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Instrumental and vocal classical music is an iconic part of Italian identity, spanning experimental art music and international fusions to symphonic music and opera. Italian folk music is an important part of the country's musical heritage, and spans a diverse array of regional styles, instruments and dances. The Neapolitan song, canzone Napoletana, and the cantautori traditions plays a keyrole in the development of Italian pop music. Cantautori (Italian plural; the singular is cantautore) is the Italian expression corresponding to singer-songwriters in English. The word is a portmanteau of cantante (singer) and autore (writer).

Although the term, in theory, might refer to all those who compose and then perform their own songs, including, say, medieval troubadors, the term in contemporary Italian refers to a large number of relatively recent Italian popular singers − archetypically those who rose to prominence during the student protests of the 1960s and '70s − who write songs that may or may not be particularly melodic but always have social or political relevance.

Besides opera, some regional music in the 19th century also became popular throughout Italy. Notable among these local traditions was the Canzone Napoletana—the Neapolitan Song. Although there are anonymous, documented songs from Naples from many centuries ago, the term, canzone Napoletana now generally refers to a large body of relatively recent, composed popular music—such songs as O sole mio, Torna a Surriento, and Funiculi Funicula. Neapolitan songs typically use simple harmonies, and are structured in two sections, a refrain and narrative verses, often in contrasting relative or parallel major and minor keys.In non-musical terms, this means that many Neapolitan songs can sound joyful one minute and melancholy the next. One of the oldest known Napolitano singers are Armando Gil and Raffaele Viviane.

Recorded popular music began in the late 19th century, with international styles influencing Italian music by the late 1910s; however, the rise of autarchia, the Fascist policy of cultural isolationism in 1922 led to a retreat from international popular music. During this period, popular Italian musicians traveled abroad and learned elements of jazz, Latin American music and other styles. These musics influenced the Italian tradition, which spread around the world and further diversified following liberalization after World War II.

Under the isolationist policies of the fascist regime, which rose to power in 1922, Italy developed an insular musical culture. Foreign musics were suppressed while Mussolini's government encouraged nationalism and linguistic and ethnic purity. Popular performers, however, travelled abroad, and brought back new styles and techniques. American jazz was an important influence on singers such as Alberto Rabagliati, who became known for a swinging style. Elements of harmony and melody from both jazz and blues were used in many popular songs, while rhythms often came from Latin dances like the tango, rumba and beguine. Italian composers incorporated elements from these styles, while Italian music, especially Neapolitan song, became a part of popular music across Latin America.

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