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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.