A handy list of words and their meanings

adj. = adjective, n. = noun, v. = verb, abb. = abbreviation

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z

music that supports the main melody
fast, but not excessively
a low female voice – the second-highest voice in a four-part choir; solo singers may use the full term ‘contralto’; see also ‘countertenor
make louder
slowish, at a moderate walking pace
solo song (also called ‘air’), generally as part of an opera, oratorio or cantata
the way that notes are performed and move from one to the next – e.g. smooth or bouncy
see ‘period performance’
a genre of dance that tells a story with scenery and music
bar (US: measure)
written music is divided into bars (UK) or measures (US) marked by vertical lines
male voice between tenor and bass in pitch
Baroque era
the era of western classical music, from roughly 1600 to 1750
bass line
the lowest line of music in a piece
1) the bottom of the music in terms of pitch; 2) a low male voice – the lowest voice in a four-part choir; 3) abbreviation of ‘double bass’
basso buffo
a comic operatic role for the bass voice
1) the basic pulse of the music; 2) the movement of a hand or baton by the conductor to indicate the pulse
the group of instruments in the orchestra or wind band made of brass, i.e. trumpet, trombone, horn, tuba
a coming to rest on a particular note or key, as in the standard ‘Amen’ at the end of a hymn
a relatively brief, often showy solo in a concerto or operatic aria
a piece of music in which a melody is played and then imitated by one or more instruments after a set time
a work usually for solo singers, chorus and orchestra (from the Latin ‘cantare’, to sing)
usually a Christmas song with a regular rhythm
chamber music
music for small groups of players, such as a string quartet or a piano trio; so called because it was originally played in the ‘chamber’ or home
a group of singers, often divided into soprano, alto, tenor, bass
a hymn-like choral piece
two or more notes played or sung together
1) as choir; 2) a refrain: a recurring line or phrase in a choral piece with verses in between
including semitones as well as tones
Classical era
the era of western classical music, roughly from 1750 to 1820
classical music
generally, in the western tradition, acoustic music which may still be performed years after it was written; therefore music in which the composer is as important, often more important, than the performer
the sign at the beginning of a stave (or staff) that denotes the pitch of its lines and spaces
the last part of a piece
col legno
when string players use the back of the bow – the wood – to play on the strings
somebody who writes music
the process of writing music; a piece of music
a work for solo instrument and orchestra, generally in three movements (fast–slow–fast)
the person who directs a large group of musicians, e.g. a choir or orchestra
counterpoint (adj. contrapuntal)
the interweaving of separate horizontal melodic lines, as opposed to the accompaniment of a top-line (horizontal) melody by a series of (vertical) chords; similar to, and often interchangeable with, polyphony
a very high male voice that has the range of a low female singer; see also ‘alto
music gradually getting louder
the middle section in sonata form, normally characterised by progression through several keys
muscular sheet at the bottom of the lungs which is contracted to help the lungs expand – used a lot by wind players and singers
sounds that clash and can be uncomfortable to listen to
dotted rhythm
a ‘jagged’ pattern of sharply distinguished longer and shorter notes, a long, accented note being followed by a short, unaccented one – or the other way around. Example: The Battle Hymn of the Republic: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glo-ry of the co-ming of the Lord’
sounding two strings at once on an instrument in the violin family
a technique used by wind players for playing fast music
duet, duo
1) a work for two players or singers; 2) a group of two players or singers
the length of a note or rest
the levels of quietness and loudness, and the terms that indicate them (pianissimo, fortissimo etc.)
the first section in sonata form, where the main themes are introduced
a group of instruments of similar material, appearance and/or method of sound production
fantasy, fantasia
a free form, often sounding as if it were improvised, following the composer’s fancy rather than any formal structures
the term for ‘last movement
1) a sign to the left of a note, showing it must be lowered by a semitone; 2) a term meaning the intonation is below the notated pitch
a fluttering sound made by wind players, particularly flautists
folk music
the traditional music of a particular area or country, passed down through generations, often orally
forte; fortissimo
loud; very loud
fugue (adj. fugal)
an imitative work in several overlapping parts. Fugue derives from the same principle as the common ‘round’ or canon, though it can be much more complicated. It begins with a solo tune or short theme (known as the ‘subject’). When this has been played, the 2nd ‘voice’ (singer or instrument) answers with the same theme (subject), but in a different key. While this 2nd voice is playing or singing the subject, the first continues with a new tune (known as a ‘countersubject’). In the overlapping scheme of things, this is equivalent to the second phrase of a round or canon (‘Dormez-vous’ in Frère Jacques; ‘See how they run’ in Three Blind Mice). When subject and countersubject complete their counterpoint, a 3rd ‘voice’ enters with its own statement of the subject. Voice 2 now repeats voice one’s countersubject, while voice one introduces a new countersubject. And so it goes, alternating with ‘episodes’ in which the various voices combine in free counterpoint, but with no full statements of the subject in any voice
a continuous slide up or down between two or more different pitches
graphic score
a representation of music through the use of visual symbols that are not traditional music notation
Gregorian chant
a big collection of church melodies from the Medieval period – one line is sung by all voices in unison
1) a. describing harmony; 2) n. often plural: the airy notes that violin family instruments can produce when players touch the strings lightly in certain places
the combining of notes to make chords: these ‘vertical’ chords often accompany a ‘horizontal’ melody – as in a hymn
homophony (adj. homophonic)
music that consists of a melody and accompaniment within parts that move together, such as a hymn
in Christian worship, songs with verses in praise of God
an influential manager or promoter of artistic performances (ballet, opera, concerts, etc.)
improvise (n. improvisation)
to make up music as you go along, often taking a well-known tune as a starting point
the distance in pitch between notes. For example, the interval between C and G is a fifth (C(1), D(2), E,(3), F(4), G(5))
the ‘tuning’ – whether the notes are exactly in tune, or are sharp or flat
a music created mainly by black Americans in the early 20th century, mixing together elements of European-American and tribal African musics; developed into many different forms, generally more relaxed than classical music
pieces of western classical music are usually in particular keys, based on the notes of the western scale (C major, G minor etc.); a key is a piece’s home – the music can travel away from it, but usually comes back in the end (also see ‘tonality’)
smooth, connected, the sound of one note ‘touching’ the sound of the next; as though in one breath
a musical phrase that represents a character, object, place or idea – like a musical signpost or label
the text written especially for an opera, oratorio etc.
Lied, Lieder
‘song’, ’songs’ in German. Refers to secular songs written by 19th-century composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms
poetic and musical form of 14th-century Italy; 16th- or 17th-century setting of non-religious verse
refers to the key of a piece of music – major usually sounds happier than minor
keyboard for the hands to play (esp. in reference to the organ)
the composer’s original handwritten music
a piece in 4/4 time with a very regular beat, suitable for military marching
the worship ceremony of the Christian church; many composers have written masses
see ‘bar
Medieval music
music before c. 1490
melody (adj. melodic)
tune – normally the top line in a piece
metre, time (adj. metrical)
the grouping together of beats in recurrent units of two, three, four, six etc.
female voice between soprano and alto in pitch
refers to the key of a piece of music – minor usually sounds sadder than major
minuet, menuet
an originally French dance, in the folk tradition, it can be seen as an ancestor of the waltz: both have 3 beats in a bar, and an elegance from being played and developed for years in royal courts of Europe
the movement from one key to another; very important in sonata form
monophony (adj. monophonic)
music consisting of a single melodic line, whether sung/played by several voices/instruments, or one alone
an unaccompanied, polyphonic choral piece, usually sacred – important in Medieval and Renaissance periods
motif, motive
a kind of musical acorn: a melodic/rhythmic figure too brief to constitute a proper theme, but one on which themes are built. A perfect example is the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: ta-ta-ta dah; ta-ta-ta dah
a large, complete section in a symphony, chamber, choral or solo work (normally there are three or four)
n. a device used to soften the sound of an instrument (but not stop it completely); v. to soften the sound of an instrument
a system for writing down music
1) the symbol for a single sound in written music; 2) the sound of this symbol when played
the simultaneous sounding of any note with its nearest namesake, up or down (C to C, F to F etc.)
a work for eight players; a group of eight players
opera (adj. operatic)
a stage work that combines words, drama, music (with singers and orchestra) and scenery
opera buffa
comic opera; often based on everyday subjects
opera seria
serious opera; often with a mythological theme
light-hearted opera: more fun, with lighter music and speaking as well as singing, and usually shorter than operas; characters don’t often die in operetta, but they die quite a lot in opera
opus (abb. op.)
‘work’ in Latin: composers’ works are organised in ‘opus’ numbers; usually the lower the opus number, the earlier in the composer’s life the work was written
an extended musical setting of a text, often though not always sacred, for performance on a concert stage by singers and orchestra; Handel’s Messiah is a famous example
an organised body of instruments that play together, usually string instruments, woodwind, brass and percussion
the selection of different instruments in the orchestra to play different bits of a piece (a flute for this line, perhaps the cellos for that one, etc.) – thus creating a particular overall sound-world; some pieces originally for piano have then been ‘orchestrated’ – different notes are given to different orchestral instruments, so it is the same piece but has a richer, fuller sound
decoration or embellishments that are added to a melody
a short orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, often containing a foretaste of the opera’s main melodies; also an independent orchestral piece, but generally descriptive of a place or an event
1. a sustained note, over which other melodies are played; 2. a foot-operated lever, different types of which are found on the piano, organ and harp
a group of instruments, both tuned (different pitches available) and untuned (fixed pitch), that provide strong rhythmic support and interesting sound ‘colour’ for a work; generally, these instruments are struck, shaken or scraped to make them sound
period performance
the performance of music in the style of the composer’s time: for example, instead of playing Bach’s keyboard music on a piano it is played more ‘authentically’ on a harpsichord, as it would have been at the time he wrote it
a musical sentence, or part of a sentence: a smallish group of notes or bars that can be played or sung in one breath: e.g. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ (phrase one) ‘How I wonder what you are’ (phrase two)
shaping a piece of music into phrases
piano; pianissimo
soft; very soft
a musical composition, e.g. a song, an overture, a trio, a sonata etc.
whether notes are high or low
plucked (strings)
polyphony (adj. polyphonic)
music with two or more interweaving melodic lines; often found in, for example, Renaissance choral pieces
an audible ‘bend’ in pitch, up or down – gliding from one note to the next without a break in the sound
literally, a piece that is heard first and introduces another piece (like an overture); however, the name has been applied (most famously by Bach and Chopin) to describe freestanding short pieces
presto; prestissimo
very fast; even faster
same as beat – a usually regular, rhythmic anchor within a piece of music
a work for four players; a group of four players
a work for five players; a group of five players
the pitch compass that an instrument or voice can cover, from its lowest to its highest notes
the third section in sonata form, where the main themes come home
also known as ‘sung speech’ – a section in an opera that moves the story along
repeated line or lines of music or text, e.g. a ‘chorus’ in a song
1) as in ‘range’; 2) a particular section of an instrument’s range
Renaissance era
the era of western classical music, roughly from 1490 to 1600
a mass for the dead
resonance (v. resonate)
the continuance and/or amplification of sound through vibration in a hollow space
n. a sign in music notation that indicates the absence of a sounding note; v. when the player stops playing in response to this sign
rhythm (adj. rhythmic)
the grouping of musical sounds by duration (lengths of notes) and stress (leaning into certain notes); rhythmic music makes this grouping very obvious
rhythm pattern
a short repeating pattern that uses sounds or notes of different lengths, e.g. repeatedly clapping the rhythm pattern of the sentence ‘I like fish and chips’ – ‘I like’ being longer notes or sounds, ‘fish and chips’ being shorter ones
when the bow of a violin family instrument is thrown at the string so that it rebounds straight away
a term for the time between the Baroque and Classical periods when light, decorative music was being written, with no aim for spiritual depth or complex polyphonic techniques
Romantic era
the era of western classical music, roughly from 1820 to 1910
a movement in which the main theme, always given out at the beginning, makes repeated appearances, interspersed with contrasting sections known as ‘episodes’: generally, A-B-A-B-A, though in most rondos the episodes are different in each case: A-B-A-C-A
from the Italian word ‘scala’ (‘ladder’) – a series of next-door notes (C–D–E–F–G–A etc.), moving up or down; these ‘ladders’ contain the basic ingredients from which melodies are made and keys established
the music of a piece written out on the page with a separate line for each instrument
half a tone; the smallest interval in western classical music
a work for seven players; a group of seven players
a radical method of composition devised by the Second Viennese School in the 20th century (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) where a tone-row of 12 notes is used as a mathematical basis of a composition, rather than the traditional melody/harmony approach
a work for six players; a group of six players
a sign to the left of a note, showing it must be raised by a semitone; also a term meaning the intonation is above the notated pitch
sonata form
a complicated structure for pieces used by composers from the Classical period to the late 19th century. Basically it consists of three sections: the ‘exposition’, ‘development’ and ‘recapitulation’. The exposition is where we meet the main themes, the development is where they go exploring, and the recapitulation is where they come back home again; there is often a coda at the end
a piece normally for piano, or one orchestral instrument and piano, in sonata form
a high female voice – the highest voice in a four-part choir
short, bouncy strokes played in the middle of the bow on violin family instruments
a short rhythmic or melodic idea, sometimes repeated, to punctuate the music
short, bouncy notes
see ‘stave
stave (US: staff)
the set of five lines on which notes of music are written in notation
string instruments
instruments sounded by the vibration of strings
string quartet
an ensemble of four string instruments: two violins, one viola and one cello
how a piece of music is organised, e.g. into different sections
sul ponticello
violin family instruments playing right next to the bridge
symphony orchestra
the main kind of orchestra in western classical music that developed in Europe in the 18th century
a large, important work for orchestra in different movements, some fast, some slow; the first movement is often in sonata form; originally the word meant sounds going well together
accents falling on irregular beats, generally giving a ‘swinging’ feel; often found in jazz
technique (adj. technical)
the way in which a musician produces sound and the physical skill of doing it
the speed of a piece of music
a high male voice – the second-lowest voice in a four-part choir
how tight or loose something is (for strings, tighter means a higher pitch; looser means a lower pitch)
the different layers or parts in music, and how they fit together; see also ‘monophony’, ‘homophony’ and ‘polyphony
usually, a recognisable melody on which a piece is based
timbre, tone colour
the property of sound that distinguishes a horn from a piano, a violin from a xylophone etc.
see ‘metre
tonality (key)
a complicated concept. Put at its broadest, tonality has to do with a kind of tonal solar system in which each note (or ‘planet’), each rung of the scale, has a relationship with one particular note (or ‘sun’), which is known as the ‘key-note’ or ‘tonic’. This is the music’s home: it begins here, and comes back here at the end. When this planetary system is based on the note C, the key-note, or tonic, is C and the music is said to be ‘in the key of C’. The composer can move to other keys (modulation) which sometimes creates a feeling of unrest: this is resolved when the music comes back to the key in which it started
tone colour
see ‘timbre
1) describes a player’s sound; 2) a major second interval – the sum of two semitones
transposing instruments
instruments that are naturally in a different key from that of C
changing key
the top of the music in terms of pitch; boy soprano
a ‘trembling’ sound made by string players when they move the bow backwards and forwards very fast on a single pitch
a fast alternation of two next-door notes
a work for three players; a group of three players
an instrument from the violin family sounding three strings at once
a grouping of three notes in the space of one beat (as in the ‘Buckle-my’ of ‘One, two / Buckle-my shoe’)
n. see ‘melody’; v. to adjust an instrument so that it matches the standard pitch that everyone must stick to, and is not flat or sharp
one line sung or played simultaneously, and at the same pitch, by all
when a composer writes a tune and then composes various different versions of it, decorating it and probably changing the speed – a bit like dressing up a person in various clothes: the person is the same underneath but looks different (here, the tune is the same underneath, but sounds different)
vibration (v. vibrate)
the cause of all sound; very rapid movement of something, like the vibration of a string, the vibration of a wind player’s lips or the vibration of air down a woodwind or brass instrument
a wobbling of the note backwards and forwards very quickly to make the overall sound a bit richer (the sound ‘vibrates’)
violin family
violin, viola, cello and double bass (though the double bass is slightly different from the others)
music that requires great skill to be performed
a musician of exceptional technical skill
vivacious, full of life
a dance in 3/4 time (1-2-3, 1-2-3) made very popular in 19th-century Vienna by the Strauss family
wind band
a group consisting of brass and woodwind instruments only
wind instruments
instruments belonging to the woodwind and brass families
instruments which are blown and (at least originally) were made of wood, such as the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon
a musical piece, often quite long and sometimes in several movements
world music
music from all over the world that is not part of the western classical tradition