Musical Dictonary

The most common musical terms defined


    Music Terms beginning with "A"

    • Accent - Articulation - Tells the musician to put emphasis or weight on the front of the note.
    • Accelerando - Tempo Marking - Abbreviates as accel. and means to gradually increase the tempo. There is usually a tempo marking at the end of accelerando that lets you know what tempo to reach.
    • Accidental - Musical Symbol - This symbol modifies a note's pitch. Sharps, flats, double sharps, double flats, and natural signs are all accidentals.
    • Accompaniment - All parts/voices other than the solo line. In this example, the trumpet is the solo line and the piano is performing the accompaniment.
    • Adagio - Tempo Marking - Translates to "slowly" and is a tempo between 66 and 76 beats per minute.
    • Allargando - Style Marking - Often abbreviated with allarg. and it means to "widen." Which is performed by slowing the tempo and broadening while maintaining a full tone.
    • Allegro - Tempo Marking - Literally translated to "cheerful" but is interpreted in music to be a quick tempo, usually between 120 and 156.
    • Allegretto - Tempo Marking - Fairly quick, but not as fast as Allegro
    • Alto - Vocal Range - The second highest vocal group in the choir. Either a low female voice or a high male voice.
    • Andante - Tempo Marking - At a walking pace, typically between 76 and 108 beats per minute.
    • Aria- Musical Form - A long accompanied vocal piece that is usually part of a larger work like an opera.
    • Assai - Style Marking - This is means "very" and is always combined with another music term.
    • Atonal - Music Theory - Atonal music is a piece that has no tonal center, meaning that it isn't written in a specific key or mode. Atonal styles of composition became popular around 1908 and persist today. Some prominent composers who used atonality are Alban Bern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern.

    Music Terms beginning with "B"

    • Ballad - Musical Form - A French term for a poem or narrative that has been set to music.
    • Band - Ensemble - Also called a wind band or wind ensemble, this type of ensemble consists of woodwind and brass instruments.
    • Bar - Music Theory - The term "bar" can be interchangeable with "measure." It is the smallest segment of a musical piece.
    • Bar line - Music Theory - Barlines are used to separate bars/measures.
    • Baritone - Instrument - The term Baritone can refer to either a vocal range or an instrument. For vocalists, a Baritone in singing is a middle-range male voice between the bass and tenor ranges. As an instrument, the baritone is a brass instrument that resembles a small tuba. It is pitched in B-flat and has a practical range of E to B-flat 1.
    • Bass - Instrument - The bass is the largest of the stringed instruments. It is also called the "double bass" or "upright bass."
    • Bass Clef - Music Theory - Also known as an F-clef, this symbol appears that the start of the staff and lets the musician know the note correlation to ledger lines. The ledger lines in the bass clef are "G, B, D, F, A" and the spaces are "A, C, E, G."
    • Basso Continuo - Music Theory - A style of accompaniment in the Baroque era that consisted of a basic bassline and harmonies. Basso Continuo typically performed with a small ensemble consisting of a piano (or other keyboard instrument) and a cello or lute.
    • Bassoon - Instrument - The bassoon is a double-reed instrument (meaning that the mouthpiece is created by two reeds). It has a practical range from B-flat 1 to G5.
    • Beam - Music Theory - The beam is used to connect two (or more) notes of equal or lesser duration. For example, a beam can connect two eighth notes.
    • Beat - Music Theory - A beat is a pulse you feel when listening to music. It measures the passing of time (tempo) and helps musicians perform together and read rhythms.

    Music Terms beginning with "C"

    • Cadence - Music Theory - The end of a harmonic progression that creates a sense of resolution. There are several types of cadences, like a Perfect Authentic Cadence and Half Cadences. You will typically find them at the end of a phrase or piece.
    • Cadenza - Music Theory - A section of a piece (typically a solo ) where the musician performs an unaccompanied section comprised of ornamented themes from the work. This is sometimes improvised.
    • Caesura - Musical Symbol - It is written by two lines either slashed ( // ) or upright ( | | ). It means to take a pause, typically between phrases. The duration can range from a short breath to a full rest.
    • Cantata - Musical Form - A vocal work with instrumental accompaniment. A cantata is made up of multiple movements.
    • Cello - Instrument - The cello is a stringed instrument with a range between C2 and C6.
    • Chorale - Musical Form - This can be stand-alone or part of a larger work. It is usually a simplified and harmonized rendition of a simple tune or hymn.
    • Chord- Music Theory - A collection of notes played simultaneously to create harmonies. Chord progressions are what create the feeling of tension and release in music.
    • Chromatic - Music Theory - Referring to scales or passages comprised of semi-tones or half-steps.
    • Clarinet - Instrument - A clarinet is a woodwind instrument with a range of E3 to C7. There are three instruments in the clarinet family: B-flat, A, and E-flat.
    • Clef - Musical Symbol - A symbol places at the beginning of the staff that indicated the pitches of the ledger lines.
    • Coda- Musical Symbol - A concluding section of a musical work.
    • Con - Musical Term - Translates to "With." An example is "con moto" meaning "with motion."
    • Concerto - Musical Form - Composition that is typically made of three movements and written for a soloist and orchestral accompaniment.
    • Countertenor - Vocal Range - The highest singing male voice.
    • Crescendo - Dynamic Marking - Written underneath the staff, this symbol instructs the musician to get louder.

    Music Terms beginning with "D"

    • Da Capo - Musical Term - Literally translates to "from the head" and it instructs the musicians to return to the beginning or to repeat a section of music.
    • Decrescendo - Dynamic Marking - Written below the staff, a decrescendo tells the musicians to decrease volume through the duration of the symbol.
    • Diatonic Music Theory - A term used to describe a passage that sticks to the notes of a scale/mode without any chromatic alteration.
    • Diminuendo - Musical Term - Sometimes abbreviated as dim., it means the musicians should decrease volume.
    • Dissonance - Music Theory - The opposite or lack of harmony. It is used to describe a chord or interval where the notes clash.
    • Dolce - Style Marking - Translates to "sweetly."
    • Dotted Note - Musical Symbol - An addition to a rhythmic value that instructs the musician to add half of the value of the note to the end of the note. As an example, a whole note gets four beats. When the dot is added to a whole note, the musician should add another two beats (half the value of the whole note) to the duration.
    • Downbeat - Music Theory - A downbeat is where the primary beats of the music occur.
    • Duet - Ensemble - A duet is a musical ensemble comprised of two musicians. It can also refer to two instrumentalists being highlighted in a larger ensemble, as in the horn and flute duet in Shostakovitch's 5th Symphony.
    • Dynamics - Dynamic Marking - Tells the musician how loud or soft notes should be played.

    Music Terms beginning with "E"

    • Ensemble - Ensemble - A term for a group of musicians.
    • Etude - Musical Form - French for "study." An Etude is a short musical piece that is written to help a musician practice a certain skill. For example, there might be an etude written to help a musician practice a certain articulation by repeating the articulation in different contexts.

    Music Terms beginning with "F"

    • Fermata - Musical Symbol - Often called the "birds-eye," the fermata means the musician should hold the note until the conductor gives a cutoff or cue to move on to the next beat. They can be over a note or rests but should be interpreted in the same way. You will most often find fermatas at the end of a section or piece.
    • Fine- Musical Term - Pronounce fee-nay, this means "end" or "finish." Usually written above a measure, it means that this measure should be the very last measure played. It is usually used in conjunction with "D.S. al fine."
    • Flat - Musical Symbol - A "flat" is an accidental that lets the musician know to lower the pitch by one-half step. It is written as â™­.
    • Flute - Instrument - Despite being made of metal, the flute is part of the woodwind family. It is in the key of C and has a practical range of three octaves with the bottom of the range being middle C. Also in the flute family are the piccolo and bass flute.
    • Form - Musical Term - Music works are often written according to a "form." This is like a format or template. A form is comprised of sections that have tonal centers, usually notated by letters. Some musical forms include Binary (AB), Ternary (ABA), Rondo (ABACA), and Sonata (ABACABA)
    • Forte - Dynamic Marking - Abbreviated with a lower case "f" and means that the passage should be played loudly. This dynamic lasts until you see a new dynamic marking.
    • Fortepiano - Dynamic Marking - Hit the start of the note loud but then go immediately to soft.
    • Fortissimo - Dynamic Marking - Written with two lowercase "f" (ff), this symbol tells the musician to play very loudly.
    • French Horn - Instrument - The French horn is a brass instrument pitched in F. It is often called just a "horn" or an "F horn."
    • Fugue - Musical Form - A fugue is a compositional device where a short melody or phrase is introduced (known as the subject) by a single instrument at the beginning and then repeated as new voices/instruments enter.

    Music Terms beginning with "G"

    • Glissando - Articulation - A continuous slide between two notes.
    • Grave - Musical Marking - Play in a slow, solemn, and serious style.

    Music Terms beginning with "H"

    • Half-step - Music Theory - A half-step is the smallest interval in a chromatic scale. For example, imagine a piano and move from a white key to the next adjacent black key. This would be a half-step.
    • Harmony - Music Theory - Simultaneous sounding of musical notes/pitches that produce chords that are pleasing to listen to. It is the opposite of dissonance. Some traditionally harmonic intervals are the Major third, Major fourth, Major fifth.
    • Heptatonic - Music Theory - A scale that has seven pitches per octave. This would include the Major and minor scale.
    • Hymn - Musical Form - A religious song.

    Music Terms beginning with "I"

    • Instrumentation - Music Theory - A term that refers to the selection of instruments that are playing in a piece or section.
    • Interval - Music Theory - The distance between two pitches/notes.
    • Intonation - Music Theory - In music, this refers to how accurate a pitch is, or how in-tune a note is.

    Music Terms beginning with "K"

    • Key Signature - Musical Symbol - A key signature is a collection of accidentals that let a musician know the "key" or tonal center of a section of music. It will appear at the start of the staff right after the clef.

    Music Terms beginning with "L"

    • Larghetto - Tempo Marking - Rather slow and broad, typically between 60 and 66 beats per minute.
    • Largo - Tempo Marking - Broadly, slow, and stately. Typically between 40 and 60 beats per minute.
    • Ledger Line - Music Theory - A ledger line is a short line that continues the staff up or down. Ledger lines are used when a note is below or above the staff.
    • Legato- Articulation - Written with a horizontal line, it means to play the notes long and connected.
    • Leitmotif - A recurring melodic or harmonic theme in music that is associated with a particular person or idea. The most obvious example of a leitmotif would be the character themes in the movie Star Wars.
    • Lento - Tempo Marking - Slow tempo between 40 and 60 beats per minute.

    Music Terms beginning with "M"

    • Marcato - Articulation - Perform the note with added emphasis.
    • Major - Music Theory - Meaning that the piece is consistent with a Major scale.
    • Maestoso- Music Marking - Translates to "majestic."
    • Measure - Music Theory - Another name for a "bar." It is the smallest complete (contains the complete amount of beats) segment of a piece of music.
    • Melody - Music Theory - A series or sequence of notes in a single voice that is the focus or subject of a piece of music.
    • Meno - Music Marking - This means less. You will see it with another term, like "Meno mosso" meaning "less motion."
    • Mezzo - Musical Term - This translates to "half." It usually qualifies another term. For example, mezzo forte is softer (or half) of forte.
    • Mezzo Forte - Dynamic Marking - Written as "mf" this dynamic is softer than forte.
    • Mezzo Piano - Dynamic Marking - Abbreviated with "mp" and means slightly soft.
    • Minor - Music Theory - Built around the minor scale. Music in minor keys typically sounds sadder. There are three different types of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic.
    • Mode - Music Theory - A musical mode is a type of scale. A good way to imagine a mode is to think of the C scale (no sharps, and no flats). Imagine you were to keep that same key signature, but started and ended the scale on D. This new scale would be a mode. The seven modes are Ionian (Major), Dorian (minor), Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
    • Molto - Musc Marking - Very or Much. You will see this with another musical term, like "Molto Vivace" or "Very Fast."
    • Motif - Music Theory - a phrase or music fragment that recurs throughout a musical work.
    • Mosso - Music Marking - This means "movement" and is often paired with a qualifier. An example is meno mosso, meaning "less movement."
    • Movement - Musical Form - A movement is a section of a larger work. A symphony will usually be comprised of four smaller movements. They are complete pieces on their own but have tonal and thematic relationships to the other movements within a piece.

    Music Terms beginning with "N"

    Natural - Musical Symbol - An accidental that lets the musician know that no adjustment needs to be made to the note. You will typically only see these if you are undoing part of the key signature. Note Head - Music Theory - This is the fat part of a music note that lives on the staff line. Its location lets the musician know what pitch the note is. Notes - Music Theory - Notes are symbols that communicate two pieces of information. (1) What pitch should be played (2) When and for how long the pitch should be played. This is all communicated in where the note lives on the staff and what the rhythmic value of the note is.

    Music Terms beginning with "O"

    • Oboe - Instrument - A woodwind instrument that uses a double reed as a mouthpiece. The oboe is pitched in C and has a range of B-flat3 to A6.
    • Octave - Music Theory - There are a finite amount of note names. They are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. After you go through them, they repeat. An octave is one set of these notes (total of 12 half-steps) before the repetition.
    • Opus - Music Term - Part of a composer's collection of work. It is a way to chronicle a composer's work.
    • Oratorio - Musical Form - Large musical work for orchestra and voice. Oratorios typically have a religious theme.
    • Ornament - Music Theory - An embellishment that is not written in the music. The musician adds unwritten complementary notes to the music in order to decorate the note. Some examples of oranments are trills, mordents, appoggiatura, acciaccaturas, and turns.
    • Ostinato - Musical Form - A continued repeated musical phrase or rhythm.
    • Overture - Musical Form - A musical piece that comes at the start of a larger work, like an opera or suite.

    Music Terms beginning with "P"

    • Partita - Musical Form - A suite for solo instrument or chamber group.
    • Pentatonic - Music Theory - A scale comprised of five notes. These are made without semitones and have the fourth and seventh removed.
    • Piano- Dynamic Marking - Written with a lowercase p, this dynamic marking instructs the musician to play softly.
    • Pianissimo- Dynamic Marking - Written with two lowercase p's (pp), this dynamic marking instructs the musician to play very softly.
    • Pitch - Music Theory - A pitch is the note that sounds. It can be measured in hertz (Hz).
    • Piu- Style Marking - Translates to "more" and is usually a modifier for another musical term. For example, piu mosso would translate to more motion and instructs the musician to play more quickly.
    • Pizzicato - Articulation - An articulation marking for string players. Pizzicato tells the musician to sound a note by plucking the string.
    • Poco a Poco- Style Marking - Translates to "little by little" or gradually. This will typically be paired with a dynamic or tempo markings. For example, crescendo poco a poco would instruct the musician to get lounder very gradually.
    • Presto - Tempo Marking - Very, very fast tempo. Usually between 168 and 200 beats per minute.

    Music Terms beginning with "Q"

    • Quarter tone - Music Theory - Half of a half-step or semi-tone.
    • Quartet - Ensemble - An ensemble comprised of four musicians. A common example is a string quartet, which a group made of two violins, a viola, and a cello.
    • Quintet - Ensemble - An ensemble comprised of five musicians. One of the more common examples is the brass quintet, which is an ensemble made of two trumpets, a french horn, a trombone, and a tuba.

    Music Terms beginning with "R"

    • Rallentando - Tempo Marking - Abbreviated by ral. This marking instructs the musician to gradually slow down in tempo.
    • Recitative - Musical Term - A style of singing where the notes are sung in a manner similar to speech. It would be sung in the rhythm of speech and is often done with many words on a single note/pitch.
    • Repeat Sign - Musical Symbol - This instructs the musician to repeat a section of music.
    • Resolution - Music Theory - A chord changing from one of tension/dissonance to one of release/consonance. Typically from some chord to the tonic.
    • Rest - Musical Symbol - This is the symbol for silence. It marks the passage of time for the musician while they don't play.
    • Ritardando - Tempo Marking - Often seen abbreviated as "rit." It means to gradually slow down.
    • Ritenuto - Musical Symbol - Immediate reduction of speed.
    • Rondo - Musical Form - Sometimes written as "Rondeau," this form has a structure of A - B - A - C - A - B - A. Each section has a different tonal center.
    • Rubato - Musical Symbol - When the musician disregards strict tempo for musical purposes.

    Music Terms beginning with "S"

    • Saxophone - Instrument - Part of the woodwind family due to its use of a reed, but the saxophone is made of brass. There are several types of saxophone in the family: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass.
    • Scale - Music Theory - An ordering of notes that make a key or mode.
    • Sempre - Style Marking - Meaning "always." This term is usually combined with another musical term, typically an articulation marking. For example, sempre staccato would mean every note should always be played short.
    • Senza - Music Marking - Italian for "without." You will see this paired with another term.
    • Septet - Ensemble - An ensemble comprised of seven musicians.
    • Serialism - Music Theory - A modern composition technique where a fixed series of notes (especially the twelve chromatic pitches) are used to create the melody and harmony.
    • Sextet - Ensemble - An ensemble comprised of six musicians.
    • Sforzando - Articulation - Abbreviated as sf or sfz. Performed similarly to an accent, but with more emphasis and quick backing away.
    • Sharp - Musical Symbol - Written with a pound sign (#). The sharp raises a note by a half step.
    • Simile - Music Marking - Similarly. Perform in a similar style.
    • Slur - Articulation - Perform notes without articulation.
    • Solo - Ensemble - A piece for a (or that features) a single musician.
    • Sonata - Musical Form - A form comprised of three major sections: The exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.
    • Soprano - Vocal Range - The highest of the vocal ranges.
    • Sostenuto - Style Marking - Play in a sustained manner.
    • Staccato - Articulation - Written as a dot above or below the note (.), this instructs the musician to play the note short and disconnected.
    • Stem - Music Theory - Part of a note, the stem is part of what indicates the rhythmic value of a note.
    • Symphony - Musical Form - Long composition for orchestra.

    Music Terms beginning with "T"

    • Tacet - Musical Term - Instructs the musicians not to play in a movement or section of a larger work.
    • Tempo - Music Theory - Tempo lets musicians know how fast or slow a passage of music should be performed. It can be expressed with a tempo marking or in beats per minute.
    • Tenor - Vocal Range - A higher male voice with a range from C3 to C5.
    • Tenuto - Music Marking - Abbreviated with ten. and means to hold the note to its full value.
    • Theme - Music Theory - A reoccurring melody.
    • Tie - Articulation - Connects two notes to combine the rhythm/note duration.
    • Time Signature - Musical Symbol - Comprised of two numbers, the time signature lets the musician know (1) What note value will receive the beat (2) How many beats are in a measure.
    • Tonality - Music Theory - The idea that music is organized around keys or a central tone (tonic). This establishes relationships between notes and chords.
    • Tonguing - Articulation - The act of using your tongue to interrupt the airflow, creating space between notes (articulation)
    • Tonic - Musical Term - The first scale degree.
    • Transposition - Music Theory - Moving music so that it sounds higher or lower. Some instruments are written in pitches other than C. For example, the F horn is written in F, meaning that its notes are transposed.
    • Treble Clef - Musical Symbol - A clef that determines the staff lines. Also called G clef, it makes the G above middle C the second staff line from the bottom.
    • Tremolo - Musical Symbol - Instructs the musician to create a wavering effect on the tone. Tremolos are usually created by rapid repetition of the note.
    • Trill - Musical Symbol - A type of musical ornament where the musician rapidly alternates between the marked note and a note either a whole or half step above the written note.
    • Trio - Ensemble - A music ensemble comprised of three musicians.
    • Trombone - Instrument - The trombone is a brass instrument that uses a slide (instead of a valve) to alter the pitch. The trombone is pitched in C and has a practical range is from E2 to F5, meaning their music is usually written in bass clef. Other members of the trombone family include the bass trombone, alto trombone, and contrabass trombone.
    • Trumpet - Instrument - A valved brass instrument pitched in B-flat. The trumpet has a range of F#3 to F#6.
    • Tuba - Instrument - A tuba is a valved brass instrument with a range from D1-D4.

    Music Terms beginning with "U"

    • Unison - Musical Term - Instruments/different voices playing the same pitches together.
    • Upbeat - Music Theory - The space exactly in the middle of two beats.

    Music Terms beginning with "V"

    • Viola - Instrument - A stringed instrument that is slightly larger than a violin. The viola has a range of C3 to E6.
    • Violin - Instrument - The smallest of the string family, the violin has a range of G3 to A7.
    • Vivace - Tempo Marking - Meaning lively and fast, this tempo marking ranges from 156 to 176 beats per minute.

    Music Terms beginning with "W"

    • Waltz - Musical Form - A dance-like piece in triple meter.