music terminology

Music Terminology

Music Terminology List A to Z Cheatsheet

Cheatsheet of common and more obscure music terminology terms and definitions. Understanding music terms makes it easier to collaborate with other musicians – it really does help if you’re all singing and playing from the same hymn sheet!

  • ADDucation’s glossary of music terminology compiled by Robert Junker was last updated May 30, 2024 @ 7:49 pm.

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Music Terms Music Terminology Terms Explained
Accent A specific note is emphasized above other non-accented notes.
Accidental Accidentals indicate notes that are outside a specific key signature so they exist outside of the key.
Adagio Adagio (Italian for “at ease”) indicates a slow pace or tempo (see other pace examples in Tempo). Allegro and Presto are the opposite music terminology.
Allegro Allegro (Italian for “cheerful”) is a fast, upbeat music tempoAdagio is the opposite music terminology.
Alto Alto is a range of pitches usually sung by a singer in a choir. The Alto pitch range is lower than Soprano but higher than the Tenor range.
Andante Andante (Italian for “to go about”) is the music terminology for a moderately slow walking pace tempo.
Arpeggio An arpeggio breaks a chord into its individual notes. For example a C major arpeggio would be played as four notes; C, E, G and C in sequence.
Ballet A ballet is a dance performance which have been popular with audiences worldwide since the beginning of the 18th Century.
Bar A bar (or measure) in music terminology is a time period defined as a number of beats of a given duration defined by the time signature.
Bel Canto Bel Canto is a lyrical style of operatic singing using a rich, full, broad tone and smooth phrasing, especially popular in Italian operas between 1810 to 1845. Opera composers who used Bel Canto include Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and Richard Tauber (1891-1948) known as the King of Belcanto.
BPM BPM is a music terminology acronym for Beats per Minute, the number of beats in sixty seconds.
Cadence A cadence is a sequence of chords used to signify the end of a phrase.
Cadenza A cadenza is a solo moment when a singer or instrumentalist is given artistic license to express themselves – which may break the rhythm or tempo.
Canon A canon is a melody (or fugue) where several voices or instruments sing/play a melody which is repeated by other voices/instruments, some bars later, overlapping the initial melody.
Cantata Vocal music mostly with a religious subject with several parts where, in addition to musicians, choirs and soloists are often used.
Chord At least three different notes played simultaneously forms a chord.
Chorus A recurring lyrical or musical rhyme between stanzas.
Clef A clef is the first symbol at the start of any sheet music to denote the note values on the staff. For example, a treble clef or G clef indicates a G is found on the second line of the staff.
Coda A coda is a sheet music symbol in music terminology. A “da coda” instruction denotes the start of the final passage.
Consonance Consonance is music terminology for a combination of two (or more) tones of different frequencies which result in a pleasing musical sound.
Concert Music performed publicly mostly for a solo instrument. Exception: Concerto Grosso is a concert for an orchestra.
Concert Pitch How 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.
Crescendo Crescendo (Italian for “growing”) means to swell in volume. The opposite music terminology is decrescendo.
Da capo / D.C. Da Capo (literal Italian for “from the head”) is music terminology that lets musicians know to start “from the top” or “from the beginning”.
Dal segno Dal segno (Italian for “from the sign”) in sheet music gives musicians a “heads up” to resume playing from a different section of the piece, typically indicated with a star-shaped symbol/sign.
Diminuendo Diminuendo (Italian for “diminishing”) is a decrease in dynamic volume during a section of music. Diminuendo is the opposite of a crescendo.
Dynamics / Sforzando
Dynamics refers to the intensity and volume notes should be played. The list includes the musical notation abbreviations, most common dynamic instructions and loudness:
  • ppp: pianissimo possibile; very very quiet
  • pp: pianissimo; very quiet
  • p: piano; quiet (soft)
  • mp: mezzo-piano; average/medium
  • mf: mezzo forte; average/medium
  • f: forte; loud (hard)
  • ff: fortissimo; very loud.
  • fff: fortissimo possibile; very very loud.
Enharmonic Enharmonic tones sound the same but are notated differently. For example F♯ and G♭ are enharmonic equivalent pitches.
Fermata () A fermata () symbol over a musical note or notes on sheet music indicates the notes can be held longer at the discretion of a solo musician or orchestra conductor.
Flat ()
A flat in music terminology refers to the relative tonal quality of a note. A flat note is one semitone (half-step) lower than the same natural note in pitch. A double flat (♭♭) lowers the note by two semitones.
Forte Forte is used to describe a louder dynamic (see Dynamics above). Forte is louder than mezzo-forte but quieter than fortissimo.
Fortepiano Fortepiano is a dynamic instruction (see Dynamics above) to initially play a note loudly and then quickly decay to a quiet sustained dynamic.
Fugue A fugue is a composition with a subject that repeats after fourths or fifths. The melody is taken up by other instruments or soloists in a different key. There are specific types of fugues:
  • Staggered fugue, a strict canon
  • Melody forwards or melody backwards fugues
  • Mirror fugue/mirror canon where the same tones are played, or sung, upwards by one and downwards by the other.
Giocoso Giocoso (Italian for “playful”) indicates music should be played in a lively and fun manner, often at a higher tempo.
Glissando On sheet music a gliss or glissando (from glisser “to glide” in French) looks like a squiggly line between notes and indicates a rapid sliding down or up the musical scale.
Grave Grave (Italian for “solemn”) indicates the slowest tempo between 20-40 beats per minute (BPM).
Key The key of a piece of music, in western music terminology, is the scale, or group of pitches, that form the harmonic foundation of a musical composition.
Largo, Larghetto Largo (Italian for “large”) is a broad and slow-moving tempo in orchestral music. See Tempo for examples.
Legato In musical notation legato means each musical note is sung or played with smooth transitions between successive tones.
Leggero Leggero (Italian for “light”) is a character and mood indicator with a tempo connatation, in this case to play in a light-hearted manner at a quicker pace. Here’s a few other mood and pacing examples:
Interval Distance between two tones (an octave is eight notes). Example intervals:
  • second; two tones)
  • third; three tones)
  • fourth; four tones)
  • fifth; 5 tones)
Major Scale 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.
Melody A melody is a pleasing sequence of musical notes or tunes arranged in a rhythmic pattern as part of a musical composition.
Minor The 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.
Motif A motif in music terminology refers to a specific melody or series of notes is used in different ways throughout a piece of music or song. See also ostinato.
Natural (♮) Natural notes in music are neither flat nor sharp. The natural note symbol (♮) is added to music notation to inform the musician the note is natural whatever the key signature.
Nonet In music terminology a nonet is a combination of exactly nine voices or instruments 0r  a musical composition for such a combination. Other music groups by numbers include:
  • solo; one musician, one-man band
  • duo; two musicians
  • trio; three musicians
  • quartet; four musicians
  • quintet; five musicians
  • sextet; six musicians
  • septet; seven musicians
  • octet; eight musicians
  • nonet nine musicians
  • decet, dectet, tentet or decimette; ten musicians
  • duodecet, duodectet; twelve musicians
Octave An octave is a progression of eight notes on a musical scale. For example on a keyboard, starting with A, the progression is: A, B, C, D, E, F, G and ending with A. The start and end notes of the progression are always the same but an octave higher or lower.
Opera An opera is a dramatic stage work, in which the performers sing lyrics supported by an orchestra.
Operetta An operetta is often more cheerful, lively and funny than an opera. It is the predecessor of the musical.
Opus Numbered 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).
Ostinato In classical music terminology ostinato (“stubborn” in Italian) is a persistently repeated musical rhythm or phrase which in popular music could be a bass line, loop or drum beat. See also motif.
Overture An overture is a musical prelude (opening) to an opera or operetta.
Pan / Panning
Panning is the process of positioning sounds at specific locations in a stereo or multi channel sound field, typically using a Pan control setting.
Pastorale A pastorale is a piece of music or small stageplay that evokes a pastoral atmosphere.
Phrase In music terminology a phrase is a significant musical thought ending with a cadence – a musical punctuation.
Pianissimo In music terminology pianissimo is a dynamic instruction (see dynamics for more other dynamic instructions) that instructs musicians to play very softly or quieter. The dynamic range for a pianissimo passage should be quieter than piano, but louder than pianississimo.
Pizzicato Pizzicato (Italian for “plucked”) instructs musicians playing string instruments to pluck instead of using a bow.
Poco-a-poco Poco-a-poco (Italian for “little by little”) indicates an incremental change in tempo over a longer period of time either up or down.
Presto Presto (Italian for “fast”) is the fastest musical tempo, occasionally increased to prestissimo.
Phrase In music terminology a phrase is a significant musical thought ending with a cadence – a musical punctuation.
Quarter tone In music terminology a quarter tone is a musical interval that is half the value of a semitone and a quarter of the value of a whole tone.
Tuplets In music terminology a tuplet describes a grouping of notes that would not normally occur within a beat. Here’s some examples:
  • Triplets; three notes played in the time of two of the same notes
  • Duplets; two notes played in the time of three
  • Quadtuplets; four notes, played in the time of three of the same type of note
  • Quintuplets; five notes in the time of four
  • Sextuplets; six notes in the time of four
  • Septuplets; seven notes in the time of four
  • Nonuplets; nine notes played in the time of eight of the same type of note.
Rhapsody A rhapsody is a single-movement piece of music that includes multiple free-flowing sections that may or may not relate to each another.
Ritardando In music terminology a ritardando is an instruction to musicians to gradually slow down the tempo.
Rondo A rondo is a piece of music with one main repeating theme interspersed with other musical ideas.
Rubato Rubato, (Italian for “to rob”) gives, usually solo musicians, freedom to to make subtle rhythmic changes, for example to stretch or compress beats, phrases etc.
Scale A progression of tones in a particular order. In Western music the diatonic scale usually comprises 8 notes:
  • 1 = unison
  • 2 = second
  • 3 = third
  • 4 = fourth
  • 5 = fifth
  • 6 = sixth
  • 7 = seventh
  • 8 = octave.
Scherzo A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) is a short playful composition, sometimes a movement from a sonata or symphony.
Score Complete compilation of all the parts of a musical ensemble for several voices or instruments. Each part is aligned in a fixed order.
Sequence Repetition of a musical idea at a different tone. Pejoratively termed a cobbler’s patch.
Serenade A light, playful piece or love song usually played at night or outdoors. E.g. Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart.
Sharp (♯)
A sharp musical note raises a note by a semitone. A double sharp (×) raises a note by two semitones.
Slur Slurs in music terminology instruct wind and string muscians to play notes together as one smooth sound without sounding each note separately.
Solfege / Solfeggio / Solfa
Solfege is a phonetic system which makes it easier to sing and understand melodies. Every note of a scale is given a unique syllable. Solfege systems have seven basic syllables; do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. There are two different Solfege systems “fixed do” and “movable do”.
Sonata Instrumental piece for solo instruments (usually piano and violin). Its counterpart is the cantata (“sung”).
Staff / Stave A staff or stave in western music notation is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that, starting with a clef, denotes the pitch of musical notes.
Symphony A large-scale instrumental work usually in 4 movements, each played at a different pace. Haydn was the first to “design” the symphony, but Beethoven perfected it with his famous nine. Movements in a typical symphony follow this pattern:
  • The first movement is often fast (allegro)
  • The second movement a bit slower (adagio)
  • The third movement is moderately agile (andandte)
  • The fourth movement is fast again (presto vivace or allegro).
String Quartet A string quartet (as the name suggests) always comprises four string instruments, namely two violins, a viola and a cello.
Suite A concert set consisting of several pieces which may include dances or instrumental music.
Tempo Tempo is the music terminology used to indicate the speed or pace music is played. The tempo usually defines the length and duration of each quarter note. Here’s some tempo pacing examples:
  • Grave; slow and solemn (20-40 BPM)
  • Lento; slowly (40-45 BPM)
  • Largo; broadly (45-50 BPM)
  • Adagio; slow and stately (55-65 BPM)
  • Adagietto; rather slow (65-69 BPM)
  • Andante; at walking pace (73-77 BPM)
  • Moderato; moderately (86-97 BPM)
  • Allegretto; moderately fast (98-109 BPM)
  • Allegro; fast, quickly and bright, upbeat (109-132 BPM)
  • Vivace; lively and fast (132-140 BPM)
  • Presto; extremely fast (168-177 BPM)
  • Prestissimo; even faster than presto (178 BPM upwards).
Tempi Sets 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.
Theory of Musical Equilibration The Theory of Musical Equilibration, developed by Bernd Willimek and Daniela Willimek, creates a psychological paradigm which explains the emotional effects of musical harmonies.
Time signature The time signature gives music its beat. In printed music the time signature is shown after the clef. For example 4/4 means four beats per measure, ideal for dance music. Time signature explainer.
Tones Music 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.
Twelve-Tone Music As 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.
Verismo Verismo 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.
Voice Range Female vocal ranges are from top down: soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto. Males: tenor, baritone and bass.

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4 responses to “Music Terminology”

  1. Bernd Willimek says:

    Hi Joe, as requested, here’s a brief outline of the theory of musical equilibration:
    The Theory of Musical Equilibration creates a psychological paradigm which explains the emotional effects of musical harmonies. The theory was designed by music theorist Bernd Willimek and developed together with his wife Daniela Willimek to today’s version. It emerges form Ernst Kurth’s teaching in music psychology and states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead; it evokes processes of the will which the listener identifies with, and relating to these processes gives music its emotional content.

  2. Bernd Willimek says:

    I suggest a new term for your dictionary: Theory of Musical Equilibration

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