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.
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. Problems arise for the listener in the difficulty of hearing the series, however visually apparent from the written score.
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.
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.
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. Sonatas of this kind might be played by a melodic instrument with basso continuo or with a realised keyboard part, or in the form of trio sonatas, with two melody instruments and basso continuo, therefore normally involving four players. The classical sonata, instrumental music again generally in several movements, might involve one or more instruments. There was in particular a development of the solo keyboard sonata, from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to Beethoven. Duo sonatas, generally using a keyboard instrument and a melody instrument, developed from an earlier form in which the melody instrument predominated to a form in which the keyboard assumed greater importance, with an optional accompaniment from a melody instrument. Greater degrees of equality between the two were achieved in the later violin sonatas of Mozart and the violin sonatas and cello sonatas of Beethoven. The 19th century brought an expansion of the sonata and greater freedom in the treatment of existing forms, often with more considerable technical demands on performers, as in the violin and piano sonatas and cello and piano sonatas of Brahms.
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 middle section, the development, offers varied treatment of themes or parts of themes that have already been heard. The recapitulation brings back the first and second subjects now in the tonic key. The movement ends with a coda. The form is used for all kinds of instrumental music, from sonatas to symphonies, and is expanded and varied in a number of ways.
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.
Literally "under voice" in Italian. A dramatic lowering of the vocal or instrumental tone — not necessarily pianissimo, but with a hushed quality.
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. Other numbers and combinations of string instruments are possible in other ensembles.
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.
"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.