Glossary of Musical Terms


Originally a form of vocal composition of 14th century Italy, the madrigal became, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a favourite form of part-song, stemming first from Italy. In England the madrigal became popular in the last two decades of the 16th century in adaptations of Italian compositions and in new works by English composers.


Maestoso (Italian: majestic) is used to suggest a majestic manner of performance, either in mood or speed.


The Magnificat is the canticle drawn from the biblical words attributed to the Mother of Christ, My soul doth magnify the Lord. It forms part of the evening service of Vespers, in the Divine Office of the Catholic liturgy, and thus appears in composed settings. As part of the evening service of the Church of England it has similarly been subjected to musical treatment. There are notable settings in the early 17th century by Monteverdi and a hundred years later by Johann Sebastian Bach and by Vivaldi, among many others.


Major (= Latin: greater) is used in musical terminology to describe a form of scale that corresponds to the Ionian mode, the scale on the white notes of the keyboard from C to C. The intervals between the first note or tonic (key note) and the second, third, sixth and seventh degrees of the major scale are described as major (that is, C to D, a major second; C to E, a major third; C to A, a major sixth; C to B, a major seventh). A major chord or major triad consists of a bottom note with a note a major third above, and, optionally, a note a perfect fifth above the bottom note.


A malagueña is a Spanish dance from the region of Málaga. The word is later used to indicate a form of Spanish gypsy song. There is an example of the mood and rhythm of the Malagueña in Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole.


The mandolin, a plucked string instrument similar to the lute, exists in various forms. It has fixed metal frets and metal strings in pairs. The prevalent method of playing is tremolando, the notes rapidly repeated with a plectrum. It has been used in opera, notably in Verdi's Otello and in Falstaff, and in the concert-hall in Mahler's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.


The manual is a keyboard for the hands, the word used for instruments such as the organ or harpsichord that often have more than one keyboard. It is opposed to the pedal-board found generally on the organ and much more rarely on the harpsichord or fortepiano.


The marimba is a form of resonating xylophone occasionally used in the Western orchestra in compositions of the 20th century.


The Mass, the Eucharist of Catholic worship (= Latin: Missa; Italian: Messa; French & German: Messe), has long provided texts for musical setting. The Ordinary of the Mass, the normally recurrent parts of the liturgy, consists of the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), Gloria (Glory be to God in the highest), Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), Benedictus (Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). These are the texts most often set. The Proper of the Mass changes from day to day, according to the season or the occasion.


The mazurka is a Polish dance, transformed by Chopin in some fifty piano pieces in this form.


A measure is, in English, a bar, in the sense of the music written between the vertical bar-lines written on the stave to mark the metrical units of a piece of music.


The French art-songs of the 19th and 20th centuries are known as mélodies, the counterpart of the German Lieder.


A melodrama is a drama with musical accompaniment and interludes, although the word has come to have a different popular meaning in English. In the technical sense of the word, Bizet's collaboration with Alphonse Daudet in L'Arlésienne is a melodrama, and the word is used to describe the grave-digging scene in Beethoven's opera Fidelio.


Meno (Italian: less) is used in musical directions to qualify other words as in meno mosso, with less movement.


Mesto (Italian: sad) is used in directions to performers as an indication of mood, as in the slow movement of the Horn Trio of Brahms, which is marked Adagio mesto.


Metamorphosis, change of shape, is used particularly to describe the process of thematic metamorphosis, the transformation of thematic elements used by composers such as Liszt, a procedure unkindly satirised by one contemporary critic as the life and adventures of a theme.


The metronome is a device, formerly based on the principle of the pendulum, but now controlled more often by electronic means, which measures the equal beats of a piece of music, as a guide to players. The metronome mark of 60 indicates one beat a second, 120 is twice as fast and 240 twice as fast again. The principle was based on the work of Galileo, but the most frequently found clockwork metronome was devised in Vienna by Beethoven's contemporary and briefly his collaborator Count Maelzel.


Mezzo (Italian: half) is found particularly in the compound words mezzo-forte, half loud, represented by the letters mf, and mezzo-piano, half soft, represented by the letters mp. Mezzo can serve as a colloquial abbreviation for mezzo-soprano, the female voice that employs a generally lower register than a soprano and consequently is often, in opera, given the parts of confidante, nurse or mother, secondary rôles to the heroine, usually a soprano. The instruction mezza voce directs a singer to sing with a controlled tone. The instruction can also occur in instrumental music.


Minor (= Latin: smaller) is used in musical terminology to describe a form of scale that corresponds, in its natural form, to the Aeolian mode, the scale on the white notes of the keyboard from A to A. Two other forms of the minor scale are commonly used, the melodic minor and the harmonic minor. The melodic minor scale is a form of minor scale that uses the natural minor form descending, but sharpens the sixth and seventh degrees ascending.


The word minstrel has been used loosely to indicate a musical entertainer, providing his own accompaniment to his singing. The medieval minstrel, a secular musician, flourished between the 13th and 15th century, generally as an itinerant singer.


A minuet (= French: menuet; German: Menuett; Italian: minuetto) is a triple metre French dance popular from the second half of the 17th until at least the end of the 18th century. It appears as an occasional element of the baroque instrumental suite and later as a movement in the pre-classical and classical symphony and allied forms, gradually replaced by the scherzo. The minuet usually has a complementary trio, a contrasting section in similar metre.


Miserere (Latin: have mercy) is the first word of Psalms 50, 54 and 55, and the word appears on numerous occasions in Latin liturgical texts. There is a famous setting of Psalm 50 (= 51 in the Hebrew and English Psalter) by the early 17th century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri, the property of the Papal Chapel, written down from memory by Mozart at the age of fourteen, during his visit to Rome in 1770.


The Latin word Missa, the Catholic Mass or Eucharist, is found in the title of many polyphonic settings of the liturgical texts. The phrase Missa brevis, short Mass, was at first used to indicate a Mass with shorter musical settings of the Ordinary. It later came to be used on occasion for settings that included only the first two parts of the ordinary of the Mass, the Kyrie and the Gloria. Mass titles, particularly in the 16th century, are often distinguished by the musical material from which they are derived, sacred or secular, as in Missa Adieu mes amours, or Missa Ave Regina.


Modal scales are found in various forms. Plainchant, the traditional music of the Catholic liturgy, makes use of eight modes, the church modes, with names derived from very different, earlier Greek modes. The first church mode is the Dorian, the third the Phrygian, the fifth the Lydian and the seventh the Mixolydian. These are the so-called authentic modes, their range from D to D, E to E, F to F and G to G respectively.


Moderato (Italian: moderate) is used as an indication of the speed to be adopted by a performer. It may be used to qualify other adjectives, as allegro moderato, moderately fast.


Molto (Italian: much, very) is often found in directions to performers, as in allegro molto or allegro di molto, molto vivace or molto piano.


Mosso (Italian: moved, agitated) is generally found in the phrases più mosso, faster, and meno mosso, slower.


A motet is generally a choral composition for church use but using texts that are not necessarily a part of the liturgy. It is the Catholic equivalent of the anthem of the Church of England. Motets appear in very different forms from the 13th century onwards.


The word motif, coined from French, is used in English instead of the German Motiv, or English and American motive. It may be defined as a recognisable thematic particle, a group of notes that has a recognisable thematic character, and hence longer than a figure, the shortest recognisable element.


Moto (Italian: motion, movement) is found in the direction 'con moto', with movement, fast. A moto perpetuo is a rapid piece that gives the impression of perpetual motion, as in the Allegro de concert of Paganini or the last movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata.


A movement is a section of a more extended work that is more or less complete in itself, although occasionally movements are linked together, either through the choice of a final inconclusive chord or by a linking note, as in the first and second movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.


Mutes (= Italian: sordino; French: sourdine; German: Dämpfer) are used to muffle the sound of an instrument, by controlling the vibration of the bridge on a string instrument or muffling the sound by placing an object in the bell of a brass instrument.


In vocal music, a melody, or part of a melody, sung on one syllable.


Standard protocol for processing sound from an electronic instrument into messages understood by computers. The computer can then synchronize the instrument with other electronic devices or provide a synthesized playback or share it with other computerized devices