Glossary of musical terms

Accidental – A note whose pitch is not a member of the scale of the most recently applied key signature.

Adagio – In a slow and leisurely tempo.

Alla marcia – In a march-like style or tempo.

Allegro – In a lively and fast tempo.

Assai – Very

Atonality or atonal – In general terms, atonal is used to describe music that is seemingly less harmonious and does not appear to resolve into conventional and classical chord progression. It is characterised by “meandering” harmonics that lacks a tonal centre. The music of the early 20th century is characterised by atonality as composers sought to break away from classical and the sonata form of musical composition and arrangement.

Arpeggio – Notes of a chord are played or sung in sequence rather than simultaneously.

Cantabile – A musical direction to mean “in a singing style”.

Chamber music – A form of classical music composed for a small group of instruments which could be accommodated in a palace chamber.

Chromatic scale – A musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone above or below the other.

Crescendo – Becoming gradually louder.

Diminuendo (or dim.) or Decrescendo – Becoming gradually softer.

Fortissimo –  Very loud.

Glissando – Gliding from one pitch to another, usually played rapidly like gliding the fingers over the strings of a harp.

Harmonic minor scale – A scale where the sequence of intervals between the notes consists of whole and half tones in the order: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole-and-a-half, half

Larghetto – In a broad style.

Legato – Smooth playing and phrasing of connected notes as opposed to staccato, which is short and abrupt playing of detached notes.

Lento – Slow.

Maestoso – In a majestic and stately manner.

Major scale – A diatonic scale where the sequence of intervals between the notes consists of whole and half tones in the order: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.

Major key signature –  A key whose harmony is based on a major scale.

Mazurka – Polish folk song / dance in triple time, usually in a quick and lively tempo with the accent on the second or third beat.

Marcato – Marked, accented.

Melodic minor scale – A scale where the sequence of intervals between the notes consists of whole and half tones in the order: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, whole, half.

Minor scale –  Minor scales are either natural minor, harmonic minor or melodic minor scales.

Minor key signature – A key whose harmony is based on a minor scale.

Moderato – Moderately, moderate time.

Molto – Much. Di molto, Very much.

Natural minor scale–  A scale where the sequence of intervals between the notes consists of whole and half tones in the order: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.

Octave – An interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency.

Pianissimo – Very soft

Pizzicato – Playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument such as the violin, viola, cello or double bass to create a staccato sound.

Picardy Third (also known as Tierce de Picardie) – A harmonic technique of using a major key as a resolution to a piece of music written in a minor key.

Poco – A little

Polyrhythm – Simultaneous playing of two or more different and independent rhythms, such as the right hand playing a continuous string of triplets whilst the left hand plays regular time.

Presto – In very quick tempo.

Romantic era – A period from early 19th century Europe where musical forms broke away from traditional norms of musical structure of the classical era.

Rubato – expressive and rhythmic freedom by varying the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the performer. Depending on how well it is performed, this style of playing can sometimes determine the virtuosity of different performers playing the same piece of music.

Staccato – detached note signified by a dot above or below the note. The effect is short and abrupt as opposed to legato which indicate smooth playing and phrasing of connected notes.

Sonata form – a musical structure widely used by composers during the mid 18th century. It consists of 3 distinct sections – the exposition, development and recapitulation. The exposition introduces the main theme or motives of the work for the first time while the development section establishes these motives by varying their presentation with key modulations, variation in tempo and volume, harmony, juxtaposition of melodies, introduction of new themes, embellishments and the use of different instruments of the orchestra to provide contrast and interest. The recapitulation section repeats the thematic motives of the work previously introduced in the exposition usually in a slightly different manner to provide a sense of completeness to the movement.

Sostenuto – sustained and usually implies a slowing of tempo although it more often relates to a legato style where notes are held longer and beyond their normal values.

Syncopation – A rhythm or passage of music where the up beat is accented as opposed to the down beat. (Examples of syncopation can be widely found in reggae music).

Ternary form – A 3-part structure of a piece of music (A-B-A) where the middle B section is distinctively different from the A sections eg if the A sections are in regimented strict or march time, the B section is usually more lyrical and flowing to provide contrast.

Timpani (or kettle drums) – Large drums in the percussion family of the orchestra which the pitch can be adjusted by using foot pedals.

Trill (also known as “shake”) – Music ornamentation of rapidly repeating two adjacent notes, usually a semitone or a tone.

Triple time – Music tempo characterized by a primary division of three beats to the bar. Waltzes are generally all composed in triple time.

Triplet – A grouping of three notes played inside the length of two of its note type.

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