Musical Terms


Accelerando – (Italian: “getting faster”) – indicates the music should speed up

Adagio – (Italian: “slow”). Meaning the music should be played slowly. Barber’s ‘Adagio’ is a fantastic example of this.

Allegro – (Italian: “lively”). Meaning the music should be played cheerfully. Upbeat and briskly.

Alto – Female singing voice in the lower range. It can also refer to different types of instruments that play in a lower range such as an “alto saxophone”

Andante – (Italian: “walking”). Meaning the music should be played at a walking pace. Not too fast or slow.

Aria – (Italian: “air”). An aria is a song, generally used to describe set-piece songs in Opera.

Arpeggio – a chord of notes broken and played in sequence.

Atonal – Music in which no key can be established. The technique is heard in a lot of 20th Century music. Composers from the Second Viennese School used atonality as a basis for much of their work.


Ballad – from the vulgar Latin ‘ballare’, meaning to dance. A work in dance form imitative of a folk song, with a narrative structure.

Bar – A vertical line through the stave, to mark the music into sections, each with a set amount of beats within.

Barcarolle – A boating song, generally describing the songs sung by gondoliers in Venice. Chopin, Mendelssohn, Fauré and Offenbach all wrote works imitating the form.

Baritone – Male singing voice in the middle range. Gerald Finley is a world class example of a baritone.

Baroque – A period in art and music from around 1600-1750. Composers include Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau, Telemann, J.S. Bach, Vivaldi and Handel.

Basso Continuo – (Italian: “continuous bass”). A form of bass line used in music of the Baroque period. It is usually notated with numbers indicating what chords can be used, so the continuo player can embellish the lines. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are a fine example of this.

Baton – a stick used by conductors to guide and direct the musicians they are leading

Berceuse – A lullaby. Generally slow and undulating, Chopin’s famous Berceuse is the most well known example of the form.

Bitonality – The simultaneous use of two (sometimes more) different keys in different parts of a composition.

Bolero – A Spanish dance. The most famous example is Ravel’s Boléro.


Cadence – Two chords at the end of a piece which provide a type of ‘punctuation’ at the end of a musical phrase. Cadences can either suggest the sentence isn’t over, or provide a type of musical ‘full-stop’.

Cadenza – a moment in a musical piece where an instrumentalist or singer is given the opportunity to play a solo, sometimes of their own crafting, freely and with artistic license to go outside of a rigid tempo or rhythm.

Canon – a melody is played by one instrument or group of instruments, and then repeated a certain number of bars later by another instrument to overlap the initial melody.

Cantata – A choral work that uses solo voices with an instrumental (usually orchestral) accompaniment. A cantata is generally a choral work of some length that also uses solo voices, usually with instrumental accompaniment. The texts used may be sacred or secular. Some cantatas use solo voices without chorus or choir. Listen to Bach’s Cantata No. 140 (Wachet Auf) for a beautiful example.

Capriccio – (Italian: ‘caprice’). A lively piece of music, usually free in its form and short. Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien is certainly in high spirits.

Chanson – (French: “song”). A French art song from the middle ages to the 20th century. Poetry set to music. Usually refers to voice with piano accompaniment, but can be voice with orchestral or chamber accompaniment.

Chorale – A Lutheran hymn. Generally the music moves in block chords. The most famous Chorales of all were written by Bach. It can also be used to designate a select group of choral singers.

Chord – The sounding of two or more notes at the same time.

Chromatic – Notes which do not belong to the diatonic scale. For example, in the scale of C major (the white notes on the piano), they black keys (sharps and flats) are the chromatic notes. Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee is a particularly exciting example of a work built around the chromatic scale.

Classical – All art music as opposed to popular music. Also, the period of music from about 1770-1830.

Clef – a symbol used at the beginning of a piece of sheet music to denote the note values on the staff. The most common clefs used are the G or treble clef and the bass clef.

Coda – (Italian: “tail”). The tail end of a piece of music. Usually a section which indicates the end of the piece or section is approaching.

Coloratura – (Italian: “coloring”). A type of decoration, usually in singing that is ornate and richly ornamented. Can also refer to a type of soprano who can easily facilitate songs with that type of ornamentation. Dame Joan Sutherland was one of the greatest coloratura sopranos of all time.

Concerto – A piece of instrumental music for soloist contrasted by an ensemble (either a small group of musicians or a full orchestra). Rachmaninov’s epic Piano Concerto No. 2 remains one of the most popular works in the genre.

Concerto grosso – An important type of Baroque concerto, characterized by a small group of solo instruments against a full orchestra.

Conductor – a person who leads a musical ensemble in the interpretation, rehearsal and performance of a piece of music.

Continuo – From Baroque scores on, the bass part, usually performed by the harpsichord or organ together with a viola da gamba or cello.

Contralto – same as the lowest female voice, alto

Countertenor – The vocal range of a male alto. Close in range to a female mezzo-soprano.

Counterpoint – Music consisting of two or more melodic lines that sound simultaneously.

Crescendo – (Italian: “growing”) A dynamic instruction meaning to gradually play louder. Abbreviated cresc.


Da Capo – (Italian: “from the head/beginning”). Usually abbreviated “D.C.” at the end of a section of a piece, meaning go back to the beginning and play either to the end (Da capo al fine) or to the sign, which looks like a stylized “S” (Da capo al segno).

Decrescendo – decreasing in loudness

Diminuendo – (Italian: “diminishing”). A dynamic instruction meaning to gradually play quieter.

Divertimento – An instrumental composition in several movements, light and diverting in character, similar to a serenade.

Dumky – A song, especially a Slavic folk song, that has alternating happy and sad passages.

Dynamics – Levels of sound in music. The spectrum of soft to loud.


Elegy – A piece of music in the form of a lament.

Ensemble – instrumentalists or singers playing together; a group of performers.

Espressivo – (Italian: ‘expressive’). An instruction meaning that a passage should be played with expression, or expressively.

Etude – (French: “study”). An instrumental composition intended to improve aspects of technique or musical skill. Some of the hardest instrumental works are large scale etudes by composers such as Chopin and Liszt.


Fermata – a symbol used in music to indicate that a note should be held longer than its standard duration. It is sometimes referred to as a “bird’s eye” because of its appearance.

Flat – Indicated by a stylized ♭ sign, the note before which it is placed should be lowered by a half step. Flat can also mean that a note is out of tune and lower in pitchthan it should be

Forte – (Italian: “strong”). A dynamic instruction meaning the music should be played loudly. Indicated usually by the letter “f”.

Fugue – A form in which the composition is contrapuntal. A theme introduces the piece, which is then repeat at different pitches throughout the composition, set in counterpoint to other musical lines within the texture. The Fugue has proven a fascinating medium, even penetrating the world of pop music and Lady Gaga…


Gigue – A lively dance form from the Baroque period, from the English Jig.

Giocoso – (Italian: “playful”, “cheerful”). Meaning the piece should be played in a cheerful or joyous way.

Glissando – From the French ‘glisser’, meaning to slide. An instruction to slide between a group of notes. On the piano, for example, the performer runs a finger down or up the keyboard.

Ground, ground bass – A short melodic phrase repeated again and again as a bass line, with varying music for the upper parts.


Harmony – The sounding of two or more notes at the same time. A composer may be said to have a ‘harmonic language’, similar in meaning to saying someone has a particular accent.

Humoresque – A piece of music with a humorous feel. Notable compositions using the name have been written by: Schumann, Dvořák and Rachmaninov.

Hymn – A song of religious worship. The protestant tradition of hymn singing comes from the chorales of Martin Luther.


Impressionism – A term describing movements in art and music. Generally French, the impressionist art and music from the late 19th / early 20th Century is characterized by a sense of veiled, blurred images and a palette of rich color. Both Debussy and Ravel resented their music being described thus, as they felt it suggested their music had little formal and structural value.

Improvisation – The art of creating music spontaneously in performance.

Incidental music – Music used in connection with a play.

Interlude – Music played between sections of a composition or dramatic work.

Intermezzo – A light theatrical entertainment introduced between the acts of a play or opera.

Interval – The distance (in terms of pitch) between two pitches.

Intonation – The accuracy or lack of pitch in instrumental playing and singing. For example, ‘intonation is off here’, meaning the tuning is not exact.


Jig – a lively English dance. In a Baroque suite, it usually is placed at the end.


Key – A musical key is the relation of different chords to each other. The ‘tonic’ is the subjective sense of ‘home’, from which musical compositions deviate from, and arrive back to. Relations of different keys to each other give the impression of tension, development and resolution.

Key Signature – the sharps or flats appearing at the beginning of each staff to indicate the “home key” of the composition.


Largo – (Italian: ‘broad”, “wide”, “slow”). An instruction meaning the music is usually slow in speed, or broad in tempo.

Legato – (Italian: “joined”). An instruction indicating that a sequence of notes should be played smoothly, or joined up, as opposed to disconnected.

Leggiero – (Italian: “lightly”). An instruction meaning to play lightly and without force.

(col) Legno – (Italian: “wood”). An instruction for string players, usually written as ‘col legno’ (with the wood). This indicates that the string player should use the wooden side of the bow to hit the strings with.

Leitmotif – A short, recurring musical phrase, usually associated with a character, idea, event or object. This is the musical equivalent of branding. Wagner used the technique extensively in his music dramas.

Lento – (Italian: “slow”). A tempo instruction meaning the music should be slow.

Libretto – (Italian: “little book”). The text of an opera or vocal work, which was traditionally printed in a small book.

Lied(er) – (German: “song”). A form of art song in the German tradition, exemplified by: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolff, Mahler and Richard Strauss.


Madrigal – A vocal composition originating in 14th Century Italy. Madrigals are usually of a secular nature, and became very popular in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods.

Major – A scale which has half steps between the third and fourth and the seventh and eighth degrees, like C to C on the keyboard. Generally, major keys sound “happy” while minor keys sound “sad”.

Mazurka – A traditional Polish dance. Many composers, including Chopin and Szymanowski have written works using the form.

Mezzo – (Italian: “half”) The term can be used in a number of contexts. Mezzo-forte / mezzo-piano are dynamic instructions meaning ‘half-loud’ and ‘half-soft’ respectively. A mezzo-soprano is a female voice range that is lower than a soprano but higher than an alto /contralto.

Minuet – A popular French dance from the mid-17th Century to the end of the 18th Century. The term also describes the musical form that accompanies the dance, which subsequently developed more fully (often with a longer musical form called the minuet and trio) and was much used as a movement in the early classical symphony.

Molto – (Italian: “very”) An expression used to intensify the instruction to which it is applied. This term is often used to modify tempo markings in a composition.


Natural – A note which is neither sharp nor flat.

Neoclassical – Neoclassicism is a style of music used by composers in the 20th Century which incorporate Classical and Baroque structures within their works. Stravinsky, Ravel and Hindemith are all composers who experimented with the style.

Nocturne – A piece of music of a nocturnal mood. Irish composer John Field invented the form in the early 19th Century, which led to its popularization by Chopin, who wrote 21 nocturnes. The Italian form is often used as well, “Notturno”.


Obbligato – (Italian: “obligatory”) An instrumental part which is essential in a piece of music. Popular in the baroque period.

Octave – (from the Latin: “octavus” = eighth). The interval of an eight, e.g., from the notes C to C or D to D.

Octet – A piece of music written for 8 performers.

Opera – a staged comedy or drama set to music entirely and sung. Occasionally dialogue may be used between the songs or “arias” and then it is referred to as an opera comique or Singspiel.

Opus – (Latin: “work”) A term is generally used in the listing of a composer’s works by opus numbers, usually abbreviated to Op. Opus numbers are chronological, but not always a guide to the date of composition or even to the date of publication.

Organ – a keyboard instrument of one or more pipe divisions or other means for producing tones, each played with its own keyboard, played either with the hands on a keyboard or with the feet using pedals.

Oratorio – (Italian: “pulpit”). A large scale work for orchestra and voices, usually sacred in nature. Oratorios are narrative in the same way as opera, but are performed without staging, costume, action or scenery.

Orchestra – a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which combines instruments from different families, including bowed string instruments, brass instruments, woodwind instruments, and percussion instruments, each grouped in sections.

Ostinato – (Italian: “obstinate”) A repeated musical phrase or rhythm.

Overture – An introductory movement to an opera or substantial work. In opera, the overture usually contains examples of the major musical themes that will appear throughout the work – a type of trailer for what is to come.


Partita – A musical suite, usually for solo instrument or small ensemble.

Passacaglia – A baroque dance form in which a short melodic phrase, usually in the bass, form the basis of the work.

Pentatonic – A five-note scale consisting of the black notes on the keyboard. Used in folk music from many countries, it is readily associated with an ‘oriental’ sound.

Pianoforte – (Italian: “soft loud”). We just call it the “piano” nowadays. A keyboard instrument developed in the 18th century. The piano evolved from the harpsichord, but the piano creates sound by hammers hitting strings, rather than the strings being plucked. The term “pianoforte” is a mix of two Italian words, “piano” (soft) and “forte” (loud), meaning depending on how much force is applied to the keys, the instrument can be played anywhere from very soft to very loud.

Pitch – The frequency of the vibration of sound. Pitch is measured in hertz, and is generally organized in a system known as ‘equal temperament’, a system of tuning in which different notes have a standardized pitch ratio.

Pizzicato – (Italian: “plucked”) A direction to string instrument performers to pluck the strings, rather than using the bow to create sound.

Più – (Italian: “more”). A term that can preface an instruction to mean ‘more of’. “Più vivo”, meaning “more lively”, or “Più lento”, more slowly.

Poco a poco – (Italian: “little by little”). An term that can preface an instruction meaning to follow it “little by little”. For example, “poco a poco crescendo” means, getting louder gradually, little by little.

Prelude – A short piece of music with no particular form containing repeated rhythmic and melodic motifs. Originally a prelude preceded a longer piece of music, but sonce the 19th c. can also mean a brief stand-alone composition.

Presto – (Italian: “quick”) An instruction that a movement, section therein, or work is fast in tempo.


Quarter-tone – A division of pitches, smaller than a semi-tone, which is half a tone. Found generally in some music from the 20th Century and also in Eastern music

Quartet – A group of four players, or a composition for four players.


Rallentando – (Italian: “becoming slower”). Often abbreviated as “rall…” is an instruction to gradually play slower.

Recitative – In vocal works, recitative is a moment where a solo voice sings in relatively free rhythm. Usually preceding an ‘aria’ (the main song), recitative is usually used to illustrate plot and narrative in opera.

Requiem (Mass) – A Catholic Mass of the dead. Notable examples include Mozart’s major last work, and others by Brahms, Berlioz, Verdi and Faure.

Rhapsody – a one-movement piece of music that develops multiple free-flowing sections that do not necessarily relate to one another musically.

Rigaudon – A French folk dance, typically used in instrumental suites from the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the 20th Century, Ravel wrote a movement named ‘rigaudon’ in his work Le Tombeau de Couperin, an homage to the French Baroque period.

Ritardando – (Italian: “becoming slower”). Often abbreviated as “rit.” is an instruction to gradually play slower.

Ritenuto – (Italian: “held back”) An instruction to slow down immediately.

Rococo – In architecture and visual art, the rococo was characterized by a light, decorative French style. In music, the term is applied to a period characterized by highly decorative, elaborately ornate music.

Rondo – A form with a recurring theme, usually used as the final movement of a sonata or concerto. Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” is inspired by Turkish military marching bands from the 18th Century.

Round – a common term for a canon

Rubato – (Italian: ‘stolen’). An instruction to play with freedom. Rubato allows performers to deviate from strict tempo regularity, and can enhance expressive playing. In essence, by ‘stealing’ time, or borrowing it, it should be contrasted with strict time, in a musically correct method of atonement.


Scale – A sequence of notes.

Scherzo – (Italian: “joke”). A movement from a work. Originating in the 17th Century, the form usually appears in a Symphony as a fast, light-hearted second or third movement. Beethoven used the form as an alternative to the minuet, and Chopin expanded the form as whole works in his four Scherzi.

Serenade – Originally, a vocal or instrumental piece performed outdoors in the evening. Today, it usually applies to lighter multi-movement works for winds or scorings intended for orchestral performance.

Serialism – A compositional technique developed in the 20th Century by Arnold Schoenberg, as a method of ordering the seemingly chaotic and arbitrary technique to atonality. Serialism uses the twelve semitones of the octave in a particular order, known as a ‘tone-row’, which serves as a basis on which a work is structured.

Sforzando – Play with sudden and marked emphasis.

Sharp – Indicated by a # sign, shows that the note before which it is place should be raised by a half-step. Sharp can also mean that a note is out of tune, sounding higher than it should in this case.

Sonata – (from the Italian: “sonare” – to sound). A composition for soloist, or soloist with piano accompaniment. The sonata usually consists of several movements with one or more in sonata form. Sonata-form is a form in which a movement is divided into three sections, exposition, development and recapitulation. The exposition usually contains two contrasting themes, which are then developed in the development, to be re-heard in the recapitulation, ending in a coda.

Soprano – The highest female voice. May also refer to the highest pitched instrument in a type of instrument, as “soprano saxophone”.

Sostenuto – (Italian: “sustained”) notes or musical passages that indicate musicians should play each note beyond its normal value.

Spiccato – (Italian: “to separate”). A bowing technique for string instruments in which the bow bounces lightly upon the string.

Staccato – indicates that notes should be played much sorter than their normal value. Opposite of sostenuto.

Suite –  originally an ordered series of instrumental dances, in the same or related keys, often preceded by a prelude. More commonly, an ordered series of instrumental movements of any character.

Symphonic poem – a type of 19th-century and later orchestral “program music” based on an extramusical idea, either poetic or realistic. Also called a tone poem.

Symphony – A large scale orchestral work, usually in four movements, in which at least one is in sonata-form. The movements correspond roughly to a pattern of: Opening movement; Scherzo; Slow movement; Finale. In recent years it has also been used to refer to the group of instrumental musicians who play symphonies – i.e., Symphony Orchestra.


Temperament – A system of tuning an instrument in which tones of very nearly the same pitch, like C-sharp and D-flat, are made to sound alike by slightly “tempering” them – that is slightly raising or lowering them.

Tempo – (Italian: “time”). The speed at which a piece of music is played. Tempo indications are given either at the beginning of a piece, or within it. Sometimes tempo is indicated by strict beats-per-minute or using terminology which can be more flexible.

Tenor – A male singing voice between baritone and countertenor. The highest of the ordinary adult male range.

Toccata – (Italian: from ‘toccare’, to touch). An instrumental work designed to display the technical prowess and proficiency of a performer. Notable toccatas have been written by Bach, Ravel and Prokofiev.

Tonality – A system of organizing pitch in which a single pitch (or tone, called the tonic) is made central. A composition organized in this way is said to be in the key of whatever pitch serves as the tonic.

Tremolo – (Italian: “trembling”). The quick repetition of a single note usually used in string playing.

Trill – A musical ornament, consisting of the rapid sounding of two notes in quick succession.

Triplet – a rhythmic notation that instructs musicians to play three notes in the space that one beat normally uses


Unison – The sounding of the same note by two or more musicians or singers at the same time.


Vibrato – An expressive technique used on various instruments, where the pitch of a note is subtly moved up and down to create a vibrating effect. In singing it can occur spontaneously through variations in the larynx. Vibrato is used to add richness or expression to music.

Vivace – (Italian: “lively”). A tempo indicating that a piece should be played with a great deal of energy and speed.


Waltz – A dance in triple time. Johann Strauss wrote extensively using the form. Chopin wrote a set of Waltzes for piano. Originally used as music to be danced to, the form was given a heightened respectability thanks to Weber’s Invitation to the dance’, which paved the way for the ‘concert-waltz’, where the form stands alone as an instrumental or orchestral composition.

Woodwinds – A group of wind instruments made of a long hollow tube of wood or metal. The sound is made by blowing air through a very thin piece of shaved wood called a reed, or across a small mouthpiece; finger holes along the instrument are opened and closed to change the pitch. The oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and flute are examples of woodwind instruments.