Listening to Italian music is one of the most consistent pieces of advice I give to students. Looking to enhance your vocabulary and brush up on common grammatical structures? Listen to Italian music. Want to better familiarize yourself with the cadence of the language or its idiomatic expressions? Listen to Italian music. Hoping to learn a bit more about Italian culture? Listen to Italian music. It works for everything.
But when preparing my customary list of recommended artists and songs, I somehow always neglect a musical phenomenon particular to Italian summers: the tormentone estivo.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: a summer hit so widely diffused on the airwaves as to become a “torment” by the summer’s end.
The tormentone has a very specific formula. It must:
1 – be catchy, “orecchiabile” (easy to listen to with little intellectual commitment), and commercial
2 – include an easily recognizable and distinctive beat
3 – be rooted in some form of reggae-ton, trap, or similar style, or contain some Spanish lyrics
4 – display the classic verse-bridge-hook-chorus structure
5 – address summertime themes, including beaches, partying, and — above all — fleeting summer romance.
This year, I have chosen five “tormentoni estivi” to add to your summer playlist (with thanks to good friend and customary collaborator Francesco D’Amico for his personal picks!). And I’ll tell you why, despite how vapid and superficial they may seem to some, they are useful to the foreign language learner.
1.Non mi basta più, Baby K feat. Chiara Ferragni
“Non mi basta più e non ti passa più, ne voglio ancora ….”
This one simple line contains three structures inimical to every learner of Italian as a second language: the use of the verb bastare, the use of indirect object pronouns, and the particella “ne”.
Let’s start with bastare, which is roughly translated in English as “to be enough, to be sufficient.” Can you see where I’m going with this? Italian ‘bastare’ is a verb. But English ‘enough’ is an adjective, pronoun or adverb. You can’t conjugate ‘enough.’ But you can conjugate ‘bastare.’ You must, however, be mindful of two details: a) ’bastare’ is intransitive, which means it doesn’t take a direct object but an indirect one. I can’t get enough, in Italian, becomes ‘It’s not enough for me’ in English; and b) ‘bastare’ is declinable, but can only take two subjects: third persons singular and plural subjects. Something (singular) may be sufficient (to me, to you, to us), or some things (plural) may be sufficient (to me, to you, to us), but hardly ever is ‘bastare’ used to refer to human subjects. You won’t hear Italians saying “basto” or “bastiamo” (I am enough, we are enough). Let’s look at it in another context:
Marta: Hai fame?
Giulio: Sì, prendiamo dei panini al bar.
Marta: Va bene. Quanti ti bastano? —> How many are enough for you?
Giulio: Mah … mi bastano due per ora —> Two are enough for me for now.
Marta: A me ne basta uno solo.
Our example makes reference to the other two difficulties I mentioned above, both addressed in this song. “Bastare” takes an indirect object and pronoun, just as “passare” does in the following bit: “non ti passa più” (you can’t shake it off). And finally, ‘ne’, that pesky old particella, gets star treatment here.
The particella ‘ne’ is like a phrasal pronoun: it can replace a whole phrase, which would often start with ‘of’ in English. So when Baby K says “ne voglio ancora,” she is saying: I want (voglio) more (ancora) OF [your love] –> I want more OF IT. That ‘ne’ does the job of ‘of it’ in the original phrase. And when Marta says “me ne basta uno solo” she is saying: mi basta uno solo DI PANINI. That little ’ne’ comes to replace DI PANINI. So in essence, she is saying one [of the panini for sale] is enough for her.
Many of my intermediate students struggle with these three concepts. Baby K makes it easy for us to remember how bastare, indirect object pronouns, and ne are used and when.
2. Karaoke, Boomdabash feat. Alessandra Amoroso
“Voglia di ballare un reggae in spiaggia, voglia di riaverti qui fra le mie braccia …”
I discovered this one trending on Tiktok, and it points to two points of difficulty for foreign language learners: use of the phrasal verb “avere voglia di” (to crave something) and the irregular plural form of braccio (arm).
In Italian, you can want something (verbo volere), you can need something (avere bisogno di), and you can exist in this strange place in between, where what you feel is greater than a simple desire but less than a need. What you have is a craving. A voglia.
Alessandra Amoroso craves dancing to reggae on the beach. She craves having you (yes you) once more in her arms).
What’s interesting is that the phrasal formula “avere voglia di” is not declined in accordance with the verbo volere that it more closely resembles, but with “avere” (to have). Io ho voglia (I crave), tu hai voglia (you crave), lui ha voglia (he craves). Voglia doesn’t change with the subject. But avere does.
Lei ha voglia di riaverti lì fra le sue braccia. Yes, braccia. But how? You learned on day one that masculine nouns ending in ‘o’ — like braccio (un braccio) — should end in ‘i’ when pluralized. So wouldn’t that look like:
un braccio —> dei (due) bracci?
You would think so. But you’d be wrong.
Italian has SO MANY IRREGULAR PLURALS, and they all blow students’ minds. So it’s one braccio, but due braccia. That’s right. Not even close to what you would expect. Heard over and over in the context of a catchy song, though, you might remember it.
3. A un passo dalla luna, Rocco Hunt and Ana Mena
I always like to give my students a musical option aimed solely at working on a themed vocabulary list. A un passo dalla luna is that selection for me. Let’s see how many summery nouns are contained just in the first verse:
Guardo il cielo e proprio lì una stella cade
Tu che balli appena uscita da un locale
Dopo un po’ la timidezza ti scompare
E ci troviamo a riva, soli a fianco al mare.
But that’s not the only lessons students can learn from this one song. It also contains structures that, though common in daily parlance and present in most Italian text books, are never quite insisted upon in the classroom. Like in the phrase, “Sei bella da paura”: da paura has a value in and of itself, as it can be used with other adjectives as well (in English, you might translate it as: it’s scary how beautiful you are), but even the simple use of “da” before a noun denotes a whole other world:
Ho una fame da lupi. (I am as hungry as a wolf.)
È roba da matti. (It’s stuff that makes you go out of your mind.)
Questi sono occhiali da sole. (These are sunglasses.)
È una situazione da incubo. (It’s a nightmarish situation.)
Do you see how many different uses there are to this little preposition when placed before a noun? I could go on for days (if you’d like me to, send me a message so we can set up a consultation!).
And another structure that gets used a lot by native speakers and far less often by non-natives is “fare apposta” — as in, to do [something] on purpose. Rocco Hunt and Ana Mena show us how that gets used, too.
4. Italia, Marlon
There is little grammatical value to this song or opportunity to practice vocabulary in it. BUT it is a great way to brush up on your Italian geography. How many Italian cities and regions can you find referenced in “Italia” by Marlon? It goes so quickly that you might have to listen to it a couple of times to get them all. I counted twenty-four locations, some of them repeated (or represented through an area and then, later, its parent region). “Italia” is a great song to use to work on your oral comprehension skills: can you tell where one word ends and another begins? Are you able to follow Marlon’s list as he goes through it at lightning speed?
5. Mamacita, Black Eyed Peas, Ozuna, J. Rey Soul
No list of tormentoni estivi would be complete without one Black Eyed Peas song on it, so this is my pick for this year. When I spent my first summer in Italy (in the far distant 2005), both My Humps and Don’t Funk with My Heart were all over Italian MTV. BEP are a staple of a true Italian summer, whether you like it or not, so embrace it, Mamacita!
Access our Tormentoni Estivi playlist on Spotify or write to firstname.lastname@example.org to enrol in a personalized course on Italian popular music. Buon Ascolto!