Musical Terminology Dictionary
Absolute - Absolute music. Music which is inspired by itself rather than extra musical implications such as the stories legends of "program" music.
Accelerando, accel - Gradually faster.
Accent - > placed above a note to indicate stress or emphasis.
Accompaniment - A vocal or instrument part that supports or is background for a solo part.
Addolorato - Sorrowfully.
Ad libitum, ad lib - A term which permits the performer to vary the tempo and/or to include or omit a vocal or instrumental part. Synonymous with a piacere.
A due - Return to unison after divisi.
Affrettando - Hurrying.
Agilmente - Lively.
Agitato - Agitated; with excitement.
Al, all', alla, alle - To; used with other words, e.g. al Fine (to the end).
Album - A full length recording. In pop music, it contains a number of songs.
Al coda - "To the coda."
Aleatory, or aleatoric music - Chance music in which the performers are free to perform their own material and/or their own manner of presentation.
Al fine - To the end.
Allargando, allarg - Slowing of tempo, usually with increasing volume; most frequently occurs toward the end of a piece.
Allegretto - Slower than allegro.
Allegro - Quick tempo; cheerful.
Al segno - Return to the sign, Dal segno.
Alteration - The raising or lowering of a note by means of an accidental.
Ancora - Repeat.
Andantino - Slightly faster than andante.
A niente - To nothing, e.g. to ppp.
Animato - Animated; lively.
A piacere - Freedom in performance. Synonymous with ad libitum.
Appassionato - Impassioned.
Arabesque - A fanciful piano piece. Ornate passage varying or accompanying a theme.
Arrache - Strong pizzicato.
Arrangement - An adaption of a composition.
A tempo- Return to the previous tempo.
Atonality - Lacking a tonal center.
Augmented - The term for a major or perfect interval which has been enlarged by one half-step, e.g. c-g, (an augmented fifth,) or c-d, (an augmented second). Also used for a triad with an augmented fifth, e.g. the augmented tonic triad in C major, C+, c-e-g.
Baby grand - A small grand piano.
Balance - The harmonious adjustment of volume and timbre between instruments or voices; it can be between players or vocalists or electronically while recording or mixing.
Ballade - In the medieval period a form of trouvere music and poetry. In later time, German poetry set as a through-composed song.
Band - An instrumental ensemble, usually made up of wind and percussion instruments and no string instruments.
Baroque - The period 1600-1750.
Bass clef - The other name for the F clef.
Basso continuo, Continuo, Thorough-bass - The Baroque practice in which the bass part if played by a viola da gamba(cello) or bassoon while a keyboard instrument performed the bass line and the indicated chords.
Baton - Conductor's stick.
Binary form - The term for describing a composition of two sections. AB, each of which may be repeated.
Bis - Repeated twice. Encore!
Bitonality - The occurrence of two different tonalities at the same time.
Bourree - A French dance from the 17th century in brisk duple time starting with a pickup.
Brass family - Wind instruments made out of metal with either a cup- or funnel-shaped mouthpiece, such as trumpet, cornet, bugle, Flugelhorn, trombone, tuba, baritone horn, euphonium, saxhorn, and French horn.
Cadence - A chordal or melodic progression which occurs at the close of a phrase, section, or composition, giving a feeling of repose; a temporary or permanent ending. The most frequently used cadences are perfect, plagal, and deceptive.
Cadenza - a solo passage, often virtuosic, usually near the end of a piece, either written by the composer or improvised by the performer.
Caesura - A sudden silencing of the sound; a pause or break, indicated by the following symbol: //
Calmo, calmato - Calm.
Cambia - A direction found in scores to change tuning or instruments.
Camminando - Following easily and gently.
Canonic - A term used to describe a polyphonic style of music in which all the parts have the same melody but which start at different times.
Cantabile - In singing style.
Carol - The term was derived from a medieval French word, carole, a circle dance. In England it was first associated with pagan songs celegrating the winter solstice. It then developed into a song of praise and celebration, usually for Christmas.
C clef - A clef usually centered on the first line (soprano clef), third line (alto clef), fourth line (tenor clef), or third space (vocal tenor clef) of the staff. Wherever it is centered, that line or space becomes middle C.
Chance music - Aleatoric music.
Chorale - Hymn-like song, characterized by blocked chords.
Circle of fifths - The succession of keys or chords proceeding by fifths.
Classical - Music conforming to certain form and structure. Usually music composed during the period 1770-1825.
Clef - A symbol placed at the beginning of the staff to indicate the pitch of the notes on the staff. The most commonly used clefs in choral music are the G, or treble, clef and the F or bass clef . On the keyboard, all the notes above middle C are said to be in the G clef; all the notes below middle C in the F clef.
Coda - Closing section of a composition. An added ending.
Col, coll', colla - With or "with the."
Common time - 4/4 meter.
Complete cadence - I-IV-V-I progression.
Composer - A person who creates (composes) music.
Con - With.
Con brio - With spirit; vigorously.
Con calore - With warmth.
Concert - A public performance of music.
Concert grand piano - The largest of the grand pianos, usually about nine feet long.
Concertino - A short concerto. The group of soloists in a concerto grosso.
Concert master - First chair violinist in an orchestra.
Concerto - A piece for a soloist and orchestra.
Concert pitch - The international tuning pitch -- currently A 440 or 442. The pitch for non-transposing (C) instruments.
Conducting - The directing of a group of musicians.
Conductor - The person who directs a group of musicians.
Con intensita - With intensity.
Con moto - With motion.
Consonance - Intervallic relationships which produce sounds of repose. Frequently associated with octave, third and sixth intervals; however, fourths and fifths may be sounds of consonance, as in both early and 20th-century music.
Consort - A 17th-century term for instrumental chamber ensembles and for the compositions written for these ensembles.
Con spirito - With spirit.
Contra - The octave below normal.
Corda, corde - String.
Countermelody - A vocal part which contrasts with the principal melody.
Counterpoint - The technique of combining single melodic lines or parts of equal importance.
Crescendo - Gradually louder.
Cue - Indication by the conductor or a spoke word or gesture for a performer to make an entry. Small notes that indicate another performer's part. Music occurrence in a film.
Cut time - 2/2 meter.
Da capo, D. C. - Return to the beginning.
Dal - "From the," "by the."
Damper pedal - On pianos, the pedal that lifts the dampers from the strings.
Decrescendo - Gradually softer. Synonymous with diminuendo.
Delicato - Delicately.
Di - Of, with.
Diminished - The term for an interval which has been decreased from the major by two half steps and from the perfect by one half step, e.g. c-a, diminished sixth, or c-g, a diminished fifth. Also used for a triad which has a minor third and a diminished fifth, e.g. c, c-e, g.
Diminuendo, dim - Gradually softer. Synonymous with decrescendo.
Dirge - A piece that is performed at a funeral or memorial service.
Divisi, div - An indication of divided musical parts.
Dolce - Sweetly.
Dolcissimo - Very sweetly.
Doloroso - Sadly; mournfully.
Double bar - Two vertical lines placed on the staff to indicate the end of a section or a composition. Also, used with two dots to enclose repeated sections.
Double tonguing - On flute and brass instruments, the technique of rapidly articulating notes by using the front and the back of the tongue in alternation (t-k-t-k-t-k).
Down beat - The first beat; given by the conductor with a downward stroke.
Down bow - In the violin family, drawing the bow downward from its frog. The symbol is: .
Du - "From the," "of the."
Duet - A piece for two performers.
Duplet - A group of two notes performed in the time of three of the same kind.
E - Italian word meaning "and."
Eighth - Octave.
Eighth note/rest - A note/rest half the length of a quarter note and an eighth of the length of a whole note.
Encore - To repeat a piece or play an additional piece at the end of a performance.
Enharmonic - A term used to describe notes of the same pitch which have different names, e.g. c and d, f and g.
Espressivo - Expressively.
Esuberante - Exuberant.
Fanfare - A prelude or opening, a flourish, usually played by brass instruments.
Fermata - Hold; pause .
Festivo, festoso - Festive; merry.
Fifth - The fifth degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the fifth tone above or below it, e.g. c up to g, c down to f. Intervals of the fifth may be perfect (corresponding to major), diminished, or augmented.
Finale - The last movement of a symphony or sonata, or the last selection of an opera.
Fine - The end.
Fixed do - The system of solmization in which c is always do.
Form - The design or structure of a musical composition .
Forte - Loud.
Fortissimo - Very loud.
Full score - An instrumental score in which all the parts for the instruments appear on their own staves in standard instrumental family order.
Fourth - The fourth degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the fourth tone above or below it, e.g. c up to f; c down to g. Intervals of the fourth may be perfect, diminished, or augmented.
Fz - Forzando or forzato. Synonomous with sforzando (sf or sfz).
Gig - A job for a musician.
Giocoso - Playful.
Giubilante - Exultant, jubilant.
Glissando - Gliss. The rapid scale achieved by sliding the nail of the thumb or third finger over the white keys of the piano. Glissando is commonly used in playing the harp. For bowed instruments glissando indicates a flowing, unaccented playing of a passage.
Grandioso - Grandiose, majestic.
Grand pause - A rest for the entire ensemble.
Grand piano - A piano with a winglike shape and a horizontal frame, strings, and soundboard.
Grand staff, Great staff - The G and F clef staves together make the grand (great) staff.
Grave - Slow, solemn.
Grazia - Grace. Con grazia, with grace.
Grazioso - Graceful.
Grosso, grosse - Great, large.
Hemiola - The term applied to time values in the ration of 3:2, e.g. three half notes in place of two dotted half notes.
Impressionism - A musical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the French impressionist painters, the movement had its impetus in the music of Debussy and Ravel.
Instrument - Any device that produces a musical sound.
Instrumentation - The art of composing, orchestrating, or arranging for an instrumental ensemble.
Inversion - As applied to music the term may be used in both melody and harmony. Melodic inversion: an exchange of ascending and descending movement, e.g. c up to f in descending becomes c down to g. Harmonic inversion: the position of the chord is changed from root position (root on the lowest pitch) to first inversion, with the third, or second inversion, with the fifth in the lowest voice. An example: root position c-e-g; first inversion e-g-c; second inversion g-c-e.
Ironico - Ironical.
La - In solmization, the sixth degree of the major scale. Also, the first degree of the relative minor scale, e.g. a is the sixth degree, or la, in the C major scale and the first degree of the a-minor scale.
Lacrimoso - Tearful, mournful.
Lamento - Mournful, sad.
Langsam - Slow.
Largamente - Broadly.
Larghetto - Slower than largo.
Largo - Very slow.
Legato - Smooth, connected.
Leggiero - Light; graceful.
Liberamento - Freely.
Linear - Melodic; horizontal lines.
Ma - But. Used with other words, e.g. lento ma non troppo, slow but not too slowly.
Maestoso - Majestically.
Mancando - Fading away
Medesimo - The same.
Medieval - The period prior to the Renaissance, c. 500-1450, marking the music of the early Christian church.
Meno - Less.
Meno mosso - Less motion.
Meter signature - The numbers placed at the beginning of a composition to indicate the meter of the music, e.g. . The upper number indicates the beats in a measure; the lower number tells what kind of a note will receive one beat.
Metronome - Invented by Maelzel in 1816, the instrument is used to indicate the exact tempo of a composition. An indication such as M.M. 60 indicates that the pendulum, with a weight at the bottom, makes 60 beats per minute. A slider is moved up and down the pendulum to decrease and increase the tempo. M.M. = 80 means that the time value of a quarter note is the equivalent of one pendulum beat when the slider is set at 80.
Mezzo - Half, Medium
Mezzo forte - Medium loud.
Mezzo piano - Medium soft.
Middle Ages - European historical period between roughly A.D. 500 and 1450.
Minor - The designation for certain intervals and scales. A key based on a minor scale is called a minor key. The three types of minor scales include natural, hormonic, and melodic, which is used infrequently in choral music. The patterns for natural and harmonic scales are:
Misterioso - Mysteriously.
Mit - With.
Mode - Any scalewise arrangement of pitches; more generally, the term refers to the patterns upon which medieval music was structured, the patterns which preceded the development of major and minor scales and tonality.
Moderato - Moderate speed.
Modern - Music written in the 20th century or contempory music.
Modulation - The process of changing from one key to another within a composition.
Molto - Very. Used with other terms, e.g. molto allegro.
Mordent - "Biting." An ornament consisting of an alteration (once or twice) of the written note by playing the one immediately below it (lower mordent), or above it (upper, or inverted, mordent) and then playing the note again.
Morendo - Gradually decreasing in volume; dying away.
Motive - A short melodic or rhythmic pattern.
Moto - Motion. Con moto, with motion.
Movable Do - The system of solmization in which do changes to accommodate the key, e.g. in the key of C major, do is c; in E major do is e. In the key of a minor do is c (relative major); in the key of c minor do is e (relative major).
Music theory - The study of how music is put together.
Nach - After (as "in the manner of"); behind.
Nachtmusik - "Night music." A serenade.
Neumatic - One style of chant in which two to four pitches occur on one syllable; in contrast to melismatic and syllabic.
Non - No; not.
Non troppo - Not too much. Used with other terms, e.g. non troppo allegro, not too fast.
Notation - A term for a system of expressing musical sounds through the use of written characters, called notes.
Octet - A piece for eight instruments or voices.
Open strings - Strings are not stopped, fingured, or fretted.
Opus, Op - The term, meaning work, is used by composers to show the chronological order of their works, e.g. Op. 1, Op. 2.
Orchestra - A large group of musicians made up of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments.
Orchestration - The art of writing, arranging, or scoring for the orchestra.
Ornamentation - Note or notes added to the original melodic line for embellishment and added interest.
Ornaments - Melodic embellishments, either written or improvised.
Ossia - "Or." Indicating an alternative passage or version.
Ostinato - A repeated melodic or rhythmic pattern, frequently appearing in the bass line.
Ottava - Octave.
Ottava alta - (8va) An octave higher.
Ottave bassa - (8va or 8vb) An octave lower.
Overtones - The almost inaudible higher tones which occur with the fundamental tone. They are the result of the vibration of small sections of a string (instrument) or a column of air. Other general terms for overtones are partials and harmonics.
Overture - The introductory music for an opera, oratorio or ballet. A concert overture is an independent work.
Pacato - Calm, quiet.
Passing tones - Unaccented notes which move conjunctly between two chords to which they do not belong harmonically.
Pausa - A rest.
Pensieroso - Contemplative, thoughtful.
Percussion family - Instruments made of sonorous material that produce sounds of definite or indefinite pitch when shaken or struck, including drums, rattles, bells, gongs, and xylophones.
Perfect pitch - The ability to hear and identify a note without any other musical support.
Pesante - Heavy.
Petite - Little.
Peu a peu - Little by little.
Phrase - A relatively short portion of a melodic line which expresses a musical idea, comparable to a line or sentence in poetry.
Pianissimo - Very soft.
Pianississimo - Very, very soft; the softest common dynamic marking.
Piano - Soft. Pianoforte.
Pianoforte - "Soft-loud." A keyboard instrument, the full name for the piano, on which sound is produced by hammers striking strings when keys are pressed. It has 88 keys.
Picardy third - The term for the raising of the third, making a major triad, in the final chord of a composition which is in a minor key. The practice originated in c. 1500 and extended through the Baroque period.
Pizzicato - "Pinched." On string instruments, plucking the string.
Poco - Little. Used with other terms, e.g. poco accel., also, poco a poco, little by little.
Poco ced., Cedere - A little slower.
Poi - Then or afterwards, e.g. poi No. 3, then No. 3.
Postlude - "Play after." The final piece in a multi-movement work. Organ piece played at the end of a church service.
Prelude - "Play before." An introductory movement or piece.
Premiere - First performance.
Prestissimo - Very, very fast. The fastest tempo.
Presto - Very quick.
Primo - First.
Principal - Instrumental section leader.
Prologue - An introductory piece that presents the background for an opera.
Quarter note/rest - A note/rest one half the length of a half note and one quarter the length of a whole note.
Quartet - A piece for four instruments or voices. Four performers.
Quasi - Almost. Used with other terms, e.g. quasi madrigal, almost or as if a madrigal.
Quintet - A piece for five instruments or voices. Five performers.
Rallentando, rall - Gradually slower. Synonymous with ritardando.
Range - The gamut of pitches, from low to high, which a singer may perform.
Rapide - Rapidly.
Recital - A performance by one or more performers.
Refrain - A short section of repeated material which occurs at the end of each stanza.
Renaissance - The period c. 1450-1600.
Repeat - The repetition of a section or a composition as indicated by particular signs.
Repeat of a section:
Repeat from the beginning:
Also D.C., repeat from the beginning and D.S., repeat from the sign.
Resonance - Reinforcement and intensification of sound by vibrations.
Rest - A symbol used to denote silence.
Rhapsody - A free style instrumental piece characterized by dramatic changes in mood.
Rhythm - The term which denotes the organization of sound in time; the temporal quality of sound.
Rinforzando - A reinforced accent.
Risoluto - Resolute.
Ritardando, rit - Gradually slower. Synonymous with rallentando.
Ritenuto - Immediate reduction in tempo.
Ritmico - Rhythmically.
Roll - On percussion instruments, a sticking technique consisting of a rapid succession of notes:
Romanticism - The period c. 1825-1900.
Root position - The arrangement of a chord in which the root is in the lowest voice.
Round - Like the canon, a song in which two or more parts having the same melody, starting at different points. The parts may be repeated as desired.
Rubato - The term used to denote flexibility of tempo to assist in achieving expressiveness.
Rudiments - On drums, the basic sticking patterns.
Ruhig - Quiet.
Run - A rapid scale passage.
Rustico - Pastoral, rustic, rural.
Sanft - Soft, gentle.
Sans - Without.
Schnell - Fast.
Secco - "Dry." Unornamented.
Second - The second degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the next tone above or below it, e.g. c up to d, or c down to b. Intervals of the second may be major, diminished, or augmented.
Section - A division of a musical composition.
Segno - "Sign."
Sehr - Very.
Sehr leise beginnend - Very soft in the beginning.
Sempre - Always. Used with other terms, e.g. sempre staccato.
Semplice - Simple.
Senza - Without. Used with other terms, e.g. senza crescendo.
Septet - A piece for seven instruments or voices. Seven performers.
Sequence - The repetition of a melodic pattern on a higher or lower pitch level.
Serenade - A love song or piece, usually performed below someone's window in the evening.
Sereno - Serene, peaceful.
Seventh - The seventh degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the seventh tone above or below it, e.g. c up to b, or c down to d. Intervals of the seventh may be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.
Seventh chord - When a seventh (above the root) is added to a triad (root, third, fifth), the result is a seventh chord, e.g. the dominant triad in the key of C major, g-b-d, with the added seventh becomes g-b-d-f and is labelled V7.
Sheet music - An individually printed song, most often for voice, piano, guitar,or a combination of the three. Any printed music.
Shifting meter - The changing of meter within a composition. Synonymous with changing meter.
Simile - An indication to continue in the same manner.
Sin' - Until.
Sinistra - Left hand.
Sino - Until.
Sixteenth note/rest - A note/rest half the length of an eighth note and a sixteenth the length of a whole note.
Sixth - The sixth degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the sixth tone above or below it, e.g. c up to a, or c down to e. Intervals of the sixth may be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.
Skip - Melodic movement of more than one whole step.
Smorzando - Fading away.
Soave - Sweet, mild.
Sognando - Dreamily.
Solo - To perform alone or as the predominant part.
Sonata - An instrumental piece, often in several movements.
Sonatina - A short sonata.
Spiccato - On string instruments, a bowing technique wherein the bow is bounced on the string at moderate speed.
Staff - The most frequently used staff has five horizontal lines, with four spaces, upon which the notes and other musical symbols are placed.
Stanza - A selection of a song, two or more lines long, characterized by a common meter, rhyme, and number of lines.
Stesso - Same.
String instrument family - Instruements with strings that produce sound when plucked, bowed, or struck.
Subito - Suddenly.
Sul - On the.
Sur - On, over.
Svelto - Quick, light.
Syncopation - Accent on an unexpected beat.
Tanto - Much, so much.
Tempo - The rate of speed in a musical work.
Tempo primo - Return to the original tempo.
Teneramente - Tenderly.
Tenuto, ten - Hold or sustain a note longer than the indicated value, usually not as long a duration as the fermata.
Ternary form - Three-part form in which the middle section is different from the other sections. Indicated by ABA.
Tessitura - The general pitch range of a vocal part.
Theme and variations - A statement of musical subject followed by restatements in different guises.
Theory - The study of how music is put together.
Third - The third degree of the diatonic scale. Also, the interval formed by a given tone and the third tone above or below it, e.g. c up to e, or c down to a. Intervals of the third may be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.
Tie - A curved line over or below two or more notes of the same pitch. The first pitch is sung or played and held for the duration of the notes affected by the tie.
Time signature - Synonymous with meter signature.
Tone - A note; the basis of music.
Tone clusters - The simultaneous sounding of two or more adjacent tones.
Tonguing - On wind instruements, articulation with the tongue.
Tosto - Quick.
Tranquillo - Tranquilly; quietly; calm.
Transposition - The process of changing the key of a composition.
Tre - Three. Used with other terms, e.g. a tre voci, in three parts.
Triple meter - Meter based on three beats, or a multiple of three, in a measure.
Triplet - A group of three notes performed in the time of two of the same kind.
Troppo - Too much. Used with other terms, e.g. allegro non troppo, not too fast.
Tutti - All. A direction for the entire ensemble to sing or play simultaneously.
Twelve-tone technique - A system of composition which uses the twelve tones of the chromatic scale in an arbitrary arrangement called a tone row or series. The row may be used in its original form, its inversion, in retrograde, and in the inversion of the retrograde. The system was devised by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century.
Una corda - Soft pedal.
Un peu - A little. Used with other words, e.g. un peu piano.
Un poco - A little.
Variation - The manipulation of a theme by the use of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic changes.
Vibrato - Repeated fluctuation of pitch.
Virtuoso - A brillant, skillful performer.
Vivace - Lively, brisk, quick, and bright.
Vivo - Lively, bright.
Volti subito - Turn [the page] quickly.
Whole note/rest - A note/rest equal to two half notes and four quarter notes.
Wind instrument family - Instruments in which sound is produced by the vibration of air, including brass and woodwind instruments.
Woodwind family - Instruments, originally made of wood, in which sound is produced by the vibration of air, including recorders, flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboes, and bassoons.