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.
The piccolo (Italian: small) is the small flute, pitched an octave higher than the ordinary flute. Adjectivally the word may be applied to other instruments or groups, as in coro piccolo, small chorus. The violino piccolo, a smaller violin, is used by Johann Sebastian Bach in the first Brandenburg Concerto, where it is to be tuned a third higher.
The pitch of a note is the frequency of its vibrations. The exact pitch of notes has varied over the years and nowadays differs to some extent between continent and continent or even between orchestra and orchestra. Earlier pitches were generally lower, but not necessarily standardised. Perfect pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of a note, according to generally accepted nomenclature. Relative pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of one note with relation to another, given note.
Più (Italian: more) is found in directions to performers, as in più forte, louder, or più lento, slower.
Pizzicato (Italian: plucked) is a direction to performers on string instruments to pluck the strings. A return to the use of the bow is indicated by the word 'arco', bow. Pizzicato notes on the violin, viola and cello are normally plucked with the index finger of the right hand. The great violinist Paganini, however, introduced the technique of left-hand pizzicato for occasional use, notably in one of the variations of his 24th Caprice, where it produces a very special effect.
Plainchant is the traditional monodic chant of the Catholic and Eastern Christian liturgies. In Western Europe plainchant was largely but not completly standardised under Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. This form of chant is free in rhythm, following the words of the liturgical texts, and is modal, using the scales of the eight church modes. In its long history it has undergone various reforms, revisions and attempts at restoration.
Poco (Italian: little) is found in directions to performers, as in poco allegro, although un poco allegro, a little fast, would be more accurate. Poco, in fact, is commonly used meaning un poco, a little.
Polacca, Polish, appears often in the phrase Alla polacca, in the Polish manner, as in the last movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The polka, a Bohemian dance, became one of the most popular ball-room dances of the 19th century, its title a possible reference to Poland. It is used by Smetana in his Czech opera The Bartered Bride and elsewhere and in William Walton's jeu d'esprit Faade.
The polonaise is a Polish dance in triple metre. Although the title is found in French Suite No. 6 of Johann Sebastian Bach and elsewhere in the earlier 18th century, the form is best known from the piano pieces written by Chopin a hundred years later, works that elevated the original dance to a higher level, while capturing the current spirit of Polish nationalism.
Polyphony is the writing of music in many parts or in more than one part, with reference in particular to contrapuntal practices. Monody or monophony are possible opposites.
A smooth, unbroken, gliding from one pitch to another, where the intermediate pitches are audible.
The post horn is a relatively simple kind of horn once played by postilions as a signal of the departure, arrival or approach of a coach. Mozart made brief use of the instrument in his Post Horn Serenade, and its sound was imitated by various composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach in his harpsichord Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, which includes a Postilion Aria and a fugue on the sound of the post horn.
A postlude is played at the end of a piece and indicates, in particular, the additional piano phrases that may appear at the end of a song, after the singer has stopped. The word is more widely used to describe the closing section of a work or to indicate a piece of music to be played as the conclusion of some ceremony, the opposite of a prelude.
A prelude (= Latin: praeludium, praeambulum; French: prlude; German: Vorspiel) is a movement or section of a work that comes before another movement or section of a work, although the word also has been used for short independent pieces that may stand alone, or even for more extended works, such as Debussy's Prlude l'aprs-midi d'un faune.
Presto (Italian: quick) is used frequently as a direction to performers. An even faster speed is indicated by the superlative prestissimo or even il più presto possibile, as fast as possible.
Programme music is music that has a narrative or descriptive extra-musical content. Music of this kind has a long history, but the term programme music was coined by Liszt, whose symphonic poems principally attempt to translate into musical terms works of literature, such as Goethe's Faust or Dante's Divina Commedia. It seems preferable that the term should be limited to instrumental music for concert use and should not include either incidental music or ballet music.
Psalms are the texts included in the biblical Book of Psalms and retaining an important place in the services of the Catholic Divine Office, sung to plainchant. The biblical texts are not metrical and therefore use a relatively simple form of chant that can be expanded by the use of a longer reciting note, the final syllables sung to a short syllabic formula. After the Reformation of the early 16th century metrical versions of the Psalms became current, with texts that could be sung to hymn-tunes. Harmonized settings of the biblical and metrical Psalms have been current in Protestant churches and chapels since the 16th century.
The quadrille was one of the most popular ball-room dances of the 19th century, generally in a brisk duple metre.
Divisions of the tone smaller than a semitone are occasionally found in art-music, particularly in the 20th century. Quarter-tones occur in the solo violin part of the Second Violin Concerto of Bel Bartk.
A quartet is a composition for four players or the name for a group of four players.
A quintet is a composition for five players or the name for a group of five players.
A quodlibet (Latin: what you please) is a light-hearted composition generally containing a combination of well known tunes. There is an example in Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, where the composer combines the theme of the variations with two popular songs of the time.
Rallentando (Italian: becoming slower) is a direction to a performer to play gradually slower.
Recitative is used in vocal works, particularly opera and oratorio, usually for a solo voice, in relatively free rhythm. In this respect recitative is distinct from the formal aria. Recitative might be accompanied by basso continuo, harpsichord or other chordal instruments and a bass instrument (recitativo secco or dry recitative), or accompanied by a larger number of instruments (recitativo accompagnato, accompanied recitative). Recitative is often used for narrative or for the forwarding of the plot in opera.
The recorder (= German: Blockflste; French: flte bec; Italian: flauto dolce), the straight flute, exists in a variety of sizes, the principal of which are the descant or soprano, the treble or alto, the tenor and the bass, the first and third of which have a range upwards from C and the second and fourth of which have a range upwards from F, with similar fingering. Other sizes of recorder include the smallest, the sopranino, an octave higher than the treble and the great bass, an octave lower than the tenor. An even larger family of recorders existed in the later 16th century. The earlier recorder was used in consort music, while it was used rather as a solo instrument in music in the later 17th and early 18th centuries, with sonatas for the instrument by Handel and solo parts in the second and fourth of the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. The revival of the instrument in the 20th century has led to a number of new solo works for recorder.