music terminology

Music Terminology

Music Terminology List – Cheatsheet of Music Related Terms

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Term Music Terminology and Meaning
Chord At least three different notes simultaneously forming a chord.
Adagio Adagio is music played at a slow and quiet pace. The opposite music terminology is Allegro
Allegro Allegro (Italian: cheerful) is a fast, upbeat piece of music.  Adagio is the opposite music terminology.
Ballet A public dance performance since the beginning of the 18th Century.
Bel Canto A 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.
Crescendo Crescendo (Italian: growing) means to swell in volume. The opposite is decrescendo.
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.
Dynamics Specifies 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.
Fugue Composition with a subject that repeats after fourths or fifths. The melody is taken up by other instruments or soloists in a different key.
Interval Distance between two tones. Intervals are for example: the second (two tones), third (three tones), fourth (four tones), fifth (5 tones), octave (eight notes).
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.
Canon A 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).
Cantata Vocal music mostly with a religious subject with several parts where, in addition to musicians, choirs and soloists are often used.
Consonance Pleasant sounds for the air.
Concert Music performed publicly mostly for a solo instrument. Exception: Concerto Grosso is a concert for an orchestra.
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.
Octave The 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.
Opera An opera is a dramatic stage work, in which the performers sing lyrics supported by an orchestra.
Operetta In comparison to an opera, an operetta is often cheerful, lively and funny. 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).
Overture Musical prelude (opening) to an opera or operetta.
Score Complete compilation of all the parts of a musical ensemble for several voices or instruments. Each part is aligned in a fixed order.
Pastorale Piece of music or small stage play that evokes a pastoral atmosphere.
Presto (Italian for fast), fastest musical tempo, occasionally increased too prestissimo.
Chorus A recurring lyrical / musical rhyme between stanzas.
Rondo Musical form which is repeated and inserted between other episodes.
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.
Symphony A 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.
Sonata Instrumental piece for solo instruments (usually piano and violin). Its counterpart is the cantata (“sung”).
Voice Range Female vocal ranges are from top down: soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto. Males: tenor, baritone and bass.
String Quartet A string quartet (as the name suggests) always comprises 4 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.
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.
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.
Scale A 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).
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.
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.

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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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