Glossary of Musical Terms


The saltarello is a rapid Italian dance in triple metre, examples of which survive from the Middle Ages. The rhythm and energy of the dance are similar to those of the tarantella. A well known example appears in the final movement of Mendelssohn's 'Italian' Symphony.


The sarabande is a slow dance in triple metre, generally found in the baroque instrumental suite. The dance seems to have been Latin American in origin, imported from Latin America to Spain in the 16th century.


The saxophone, a single-reed instrument, was invented in the middle of the 19th century by Adolphe Sax. It is used widely in jazz, and has never been a permanent member of the symphony orchestra. Notable use is made of the saxophone by Ravel in his Bolro and in his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and other composers have used the instrument for special effects.


A scale is a sequence of notes placed in ascending or descending order by step.


A scherzo is a light-hearted movement found from the early 17th century in various forms, but used by Beethoven as an alternative to the minuet in symphonies, sonatas and other instrumental forms. Chopin expanded the form very considerably. The diminutive scherzino or scherzetto is occasionally found, while scherzando occurs as a direction to performers. The scherzo, like the minuet, is generally used to frame a trio section of contrasted material.


A musical score is written music that shows all parts. A conductor's score, for example, may have as many as thirty different simultaneous instrumental parts on one page, normally having the woodwind at the top, followed below by the brass, the percussion and the strings. A distinction is made between a vocal score, which gives voice parts with a simplified two-stave version of any instrumental parts, and a full score, which includes all vocal and instrumental parts generally on separate staves. To score a work is to write it out in score.


The seguidilla or seguidillas is a fairly quick triple-metre Spanish dance. There is a famous imitation of the form in Carmen's seguidilla in the first act of Bizet's opera Carmen.


The term semi-opera has been coined to describe the English dramatic works of the later 17th century that combined spoken drama with a significant element of music, as in Purcell's King Arthur, with a text by Dryden, or in the same composer's The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.


Sempre (Italian: always) is found in directions to performers, as in sempre piano, always soft.


Senza (Italian: without) is found in directions to performers, particularly in phrases such as senza sordino, without mute.


A septet is a composition for seven players or the name for a group of seven players.


A serenade (= German: Serenade, Ständchen) is often similar in form to the divertimento. Etymologically a piece for evening performance, usually outdoors, the counterpart of the morning Aubade, the title came to have a much more general meaning, although it often suggests a piece of music in honour of someone or something, an extension of the traditional performance of a lover beneath the window of his mistress.


Serialism is the important 20th century compositional technique that uses, as a basis of unity, a series of the twelve semitones of the octave in a certain order, which may then be taken in retrograde form, in inversion and in retrograde inversion, and also in transposition. The technique, an extension of late romantic chromaticism, was formulated by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s followed by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and thereafter by many other composers.


A sextet is a composition for six players or the name of a group of six players.


A sharp, represented by the sign #, added before a note, raises its pitch by a semitone. In general terms music that is sharp may be simply out of tune, at too high a pitch.


The siciliana or siciliano (= French: sicilienne) had its probable origin in a Sicilian shepherd dance or song. It came to be associated in the later 17th century with the pastoral, particularly in the Christmas Concerto of the period. The siciliana is normally in compound dotted rhythm and is slow and sometimes melancholy in mood.


The side-drum or snare drum is military in origin. It is a small drum, played with two wooden sticks, with a band of gut strings or wires that can be stretched across the under-surface of the drum to add a rattling effect when it is struck.


Sinfonia (Italian: symphony) in earlier usage indicated a passage or piece of instrumental music, sometimes an introductory piece, leading later to the Italian overture, known as the sinfonia before the opera, the origin of the Italian symphony.

Sinfonia concertante

The sinfonia concertante is a concerto that uses two or more solo instruments. The title was used in the later 18th century by Mozart, Haydn and their contemporaries, and has occasionally been used by composers since then.


A sinfonietta is a small symphony. The word is sometimes used to indicate a small orchestra.


A Singspiel is a German form of play with music. The word is used to indicate a stage work that makes some use of spoken dialogue, even in a context of primarily musical interest. Examples are found in Mozart's The Magic Flute and in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.


Sonata-form, otherwise known with similar inaccuracy as first movement form or sonata-allegro form, developed during the second half of the 18th century as a principal form in instrumental music, from Haydn onwards. The form is based on a triple division of a movement into exposition, development and recapitulation. The first section normally contains two contrasting subjects, the first in the tonic key and the second in the dominant key or in the relative major of a minor key movement. The section ends with a coda or codetta.


The title sonata originally designated music that was to be played rather than sung. The baroque sonata developed in two parallel forms. The first, the sonata da chiesa or church sonata, was generally of four movements in the order slow-fast-slow-fast, the faster movements fugal in character. The second, the sonata da camera or chamber sonata, was in essence a dance suite.


A sonatina is a little sonata, simpler in structure and shorter in length than a sonata.


The soprano is the highest kind of female voice. The word may be used as an adjective to describe instruments of higher range, such as the soprano saxophone, or to qualify the word clef, the soprano clef, now little used, puts a C clef on the bottom line of the stave.


Sostenuto (Italian: sustained) is a direction to performers to play smoothly.


The spinet is a small form of harpsichord.


The staff or stave (plural: staves) indicates the set of lines used for the notation of notes of different pitches. The five-line stave is in general use, with a four-line stave used for plainchant. Staves of other numbers of lines were once used. The system, with coloured lines for C and for F, followed principles suggested first by Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century. Staff notation is the system of notation that uses the stave.


The stop on an organ is the device that brings into operation a particular set of pipes.


In a fugue stretto is the device by which a second voice enters with the subject overlapping a first voice, rather than starting after the completion of the subject by the first voice. The word is sometimes used to indicate a faster speed, particularly at the climax of a movement.


String instruments are chordophones, instruments that sound by the vibration of a string of a certain tension. The string section of the modern orchestra uses first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses. A string trio consists of violin, viola and cello; a string quartet consists of two violins, viola and cello and a string quintet either of two violins, two violas and cello, as in the case of Mozart's work in this form, or of two violins, viola and two cellos, as in the case of Schubert's famous C major String Quintet and the Quintets of Boccheri.


A study (= French: tude; German: Etde) is a piece of music originally designed primarily for the technical development of the player. Studies came, however, to be compositions of considerable musical distinction, as in the case of the Etudes of Chopin or of Debussy.


A subject is a theme or group of themes.


A suite is an instrumental piece consisting of several shorter pieces. The baroque suite generally contains a series of dance movements, in particular the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Later suites of all kinds exist, some formed by extracts of a larger work, an opera, ballet or incidental music.


Originally indicating a generally instrumental section or composition, as in the case of the brief instrumental introduction to Monteverdi's opera Orfeo, the symphony came to be the principal serious orchestral form of the later 18th century and thereafter. This later form of the symphony (= Italian: sinfonia) has its immediate origin in the three-movement Italian overture to opera found in the work of Alessandro Scarlatti in the late 17th and early 18th century.

Sul ponticello

"At the bridge." A direction to string players to place the bow near the bridge (the small piece of wood that raises the strings away from the instrument). The tonal resonance is reduced and the sound is more metallic.

Sotto Voce

Literally "under voice" in Italian. A dramatic lowering of the vocal or instrumental tone — not necessarily pianissimo, but with a hushed quality.