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Italian word of the day: 'Piano'

Elaine Allaby
Elaine Allaby - [email protected]
Italian word of the day: 'Piano'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

When is a piano not a piano?


Musicians will know that what anglophones call a ‘piano’ here in Italy is often referred to by its full name, pianoforte – literally, a soft-loud, because it can do both.

And we’ve previously talked about using piano or piano piano as an adverb to mean softly, gently, slowly, or little by little.

But did you know that the noun piano has multiple other meanings besides that of a musical instrument?

To start with, a piano can be a 'plan' (after a while of studying Italian you’ll notice a pattern of replacing our pl’s with pi’s, or vice versa – so a plaza is a piazza and a plate a piatto, etc.).

Non devono scoprire il piano.
They mustn't discover the plan.

The second meaning of piano you should know is ‘floor’. Not literally the floor (for that you want pavimento) but storeys in a building: a primo piano is the first floor, secondo piano the second floor, etc.

Vive al terzo piano con Lorenzo.
She lives on the third floor with Lorenzo.

Note that Italy uses European floor numbering, so the primo piano is the first floor off the ground. Ground level is piano terra – literally, ground floor.


Finally, piano has various technical meanings in the fields of photography and cinematography to denote different types of shots and framing.

A piano americano – American shot – is what is known in English as a cowboy shot. It frames the subject from the knees or mid-thigh up to their head, and is so called because it was widely used in Westerns to make sure the cowboy’s holster got into the frame.

The version you’re most likely to come across outside of a film shoot is the primo piano – in this context meaning not ‘first floor’ but ‘close up’.

I first encountered this one while teaching myself Italian by watching the comedy series Boris, about the antics of the cast and crew behind the hammy medical soap opera Gli occhi del cuore 2 (‘Eyes of the Heart 2’).

Userò gli occhi del cuore – I will use the eyes of the heart,” the theme song goes, “per capire i tuoi segreti, per capire cosa pensi, nei tuoi primi piani intensi… to learn your secrets, to learn what you’re thinking, in your intense close-ups”.

So if you’ve got a plan to take a close-up of your piano – il piano di fare un primo piano del piano – you could find yourself in for quite the scioglilingua (tonguetwister).

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