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.
A continuo part, a regular feature of much instrumental music in the 17th and 18th centuries, was played by a keyboard-player or performer on a chordal instrument such as a lute or harp, reading from the bass line of a composition, generally with numbers to indicate the choice of chords, which would then be filled out, with other melodic and contrapuntal embellishments. The continuo or basso continuo was a necessary part of instrumental music, but gradually fell into disuse towards the end of the 18th century, while remaining an important element in the accompaniment of operatic recitative.
The cor anglais is the English horn, a tenor oboe that sounds a fifth lower than it is written.
The cornet is a valved brass instrument, resembling a trumpet but with a wider bore. It was used in the second quarter of the 19th century before the full development of the valved trumpet, but is now principally found in brass bands.
The cornetto or cornett is a wind instrument made of wood or ivory, or nowadays reproduced in fibre-glass. It has a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like brass instruments, but finger-holes, like a recorder, and was much used in the 17th and earlier 18th centuries, often to support or even replace treble voices. The bass of the cornetto family is the serpent, once found in village church bands in England and now revived.
Counterpoint is the combination of two or more melodic lines, the second or later additional melodies described as counterpoints to the first. If harmony is regarded as vertical, as it is in conventional notation, signifying the simultaneous sounding of notes in chords, counterpoint may be regarded as horizontal. The adjective from counterpoint is contrapuntal. The phrase modal counterpoint is used to indicate 16th century counterpoint or Palestrina counterpoint and the phrase tonal counterpoint is used to indicate the later baroque counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries.
A countertenor voice is that of a male alto. Sometimes a distinction is made between the two, the second indicating the English falsetto tradition and the first a natural voice of similar range.
The French courante, a triple-time dance movement found frequently in the baroque dance suite, generally follows the allemande, the opening German dance. It is sometimes not distinguished from the Italian corrente, although the corrente is generally simpler in texture and rhythm than its French counterpart.
Crescendo (Italian: growing, becoming louder) is frequently used as a dynamic instruction to performers.
A song cycle is a set of songs intended to be performed as a group, as in Schumann's Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love) or Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey). The 19th century Czech composer Smetana wrote a cycle of symphonic poems, Ma Vlast (My Country).
Cymbals (= Italian: piatti, German: Becken, French: cymbales) are pairs of round metal plates, generally made of an alloy of tin and copper, which may be struck together. A single cymbal may be suspended and struck with a hard or soft stick. The instrument is of ancient origin, but its more modern use occurs first principally in the later 18th century, as part of the Turkish music used, for example, by Mozart in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail). It found much fuller and more varied use in the 19th and 20th centuries.
D is a note of the scale (= Italian, French: re).
Da capo (Italian: from the beginning), abbreviated to the letters D.C. at the end of a piece of music or a section of it, means that it should be played or sung again from the beginning (De capo al fine) or from the beginning up to the sign (Da capo al segno). A da capo aria, often found in the later baroque period, is an aria in three sections, the third an ornamented repetition of the first.
Decrescendo (Italian: growing less) is used as a direction to performers, meaning becoming softer.
Diminuendo (Italian: becoming less) is used as a direction to performers to play softer.
A divertimento is an instrumental composition intended for entertainment, usually in a number of movements. The term is used particularly in the second half of the 18th century. Haydn described his first string quartets as Divertimenti and the title is also used by Mozart and other composers of the period.
The French word divertissement (= Italian: divertimento) is used in English principally to indicate the additional dance entertainment that is often a part of classical ballet. A well known example would be the series of characteristic dances that entertain the heroine towards the end of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
The double bass is the largest and lowest of the instruments of the string section of the orchestra. It has generally four or five strings and its music sounds an octave (eight notes) lower than it is written. If, as often in music before 1800, the double bass plays the same music as the cello, the sound will be an octave lower.
A double bassoon plays an octave lower than the bassoon.
The form of drum generally found in the orchestra is the kettledrum or, in incorrect Italian, timpani, since the Italian singular timpano seldom appears in English usage. Other smaller and larger drums may also be used, including the snare-drum, a smaller instrument with a vibrating strip that can be switched on or off, and the bass drum. Timpani are tunable, nowadays usually by means of pedals that loosen or tighten the drum-skin.
A duet is a piece of music written for two performers. On the piano such a piece would involve two players on one instrument.
A duo is a piece of music for two performers. Written for the piano such a piece would need two performers and two pianos.
Dynamics are the levels of sound, loud or soft, in a piece of music.
E is a note of the scale (= Italian, French: mi).
An elegy (= French: élégie) is a lament, either vocal or instrumental.