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.
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. The Italian overture opens with a fast movement, followed by a slow movement and a final fast dance-movement in triple metre. The function of the symphony as an overture continued into the second half of the 18th century, to be replaced more generally by its new function as an isolated orchestral form. The classical symphony of Haydn and Mozart is generally in four movements, opening with a sonata-form allegro, followed by a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a rondo finale. With Beethoven the symphony grew in size and ambition, an example followed later by Brahms, Bruckner and others. In the 19th century and into the 20th century the symphony, now much expanded, remained the most respected and demanding form that a composer might tackle. A symphony may loosely be defined as an orchestral composition generally in several movements.
Tafelmusik (German: table-music; = French: musique de table), indicates music used to accompany banquets. Telemann provides a well known example in three sets of Musique de Table, more commonly seen now under the German title, Tafelmusik.
The tam-tam is a gong, an instrument of Chinese origin in its Western orchestral form. It is first found in this context towards the end of the 18th century, when it is used for dramatic effect. Gustav Holst makes use of the tam-tam in Mars, from The Planets, and sets of gongs of a more obviously oriental kind are used by Puccini in his operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot.
The tambourine is a small single-headed hand-drum with jingles in its wooden frame. It is an instrument of some antiquity, but first found an occasional place in the symphony orchestra only in the 19th century, when it came to be used for exotic effects, as in the Capriccio espagnol and Sheherazade of Rimsky-Korsakov, where it gives a touch of the Spanish and the Middle Eastern respectively.
Tanto (Italian: so much) is occasionally found in tempo indications, as in allegro ma non tanto, similar in meaning, if slightly weaker than allegro ma non troppo, allegro but not too much.
The tarantella is a folk-dance from the Southern Italian town of Taranto. A 6/8 metre dance of some rapidity, it has been connected, by a process of false etymology, with the tarantula spider and either the effects of its bite or a means of its cure. There are well known examples in piano pieces by Chopin and by Liszt.
The Te Deum (Latin: We praise Thee, O Lord) is a canticle sung in thanksgiving and forming a part of the Divine Office, where it appears after Matins on Sundays and major feast days. It later formed part of the Church of England morning service. Well known examples are found in two settings by Handel, the Utrecht Te Deum and the Dettingen Te Deum , with more elaborate settings in the 19th century from Berlioz and Bruckner.
Temperaments are the various alterations of strict tuning necessary for practical purposes. Equal temperament, now in general use, involves the division of the octave into twelve equal semitones, a procedure that necessitates some modification of intervals from their true form, according to the ratios of physics. Equal temperament, exemplified in Johann Sebastian Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues for the Well-Tempered Clavier, won gradual acceptance in the 18th century, replacing earlier systems of tuning. It has been plausibly suggested that the system of equal temperament was borrowed from China, where its mathematical basis was published towards the end of the 16th century.
Tempo (Italian: time) means the speed at which a piece of music is played. Sometimes the exact tempo is given at the beginning of a piece of music with the number of beats to a minute, as measured by a metronome. More often tempo indications give the performer more latitude, although the Hungarian composer Bel Bartk, for example, gives exact timings, often of each section of a work. In much earlier music the tempo is implicit in the notation or in the type of music.
The tenor voice is the highest male voice, except for the falsetto or otherwise produced register of the male alto and male soprano. In the Middle Ages the word had a different meaning. The tenor part of a vocal composition was the thematic basis, borrowed often from plainchant. The tenor voice came to assume the principal rôles in opera, largely replacing the castrato by the later 18th century. Various forms of tenor voice are demanded, particularly in opera, where the strong Heldentenor, (heroic tenor), met the requirements of Wagner, while other composers made use of lighter-voiced lyric tenors. The word tenor is also used adjectivally to describe instruments with a pitch lying between bass and alto, as, for example, the tenor trombone or, in earlier times, the tenor violin. The tenor clef, a C clef placed on the second line from the top of the five-line stave, is used for the upper registers of the cello and bassoon and for the tenor trombone.
Ternary form is a tripartite musical structure, three-part song-form, in which the third part is an exact or modified repetition of the first. Standard examples of ternary form can be heard in the minuet and trio movements of Haydn and Mozart or in the more expanded scherzo and trio movements of Beethoven.
A theme is a complete tune or melody which is of fundamental importance in a piece of music. Thematic metamorphosis or thematic transformation describes a process used by Liszt and others in which a theme may undergo transformation to provide material to sustain other movements or sections of a work, where new and apparently unrelated themes might otherwise have been used.
The theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Léon Thérémin, a scientist of French origin who lived and worked in Russia, has the original feature of being played without the performer touching it. Frequencies and dynamics are controlled by the movement of the player's hands in the air, with pitch varying according to the distance of the right hand from an antenna and dynamics varying by the similar use of the left hand.
Time, unlike the word tempo, which means speed or pace, is used in music for the metrical divisions or bar-lengths of a piece of music. These are indicated by two numbers at the beginning of a work or at the introduction of a changed time by two numbers that form a time-signature. The higher of the two numbers shows how many beats there are in a bar, while the lower number shows what kind of note it is. In this way a duple time-signature of 2/4 means that each bar consists of two quarter notes or crotchets or their equivalent in notes of shorter or longer duration. An indication of compound time such as 6/8 shows that there are six quavers or eighth notes in each bar, although in faster speeds these will be in two groups of three. Prime higher numbers such as five or seven necessitate asymmetrical groupings of notes.
Timpani, kettledrums, unlike most other drums, have a definite pitch, tuned nowadays by pedals, but in earlier times by taps that served the same purpose, tightening or slackening the skin to produce higher or lower notes. In the later 18th century pairs of timpani were generally used in conjunction with pairs of trumpets, both instruments being of military origin. Beethoven made novel use of the timpani, as in his Violin Concerto, where they play an important part. Other composers made still greater use of the timpani, most eccentrically Berlioz, who calls for sixteen timpani and ten players in his Grande Messe des morts (Requiem).
A toccata is an instrumental piece, often designed to display the technical proficiency of a performer and found particularly in keyboard music from the 15th century onwards. There are notable examples in the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach, with some toccatas containing a series of movements.
Tombeau (French: tomb, tomb-stone) is a title used by French composers in tributes offered to predecessors or contemporaries. Ravel had recourse to this baroque title in his 1914 Tombeau de Couperin.
A tone poem (= German: Tondichtung) is a symphonic poem, an orchestral composition that seeks to express extra-musical ideas in music. The term Tondichtung was preferred by Richard Strauss, a master of the form.
Music may be transcribed or arranged for instruments other than those for which it was originally designed. Well known transcriptions are found among the short pieces arranged for violin and piano by the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler.
Music may be transposed when the original key is changed, a process all too necessary in accompanying singers and for whom a transposition of the music down a tone or two may be necessary. Some instruments are known as transposing instruments because the written notes for them sound higher or lower than the apparent written pitch, when they are played.
The orchestral flute (= Italian: flauto traverso) is transverse, held horizontally, as opposed to the recorder, which is held vertically.
The treble voice is a voice in the higher register. The word is generally used for the unbroken voice of boys, although the register may be similar to that of the female soprano. Treble instruments are instruments of higher register and the G clef in use for this register is commonly known as the treble clef. Originally the treble or triplum was the third part added above a duplum or second additional part, lying above the lowest part, the tenor of the medieval motet.
Tremolo (Italian: trembling) indicates the quick repetition of a note, particularly in string-playing. This is impossible on the keyboard with a single note, but tremolo effects can be achieved by playing in rapid alternation two notes of a chord.
The triangle is now part of the orchestral percussion section. It is an instrument of indefinite pitch made from a steel bar bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle and is played by being struck with a steel beater or, for softer effects, a wooden stick. It was used occasionally in opera in the earlier 18th century, but came into its own with the Turkish music of, for example, Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail). Its appearance in Liszt's E flat Piano Concerto in 1853 caused some amusement among hostile critics. Tremolo effects are occasionally demanded.
A trill is a musical ornament made by the more or less rapid alternation of a note and the note above, in the classical period generally starting on the latter.