music terminology

Music Terminology

Music Terminology List – Cheatsheet of Music Related Terms

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TermMusic Terminology and Meaning
ChordAt least three different notes simultaneously forming a chord.
AdagioAdagio is music played at a slow and quiet pace. The opposite music terminology is Allegro
AllegroAllegro (Italian: cheerful) is a fast, upbeat piece of music.  Adagio is the opposite music terminology.
BalletA public dance performance since the beginning of the 18th Century.
Bel CantoA style of singing with a special (vocal) technique, especially in Italian opera from 1810 to 1845. Typical opera composers who used bel canto were Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. Richard Tauber (1891-1948) was later deemed the King of Belcanto.
CrescendoCrescendo (Italian: growing) means to swell in volume. The opposite is decrescendo.
MajorScale type characterized by the third upward from its starting note. On the major scale there is a semitone between the 3rd and 4th and the 7th and 8th note.
DynamicsSpecifies the volume at which a piece of music is to be played. For example: Fortissimo = very loud, Forte = loud, Mezzo forte = moderately loud; piano = quiet, pianissimo = very quiet; fortepiano = first loud then immediately quiet again.
FugueComposition with a subject that repeats after fourths or fifths. The melody is taken up by other instruments or soloists in a different key.
IntervalDistance between two tones. Intervals are for example: the second (two tones), third (three tones), fourth (four tones), fifth (5 tones), octave (eight notes).
Concert PitchHow a note should sound. The sound waves of the sound “a” for example, have to swing at exactly 440 times (440 Hz) per second. Once this tone has been established all other instruments of an orchestra or band can adapt to the pitch. Musicians use a tuning fork to help.
CanonA special type of fugue, where several voices or instruments sing the same melody or play a) staggered (strict canon) or b) the melody forwards or, by another backwards or c) the same tones played or sung upwards by one and downwards by the other (mirror canon).
CantataVocal music mostly with a religious subject with several parts where, in addition to musicians, choirs and soloists are often used.
ConsonancePleasant sounds for the air.
ConcertMusic performed publicly mostly for a solo instrument. Exception: Concerto Grosso is a concert for an orchestra.
MinorThe term for certain intervals and scales. On the minor scale there is a semitone between the 2nd and 3rd as well as between the 5th and 6th.
OctaveThe eighth tone interval between a high and low tone (for example, the low and high c). From the Latin for eight. They always comprise the 8 tones c, d, e, f, g, a, h, c.
OperaAn opera is a dramatic stage work, in which the performers sing lyrics supported by an orchestra.
OperettaIn comparison to an opera, an operetta is often cheerful, lively and funny. It is the predecessor of the musical.
OpusNumbered work of a composer used to show when the piece was written. E.g. for Mozart there is a separate directory created in 1862 by Ludwig Köchel (the so-called Köchel-directory).
OvertureMusical prelude (opening) to an opera or operetta.
ScoreComplete compilation of all the parts of a musical ensemble for several voices or instruments. Each part is aligned in a fixed order.
PastoralePiece of music or small stage play that evokes a pastoral atmosphere.
Presto(Italian for fast), fastest musical tempo, occasionally increased too prestissimo.
ChorusA recurring lyrical / musical rhyme between stanzas.
RondoMusical form which is repeated and inserted between other episodes.
SequenceRepetition of a musical idea at a different tone. Pejoratively termed a cobbler’s patch.
SerenadeA light, playful piece or love song usually played at night or outdoors. E.g. Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart.
SymphonyA large-scale instrumental work usually in 4 movements, each played at a different pace. The first is often fast (Allegro), the second a bit slower (Adagio), the third moderately agile (Andandte) and the fourth again fast (Presto Vivace or Allegro). Haydn was the first to “design” the symphony, but Beethoven perfected it with his famous nine.
SonataInstrumental piece for solo instruments (usually piano and violin). Its counterpart is the cantata (“sung”).
Voice RangeFemale vocal ranges are from top down: soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto. Males: tenor, baritone and bass.
String QuartetA string quartet (as the name suggests) always comprises 4 string instruments, namely two violins, a viola and a cello.
SuiteA concert set consisting of several pieces which may include dances or instrumental music.
TempiSets the pace at which a piece of music is to be played. E.g. Presto = very quickly, Vivace = lively, Allegro = fast, Andante = sedately, Adagio = slow.
TonesMusic distinguishes between the 8 basic tones c, d, e, f, g, a, h, c, and the 10 semitones, which are either a half note higher (cis, dis, fis, gis, ais) or a half tone lower (the, it, b tot, as,) than the basic notes.
ScaleA progression of tones in a particular order. In Western music usually the diatonic scale comprising 8 notes (1 = unison, 2 = second, 3 = third, 4 = fourth, 5 = fifth, 6 = sixth, 7 = seventh, 8 = octave).
VerismoVerismo means truth or realism and was a style of Italian opera in the period from 1890 to 1920. Typical verismo operas are The Bajazoo by Leoncavallo and Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni.
Twelve-Tone MusicAs the name implies – the arrangement of 12 twelve notes (c, cis, d, dis, e, f, g, g#, a, b, h) into a tone row as the composition basis. A harsh harmony-less sound which isn’t always easy to appreciate.

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  • This list of music terminology was compiled by Robert Junker, last updated August 16, 2019.
  • Music terminology compiled by Robert Junker, last updated August 16, 2019.
  • Spotted a mistake or do you have a suggestion to improve our list of music terminology? Please add your comments below…

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