Glossary of Musical Terms
Our glossary of musical terms lets you look up any musical term unfamiliar to you, and comes to us courtesy of our good friends at Naxos.
The word 'baritone' describes a type of male voice of middle range. The word is also used to specify pitched and valved brass instruments of lowish register and as an adjective to distinguish the rare lowest member of the oboe family, also known as a bass oboe, sounding an octave (eight notes) lower than the normal oboe.
Once used as a term of critical disapproval, the word 'baroque' is now used in music to designate a period of musical history from about 1600 to about 1750, although any such periodisation in history can only be a rough guide. In musicology the term was borrowed from the history of art and architecture. In music the baroque era may conveniently be divided into three fifty-year periods, Early Baroque, Middle Baroque and Late Baroque. The first of these is typified by the Italian composer Monteverdi, the Middle Baroque by composers such as Henry Purcell in England or Lully in France and the Late Baroque by Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel and Vivaldi.
The word 'bass' describes the lower register and lower sonorities in music. In vocal music it indicates the lowest type of male voice, and in instrumental music is generally used to indicate the bottom part. As an adjective it is used to describe instruments of lower register, such as the bass clarinet. In common speech the word bass may indicate the double bass, the largest and lowest instrument of the string family, or, in brass bands, an instrument corresponding to the orchestral tuba, the bass of the brass family.
A bass-baritone is a male singer with a range that includes both bass and baritone registers, described by Wagner, who wrote for this kind of voice, as a high bass.
The basso continuo or continuo is the figured bass commonly used in music of the baroque period. It was the normal practice to make use of a bass instrument of some kind, for example a cello or bass viola da gamba and a chordal instrument, a keyboard instrument or plucked string instrument, the part of the latter indicated by numbers added to the music for the bass instrument, showing the chords as a basis for improvised accompaniment or 'filling in' and embellishing of harmonies.
The bassoon is a double-reed wind instrument (= German: Fagott; Italian: fagotto). It is the bass of the woodwind section in the modern orchestra, which can be augmented by the use of a double bassoon of lower range.
The beat or pulse in a piece of music is the regular rhythmic pattern of the music. Each bar should start with a strong beat and each bar should end with a weak beat. These may be known as the down-beat (strong, at the beginning of a bar) and the up-beat (weak, at the end of a bar). Up and down describe the gestures of a conductor, whose preparatory up-beat is of even greater importance to players than his down-beat.
A berceuse is a cradle-song or lullaby, in lilting triple or compound time. The most famous example of the use of this title is by Chopin, who wrote one Berceuse, followed by Liszt.
Bewegt (German: agitated) is used as a tempo indication meaning something the same as the Italian 'agitato', although mässig bewegt is used as the equivalent of allegro moderato.
The bolero is a Spanish dance, popular in Paris in the time of Chopin and in Latin America. One of the best known examples of the dance in art music is Ravel's ballet music Boléro, music of mounting intensity described by the composer as an orchestrated crescendo.
A bourrée is a duple-rhythm French dance sometimes found in the baroque dance suite, where it was later placed after the sarabande, with other lighter additional dances.
The brass section of the orchestra includes metal instruments where the sound is produced by forcing air through a cup-shaped or conical mouthpiece. The brass section usually consists of trumpets, trombones and tuba and French horns.'
Brio (Italian: vivacity, fire or energy) appears as an instruction to performers as, for example, in allegro con brio, fast with brilliance and fire, an indication used on a number of occasions by Beethoven.
C is a note in the scale ( = French: ut; Italian: do).
A cadence usually consists of two chords that provide musical punctuation at the end of phrases or sentences.
A cadenza, based often on an extended and embellished final cadence, at least in classical concertos, is a passage originally improvised by a performer in which virtuoso ability might be shown. Cadenzas are now more often written by the composer, although some modern performers continue to improvise. In classical concertos the cadenza often leads to the last section of a movement.
Camera (Italian: room,chamber) is found principally in the phrase 'sonata da camera', chamber sonata, to be distinguished in music of the baroque period from the sonata da chiesa, church sonata. The secular sonata da camera generally consists of dance movements.
A canon in music is a device in counterpoint in which a melody announced by one voice or instrument is imitated by one or more other voices or instruments, entering after the first has started, in the manner of a round. The word canon may describe the device as it occurs in a piece of music or a complete composition in this form, like Pachelbel's well known Canon.
Cantabile (Italian: in singing style) appears often at the beginning of movements as in andante cantabile - at walking speed and in a singing style.
A cantata is generally a choral work of some length that also uses solo voices, usually with instrumental accompaniment. The texts used may be sacred or secular. Some cantatas use solo voices without chorus or choir.
Cappella, meaning chapel, is found particularly in the phrase 'a cappella' for unaccompanied choral singing. The words chapel, cappella and Kapelle, indicate a musical establishment rather than a place, as in the English Chapel Royal, the musicians of the monarch. The spelling capella may also be found.
Capriccio (Italian: caprice; = French: caprice) appears in a variety of musical meanings, used differently at different periods and by different composers. In the later 16th century and 17th century it generally indicated a fugal composition (see Fugue), but later came to signify dances or dance suites or any composition that allowed a relatively free play of fancy, as in the Capriccio espagnol (Spanish Caprice) of Rimsky-Korsakov or the Capriccio italien (Italian Caprice) of Tchaikovsky.
The word 'cassation' is of disputed origin and was used principally in the third quarter of the 18th century in South Germany to describe a piece of music akin to a divertimento or serenade, music intended primarily for entertainment. Mozart uses the word to describe three of his own serenades.
A celesta (= French: céleste) is a small keyboard instrument developed in the later 19th century and using hammers that strike metal bars to give a ringing sound. Tchaikovsky used the celesta, then a new instrument, in his Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy in his Nutcracker ballet.
The word cello is now in very general use instead of the longer word violoncello, a diminutive of the word violone, indicating the big viol, the double bass of the bowed viol family. The cello normally plays the bass line of the string section in an orchestra, its register the approximate equivalent of the lowest male voice.