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 English horn is more generally known in England as the cor anglais. It is the tenor oboe.
The word ensemble is used in three senses. It may refer to the togetherness of a group of performers: if ensemble is poor, the players are not together. It may indicate part of an opera that involves a group of singers. It can also mean a group of performers.
As the word suggests, an entr'acte (= German: Zwischenspiel) is music between the acts of a play or opera.
An Etude is a study, intended originally for the technical practice of the player. Chopin, Liszt, and later composers elevated the tude into a significant piece of music, no mere exercise.
The exposition in sonata-allegro form is the first section of the movement, in which the principal thematic material is announced. In the exposition of a fugue (a fugal exposition) the voices (= parts) enter one by one with the same subject: the exposition ends when all the voices have entered.
F is a note of the scale (= Italian, French: fa).
Fagott (German) or fagotto (Italian) is the bassoon, the bass of the woodwind section in the orchestra (see Bassoon).
A fanfare is a flourish of trumpets or other similar instruments, used for military or ceremonial purposes, or music that conveys this impression.
Fantasy (= French: fantaisie; Italian: fantasia; German: Fantasie) is a relatively free form in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which a composer may exercise his fancy, usually in contrapuntal form. In later periods the word was used to describe a much freer form, as in the written improvisations for piano of this title by Mozart, or Beethoven's so-called Moonlight Sonata, described by the composer as Sonata quasi una fantasia, Sonata like a Fantasia.
A fiddle is a violin, but the word is used either colloquially or to indicate a folk-instrument. The Australian composer Percy Grainger, who objected to the use of words of Latin origin, used the word fiddle for violin, middle-fiddle for viola and bass fiddle for cello, as part of his eccentric vocabulary of 'blue-eyed English'.
The Italian La Follia, (= Spanish: Fola; French: Folie d'Espagne) is a well known dance tune popular from the 16th century or earlier and found in the work of composers such as Corelli (1653 - 1713), who used the theme for a set of variations forming a violin sonata, or later by Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) in his incorrectly named Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
Forte (Italian: loud) is used in directions to performers. It appears in the superlative form fortissimo, very loud. The letter f is an abbreviation of forte, ff an abbreviation of fortissimo, with fff or more rarely ffff even louder.
The word fortepiano, with the same meaning as pianoforte, the full name of the piano, with its hammer action and consequent ability to produce sounds both loud and soft, corresponding to the force applied to the keys, is generally used to indicate the earlier form of the piano, as it developed in the 18th century. A Mozart piano, for example, might be called a fortepiano. The instrument is smaller, more delicately incisive in tone than the modern instrument, and is in some respects more versatile.
Fugue has been described as a texture rather than a form. It is, in essence, a contrapuntal composition. The normal fugue opens with a subject or theme in one voice or part. A second voice answers, with the same subject transposed and sometimes slightly altered, usually at the interval of a fifth, while the first voice continues with an accompaniment that may have the character of a countersubject that will be used again as the piece progresses. Other voices enter one by one, each of them with the subject, the third in the form of the first entry, the fourth in the form of the answer in the second voice. A fugue may have as few as two voices (the word voice does not necessarily imply singing in this context) and seldom more than four. The subject announced at the beginning provides the chief melodic element in a fugue. When all the voices have entered, the so-called fugal exposition, there will be an episode, a bridge that leads to a further entry or series of entries answering each other, now in different keys. The fugue, as it had developed by the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, continues in this way, often making use of stretto (overlapping entries of the subject) and pedal-point (a sustained note, usually below the other parts) as it nears the end. The fugue became an important form or texture in the Baroque period, reaching its height in the work of J. S. Bach in the first half of the 18th century. Later composers continued to write fugues, a favourite form of Mozart's wife Constanze, with Beethoven including elaborate fugues in some of his later piano sonatas and a remarkable and challenging Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) as part of one of his later string quartets. Technically the writing of fugue remains an important element in the training of composers.
G is a note of the musical scale (= French, Italian: sol)
The galliard is a courtly dance of the late 16th and early 17th century in triple metre usually following a slower duple metre pavan. The two dances are often found in instrumental compositions of the period, sometimes in suites.
The galop is a quick dance in duple metre, one of the most popular ballroom dances of the 19th century. The dance appears as a parody in Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld in a can-can.
Gamba (Italian: leg) is in English used colloquially to designate the viola da gamba or leg-viol, the bowed string instrument popular from the 16th until the middle of the 18th century and held downwards, in a way similar to that used for the modern cello, as opposed to the viola da braccio or arm-viol, the instrument of the violin family, held on the arm or shoulder.
The German dance (= German: Deutsche, Deutscher Tanz) describes generally the triple metre dances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, found in the Ländler and the Waltz. There are examples of this dance in the work of Beethoven and of Schubert.
The gigue (= Italian: giga; English: jig) is a rapid dance normally in compound duple metre (the main beats divided into three rather than two). The gigue became the accepted final dance in the baroque instrumental suite.
Giocoso (Italian: jocular, cheerful) is sometimes found as part of a tempo instruction to a performer, as in allegro giocoso, fast and cheerful. The same Italian adjective is used in the descriptive title of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, a dramma giocoso.
Giusto (Italian: just, exact) is found in tempo indications, as, for example, allegro giusto, as in the last movement of Schubert's Trout Quintet, or tempo giusto, in strict time, sometimes, as in Liszt, indicating a return to the original speed of the music after a freer passage.
Derived from the French glisser, to slide, the Italianised word is used to describe sliding in music from one note to another. On the harp or the piano this is achieved by sliding the finger or fingers over the strings or keys, and can be achieved similarly on bowed string instruments, and by other means on the trombone, clarinet, French horn and pedal timpani among others.
The glockenspiel is a percussion instrument similar in form to the xylophone, but with metal rather than wooden bars for the notes. The instrument appeared only gradually in the concert-hall and opera-house and is found in Handel's oratorio Saul and elsewhere. Mozart made famous use of the glockenspiel in The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), where it is a magic instrument for the comic bird-catcher Papageno. It is now a recognised if sparingly used instrument in the percussion section of the modern orchestra.
The gong is a percussion instrument originating in the East. In the modern orchestra it is usually found in the form of the large Chinese tam-tam. The gong appears in Western orchestral music in the late 18th century, and notable use of sets of gongs of varying size is found adding exotic colour to Puccini's oriental operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot.