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.
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.
The word 'cembalo' is usually used to indicate the harpsichord.
A chaconne (= Italian: ciaconna; earlier English: chacony) is in origin a dance popular in Spain in the early 17th century. It came to signify a form in which there are a series of variations over a short repeated bass or chordal pattern. Famous examples of the form are found in Bach's Chaconne for unaccompanied violin in his D minor Partita or the earlier Chacony in G minor by Henry Purcell.
Chamber music is music for a small ensemble of instruments, intended for performance in a room or chamber, as opposed to a church or larger building.
A chamber orchestra has come to indicate an orchestra smaller in size than the usual symphony orchestra.
A chanson is a French song. The word is used to indicate songs from the troubadour compositions of the Middle Ages to the art-songs of the 19th and 20th centuries.
(see Plainchant and Gregorian Chant)
The word chapel (= Latin: cappella, capella; French: chapelle; German: Kapelle) signifies, in the ordinary sense, a place of worship. In music it may be used to indicate a group of musicians employed by the church or by the court, as in the English Chapel Royal, the group of musicians employed by the English monarch, or, in later continental terminology, any musical establishment.
A choir is a group of singers. The word is generally used to indicate such a group in a church, or the part of the church in which such a group is normally placed.
A chorale is a German Lutheran hymn-tune, a number of which were composed or arranged by Luther himself and adapted in later centuries to various harmonies, the most famous of all by Johann Sebastian Bach. The word is also used in America to signify a choir or chorus.
The chorale prelude, an introduction to a chorale, was developed in 17th century Germany as an organ composition based on a chorale melody. The form is found in the later 17th century in the work of Buxtehude and in the early 18th century most notably in the 45 chorale preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach.
A chord is the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes. The adjective is chordal. The study of harmony involves the correct placing of chords with relation to each other.
A chorus is a group of singers. The word is also used to indicate a refrain in a song.
Chromatic notes are those that do not belong to the diatonic scale. If an ascending scale is taken from the note C, in the form C, D, E, F, etc., chromatic notes would be C# (C sharp), D# (D sharp), etc., notes not found in the diatonic scale of C major, which has no sharps or flats.