Glossary of Musical Terms


Dirges or laments are an important element in primitive musical practice in mourning the dead or at other moments of parting. One of the most important and influential laments of Western music is Monteverdi's Lament of Arianna (= Ariadne), abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she became a follower of the god Dionysus. This is the only surviving part of a lost opera of 1608. The lament was much imitated, not least by the English composer Henry Purcell in the lament sung by Dido, betrayed by her lover Aeneas, in the short opera Dido and Aeneas.


The Lamentations of Jeremiah form part of the Catholic liturgy of Holy Week, the week before Easter, traditionally chanted, but from the middle of the 15th century providing material for polyphonic setting.


The Ländler is an Austrian country dance in a slow triple metre, a precursor of the waltz.


Larghetto is a diminutive form of Largo (Italian: broad, wide, large) usually a direction of tempo, meaning slow. Larghetto is slowish, not as slow as Largo.


Largo (Italian: broad, wide, large and consequently slow) is used as a frequent instruction to performers. Handel's Largo, an aria from his opera Serse, is in fact marked Larghetto, although this does not seem to affect its speed in popular performance.


Legato (Italian: smooth) is used as an instruction to performers. It is the opposite of staccato, which indicates a shortening and consequent detaching of notes.

Leggero (Leggiero)

Leggero means light (= French: léger) and is used as a direction to performers.


Legno, wood, appears in the phrase 'col legno', with the wood, an instruction to string players to hit the strings with the back of the bow. Examples of col legno are found in the Danse macabre of Saint-Säens and at the opening of Holst's The Planets.


The leitmotif (= German: Leitmotiv) is particularly associated with the music-dramas of Wagner, although the practice has a longer history. The leading motive is a theme or part of a theme, associated in the work of Wagner with a character, idea, or event, and forming in his music-dramas an essential element in their construction.


Lento (Italian: slow; = French: lent, lentement) is used in instructions to performers. Negatively some French composers, notably Couperin, use the direction sans lenteur, without slowness.


The libretto, the little book, is the text of an opera or similar vocal work, originally issued in a small printed book.


Lied, (German: song), Lieder in the plural, is used more specifically to indicate songs in the great German tradition of song-writing exemplified by the work of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and others. It should not be confused with Leid, sorrow, as in Kreisler's Liebesleid, the sorrow of love.

L'istesso tempo

L'istesso tempo, the same speed, is found as an instruction to the player to return to the previous speed of the music.


The loure is a French dance of the 17th and 18th centuries, the name derived from a bagpipe used in Normandy. The dance is usually in 6/4 time and has been described as a slow gigue. Examples are found in Bach's E major Partita for unaccompanied violin and in the fifth of his French Suites.


The lute, a plucked string instrument popular from the Middle Ages until the 18th century and now revived, came originally from the East, its name derived from the Arabic 'ud. It existed in many different forms and in its Western form is usually pear-shaped, with a flat belly and central soundhole or rose. Its neck has frets, pieces of gut tied to mark the notes on the fingerboard, and its peg-box is generally bent back to form a right angle with the neck. The number of strings has varied, although the six-string lute was common.


The lyre, the symbol of a musician in Western cultural tradition, is an ancient instrument, found in characteristic form in ancient Greece, where it was the instrument of Apollo. Similar instruments, with strings stretched from a cross-bar to a lower sound-box, to be held in the left arm and plucked with the right hand, are found in other cultures.