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 is the note of the musical scale used generally for tuning (= French, Italian, Spanish: la). Notes in English are given letter names, A,B,C,D,E,F & G.
An accompaniment is an additional part for a performer of any kind that is less important than another, which it serves to support and enhance. The piano is often used to provide an accompaniment to a solo singer. In instrumental works for, say, violin and piano the rôles may be reversed.
Adagio (Italian: slow) is an indication of tempo and is sometimes used to describe a slow movement, even when the indication of speed at the start of the movement may be different. The diminutive form adagietto is a little faster than adagio.
Air (= Italian: aria) appearing sometimes with the earlier English spelling ayre, means a tune or melody, for voice or instrument.
The Italian alla means 'in the manner of' (= French: la) and may be found in titles like that of Mozart's 'Rondo alla turca', Rondo in the Turkish Style.
Allegro (Italian: cheerful, lively) is generally taken as fast, although not as fast as vivace or presto. Allegretto is a diminutive, meaning slightly slower than allegro. These indications of speed or tempo are used as general titles for pieces of music headed by instructions of this kind. The first movement of a classical sonata, for example, is often 'an Allegro', just as the slow movement is often 'an Adagio'.
An allemande is a German dance (the word itself is French) in 4/4 time, often the first dance in a baroque dance suite, where it is frequently followed by a courante, a more rapid dance. The allemande, which appears in earlier English sources often as alman, almain or with similar spellings, is generally moderate in speed.
The alto (= Italian: high) is the lower female or unbroken male voice, or male falsetto of similar range. The alto clef (see Clef) is a sign written on the musical stave to show that the middle line of the stave is middle C. It is now used for much of the music written for viola and other instruments of similar range. Female alto soloists are usually described as contralto rather than alto.
Andante (Italian: walking) is a word used to suggest the speed of a piece of music, at walking pace. The diminutive andantino is ambiguous and means either a little faster or a little slower than andante, more often the former.
An anthem is a short vocal composition. In the Church of England the word indicates such a composition often using a non-liturgical text (i.e. not part of the official service). A full anthem is for full choir, without soloists, while a verse anthem makes contrasting use of solo singers. Both these forms flourished in the Church of England from the late 16th century.
Arco (Italian: bow) is used as an indication to string-players that they should use the bow, rather than pluck with the fingers (see pizzicato).
An aria is a song or air. The word is used in particular to indicate formally constructed songs in opera. The so-called da capo aria of later baroque opera, oratorio and other vocal compositions, is an aria in which the first section is repeated, usually with additional and varied ornamentation, after the first two sections. The diminutive arietta indicates a little aria, while arioso refers to a freer form of aria-like vocal writing.
The tones of a chord played in rapid succession.
Assai (Italian: very) appears often in indications to performers of the speed of a piece of music, as in allegro assai, very fast, or allegro assai moderato, very moderately fast.
Atonal music is music that has no specific tonality, is not in a specific key and therefore has no specific 'home' note or chord. The word atonality refers technically to various forms of 20th century music not in a key.
An aubade is a morning-song. A well known example is the Siegfried Idyll, a work written by Richard Wagner to be played for his second wife Cosima on the morning of her birthday.
B is a note in the musical scale (= German: H; French, Italian, Spanish etc.: si).
Badinerie (French: teasing), indicates a piece of music of light-hearted character. The best known badinerie is the lively last movement of Bach's Suite in B minor for flute, strings and continuo.
Bagatelle, used as the title of a short light-hearted piece of music, was employed most notably by Beethoven in a series of such compositions for piano. The descriptive title was thereafter used by a number of other composers.
The bagpipe is an ancient instrument, at least in its most primitive form, and is still found in a number of countries. It is a reed instrument, with the reed sounded by air expressed from a leather bag. It generally makes use of a single pipe that can be fingered to produce different notes, with additional drones, pipes that produce single notes, a marked feature of bagpipe music and of its imitations for other instruments. The sophisticated and more versatile French musette, a bagpipe operated by bellows, gave its name to a baroque dance suite movement, marked, usually in the bass, by the continuing sound of a drone, a repeated single note.
Ballad, derived from the late Latin verb 'ballare', to dance, came to be used primarily to describe a folk-song of narrative character or a song or poem written in imitation of such a folk-song. The title Ballade was used by Chopin to describe four piano-pieces of otherwise concealed narrative content, apparently based on narrative poems of ballad type by the patriotic poet Mickieiwicz, while Brahms in one of his Ballades transfers into music an old Scottish narrative ballad. The Ballade of French music and poetry of the 14th and 15th centuries denotes a different and fixed literary and musical form.
In written Western music the bar-line came to be used, a vertical line through the stave, to mark metrical units or bars (= measures). By the later 17th century the bar-line had come to be used immediately preceding a strong beat, so that a bar came to begin normally with an accented note. The double bar or double bar-line marks the end of a section or piece.
A barcarolle is a boating-song, generally used to describe the boating-songs of gondoliers in Venice, imitated by composers in songs and instrumental pieces in the 19th century. Chopin wrote one such Barcarolle for piano, and Mendelssohn provided four shorter piano pieces of this kind. At the end of the century and in the early 20th century the French composer Gabriel Fauré wrote thirteen Barcarolles. There is a particularly well known barcarolle in Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d'Hoffmann).
In violin playing, a special effect in which the player shifts rapidly back and forth between two strings. There are two types: a single pitch can be played on both an open and a stopped string, producing a rapid (but timbrally distinct) repetition, or a single pitch can be alternated with different ones, producing a melody over a drone.