have nothing to do with music.
Francesca is learning to drive, and her instructor is telling her how to use the clutch:
Piano piano, lentamente.
Slowly, slowly, slowly.
BANNER PLACEHOLDER If she had taken off too fast, her instructor might have said:
Rallenta, stai andando troppo forte!
Slow down, you are going too fast!
So just as piano can mean lentamente (slowly), forte is often used to mean veloce (fast). In fact, forte basically means “strong” or “loud.” It can be used to express a strong, positive emotion like, when Lele, upon seeing his new home for the first time, exclaims:
Forte! C'è il giardino con l'erba e tutto. -Ti piace?
Cool! There's a garden with a lawn and everything. -You like it?
Piano can mean “delicately,” “quietly,” or “slowly,” and it’s not always clear which meaning is intended. On the beach at Maratea, three friends are singing a famous Italian song.
Lasciatemi cantare una canzone piano piano
Let me sing a song slowly, slowly [Or: Let me sing a song softly, softly]
Only the songwriter knows for sure!
“Level” is a completely different meaning of piano. In piano refers to level ground. Un piano is something level, like the story of a building. Lele tattles on his neighbor before leaving his old apartment for good:
La moglie di Andrea si bacia in macchina con l'avvocato del quinto piano.
Andrea’s wife smooches in the car with the lawyer from the fifth floor.
Un piano is also a flat surface to work on. In the kitchen you will need a piano di lavoro (countertop) and a piano di cottura (stovetop). Then you will set the table with two kinds of plates that take their names from their shapes: piano (flat) and fondo (deep).
Cominciamo con i piatti: questo è un piatto piano. Poi, c'è il piatto fondo...
Let's begin with the plates, this is a dinner plate. Then, there's the soup plate...
Piani (levels) can have to do with depth, too. When we zoom in with a camera, we will be getting a primo piano (close-up). We can also use piano to discuss priorities, like when Lara is trying to get Commissario Manara to focus on the job at hand:
Le questioni personali vanno messe in secondo piano.
Personal matters should take second place.
And if that weren’t enough, un piano is also “a plan.”
Tranquilli, ho un piano.
Don't worry, I have a plan.
BANNER PLACEHOLDER So if you are playing the piano (pianoforte), talking too loud (troppo forte) or too soft (troppo piano), chopping vegetables on the counter (piano di lavoro), setting the table for dinner (piatti piani), filming a close-up (primo piano) of your cat, talking on a philosophical level (piano filosofico) with your friend, cycling on a flat road (in piano) and going too fast (troppo forte) or too slow (troppo piano) for your companion; if you have a plan (un piano), or even if you just live on the next floor up (al piano di sopra) in an apartment building, then these words are for you.
To get a more complete sense of the uses and nuances of piano
, go to an online dictionary like wordreference
and check out the many examples. Whenever you can, reinforce your vocabulary skills by clicking on the green “Review Vocabulary” button below the video thumbnail.