Glossary of Musical Terms



Baton: A stick used by the conductor to beat time and lead the orchestra.

Bow: Used by string players. A long wooden stick that holds a tight band of horsehair, drawn across the strings to make sound.

Chamber Music: Music written for a small group of musicians (usually three to five) with one player on each part.

Chromatic: A musical motion of half-steps. (eg. from C – C# – D)

Coda: Some pieces of music finish with a coda. (e.g. The Hebrides Overture) This final section can be thought of as a tail, which brings the music to an end.

Concertmaster: A violin player and the lead musician of the orchestra. The concertmaster sits to the left of the conductor, in the front chair. Part of the concertmaster’s job is to stand and have the oboe play an “A” which the orchestra uses to tune their instruments before a concert.

Concerto: A piece of music in which a solo instrument performs accompanied by a full orchestra. Usually written in three movements (e.g. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons).

Concert Overture: A piece of music composed to evoke certain feelings in the listener. (e.g. The Hebrides Overture) Concert Overtures were popular during the 19th century. Unlike regular overtures, they are not connected to an opera or play.

Conductor: The conductor stands at the front of the orchestra and keeps the musicians playing together during the performance. The conductor leads the orchestra by moving his or her arms in specific patterns. One hand holds the baton, which indicates the tempo and rhythm. The other hand indicates the quality and volume of the sound.

Dynamics: The intensity (loudness or softness) of the music.

Fanfare: A flourish of trumpets and/or other brass instruments. A Fanfare is often used to announce the start of an event.

Finale: An Italian word for the last section of a piece (e.g. The last movement of a symphony).

Forte (f): A dynamic marking meaning loud.

Fortissimo (ff): A dynamic marking meaning very loud.

Harmony: When more than one note sounds at the same time. When three or more notes are played together they are called a chord. The sound of the chord influences the overall sound of the music – whether it feels happy or sad.

Interval: The distance between two notes.

Key: The music’s key is determined by which notes are played sharp or flat. The key has a big effect on how the music sounds. Major keys sound ‘happy’ while minor keys sound ‘sad’.

Leitmotif: (German: Light – mo- teef) A recurring musical theme that is assigned to a main character in an opera.

Melody: The “tune.” You might hum the melody to yourself long after the concert is over. Melodies are made up of a series of notes connected by steps or skips – called intervals.

Movements: A distinct section of a musical piece. Several movements are joined together, separated by pauses, to form a musical composition. A movement can be compared to a chapter in a book. A symphony usually has four movements and a concerto usually has three movements.

Mute: The sound of brass and string instruments can be dulled or stifled by using a mute.

Neo-classical: A musical style used by some early 20th-century composers. Neo-classical music is inspired by the strict forms and restraint of Classical music, but adds 20th-century twists.

Notes Inegales: French for unequal notes. This refers to a performance practice in which notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short. The practice was especially prevalent in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. It later reappeared as the standard performance practice in the 20th century in jazz.

Octave: In Western music, the octave is a series of eight notes that occupy the intervals found between two notes of the same name. An octave is the distance between one “A” (or B etc) and the next “A” on an instrument.

Opera: A musical drama where the actors sing and are accompanied by the orchestra (e.g. William Tell). The opera was invented in Italy by Claudio Monteverdi at the beginning of the 17th century.

Overture: A short piece of music which is played before the curtain goes up at the opera or at a Broadway play (e.g. William Tell Overture).

Piano (p): A dynamic marking meaning soft.

Pianissimo (pp): A dynamic marking meaning very soft.

Pizzicato: A technique used by string players. They pluck the strings with the fingers instead of drawing the bow across.

Prodigy: A person with exceptional talents. Usually a young person.

Program Music: Music that tells a non-musical story in a detailed, direct way (e.g. Pastoral Symphony). Program music is even more direct than Tone Painting.

Pulse: The music’s steady beat.

Recitative: A singing style used in opera where the text is almost spoken in rhythm.

Rhythm: The patterns of sound which combine pulse and metre and makes the music flow.

Romantic Period: (1800 – 1900) A period of music, art and literature that was characterized by the expression of emotion.

Sacred Music: Music written for religious purposes.

Scherzo: An Italian word meaning “joke.” This is a quick, boisterous movement in a symphony, usually the third movement.

Score: The written music. The score contains the music for each instrument. The conductor follows the whole score, while the musicians play the music for their instrument.

Sequence: Repetition of an earlier phrase at a different pitch.

Solfege: A system of singing standardized syllables on certain notes of the scale (“doh, re, mi, fah, sol, la, si, doh”).

Staccato: When notes are played or sung in a short, detached manner.

Symphony: A piece of music written for the whole orchestra, usually in three or four movements.

Symphony Orchestra: A large group of musicians who play together. It includes string players, woodwind players, brass players, timpanists and percussionists (e.g. Orchestra London).

Tempo: The speed at which the music is played.

Theme: A melody that appears at the beginning of a piece of music, which is repeated or modified. A large piece of music may have more than one theme (e.g. The Hebrides Overture).

Timpani: A member of the percussion family which is also called the kettle drum because they look like upside-down kettles without a handle or spout.

Tone Painting: A musical device used to tell a story or depict the physical world. It can also be called a tone poem.

Tondichter: German for “sound poet.” Beethoven described himself as one of these.