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.
Reeds, made either from traditional material or from plastic or metal, are used to produce a musical sound from their vibration by means of an air column. The clarinet uses a single reed, fastened to a hollow mouthpiece, while the oboe and bassoon use a double reed, one side vibrating against the other. The reed-pipes of the organ are generally made of metal, with a thin vibrating tongue to produce the sound. Similar laminae are used in the mouth-organ and harmonica. Some instruments, like the bagpipes or the crumhorn, use covered double reeds, set inside an air chamber.
The register of a voice or instrument is a distinct part of its range. The clarinet, for example, has a distinctive lower register known, from the origin of the instrument, as the chalumeau register, and an upper register of more flute-like timbre.
Registration is the choice of stops used by an organist or harpsichordist, a much more elaborate matter for the former.
The Catholic Mass for the Dead opens with the words Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord), leading to the use of the word Requiem for the Mass for the Dead. Important settings of the Requiem include that by Mozart and the large scale settings of the Requiem by Berlioz and by Verdi. Brahms set a collection of Lutheran texts to form his German Requiem, while Faur set a liturgical text that used parts of the burial service.
The title rhapsody (= French: rapsodie) came into general use in music of the mid-19th century, notably with the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt. It implies a work free in form and inspiration, often an expression of national temperament, as in the Slavonic Rhapsodies of Dvork and the Rapsodie espagnole of Ravel.
Rhythm, an essential element in music in one way or another, is the arrangement of notes according to their relative duration and relative accentuation.
The French folk-dance, the rigaudon, is occasionally found in instrumental dance suites of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was normally in a brisk duple metre.
Ritardando (Italian: becoming slower) abbreviated often to rit., is often used as a direction to players.
Ritenuto (Italian: held back) directs a player to slow down at once.
The ritornello, a recurrent phrase or passage, is a feature of baroque form, where an aria may be punctuated by re-appearances of a short instrumental phrase. It became a frequent element in baroque solo concertos by composers such as Vivaldi, and works with operatic connotations.
Rococo, a term borrowed, as are so many other terms in musicology, from architecture and the visual arts, is used in particular to describe the light decorative French style as found in the work of Couperin and Rameau in the first half of the 18th century.
Romanticism in cultural history is a word that defies precise definition. In music it is most commonly applied to a period or the predominant features of that period, from the early 19th century until the early 20th. Features of romanticism in music include an attention to feeling rather than to formal symmetry, expressed in a freer use of traditional forms, an expansion of the instrumental resources of music and an extension of harmonic language. Music also reflected other preoccupations, influenced particularly by the arts of literature and painting, and their preoccupation with the remote and exotic, whether historical or geographical, or both. Early German romantic opera, for example, is found in Weber's Der Freischtz, with its plot involving woodmen and huntsmen and the mysterious midnight magic of the forest.
Rondo (= French: rondeau) form involves the use of a recurrent theme between a series of varied episodes, often used for the rapid final movement of a classical concerto or symphony.
Rubato, (Italian: stolen time), Short for tempo rubato. A direction to perform music more expressively, faster or slower than strict adherence to the beat would indicate.
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. A symphony, for example, might be sketched in short score, on two staves, and later orchestrated or scored for the required instruments.
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.