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.
Grazia (grace) forms the Italian adjective grazioso, used as an indication of expression and of tempo, particularly in the 18th century.
Plainchant, the modal chant of early Christian and continuing Catholic worship and its derivatives, is often known as Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory the Great , St. Gregory, to whom the attempt at standardisation of the chant in the late 6th century is attributed.
A repeating bass line, usually four to eight measures long, often used, in early instrumental music, as a framework for improvisation. Pieces built on a ground bass are often titled "Ground."
The modern concert guitar is a plucked string instrument generally with six strings. The instrument has a long history, in one form or another. In more recent times it became popular in Vienna in the early 19th century with the work of the Italian composer and guitarist Mauro Giuliani and in Paris with the Catalan Fernando Sor. In Spain it was, of course, the national instrument.
The letter H is used in German to denote the English note B, while B in German signifies the English B flat. In the use of the letters of a word to form a musical motif, the presence of H allows a complete musical version of the name BACH (B flat - A - C - B = German: B - A - C - H), used by various composers, including Liszt. The Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich uses a musical cryptogram derived from the first letters of his name in German, DSCH, which becomes D - Es (= E flat) - C - H. This occurs in a number of his works as a kind of musical signature.
The Habanera is a Cuban dance from Havana, later introduced to Spain. One of the most famous examples is found in Bizet's Spanish opera Carmen, where Carmen herself sings a seductive Habanera. Ravel includes a Habanera in his Rapsodie espagnole and also wrote a Vocalise en forme de habanera, while Debussy makes use of the characteristic rhythm of the dance.
The Western harmonica or mouth-organ is an invention of the early 19th century, inspired by the ancient Chinese bamboo mouth-organ, the sheng. The 20th century chromatic harmonica, of which Larry Adler has been a leading exponent, has inspired a number of composers, including Vaughan Williams, who wrote a Romance for harmonica and orchestra.
Harmoniemusik is music for wind band. In its more limited sense the term is used to signify music for wind bands or wind ensembles in the service of the nobility from the middle of the 18th century to the end of the third decade of the 19th century, and their popular counterparts. The Harmonie, the band itself, which varied in number from a duo to the often found sextet or octet or to a much larger number of players, had its counterpart in France and in England, as well as its successors among emigrants to the United States of America.
The harmonium, developed in the early 19th century from experiments in the last quarter of the century before, is a keyboard instrument that produces its sounds by means of air from bellows passing through free reeds, metal tongues that are made to vibrate. The instrument has a relatively small classical repertoire, its use either domestic or as a cheap substitute for the church organ.
Harmony describes the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes and the technique governing the construction of such chords and their arrangement in a succession of chords. Following the convention of writing music from left to right on a horizontal set of lines (staff or stave), harmony may be regarded as vertical, as opposed to counterpoint, which is horizontal. In other words harmony deals with chords, simultaneous sounds, and counterpoint with melody set against melody.
The harp is an instrument of great antiquity, represented from as early as 3000 B.C. in Sumeria. The form of the instrument has varied, but the modern double-action harp, a development of the early 19th century, is in general orchestral use. The strings are tuned in flats,starting from a bottom C flat, with seven pedals, each of which can change a given set of strings to a natural or a sharp. The C pedal, therefore, in its three positions, can make all the Cs on the instrument flat, natural or sharp. Other forms of harp survive.
The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument with strings running from front to back of its wing-shaped horizontal box and soundboard. Unlike the piano and the earlier clavichord with its hammers that strike the strings, the harpsichord has a mechanism by which the strings are plucked. The instrument seems to have existed in a simple form in the 14th century and assumed considerable importance from the early 16th until the fuller development of the pianoforte towards the end of the 18th century.
The heroic tenor or Heldentenor is a tenor with a quality of voice suited to the heroic rôles of 19th century French Grand Opera and of the music-dramas of Wagner, as in the part of Tannhäuser in Wagner's opera of that name.
The horn takes its name from the horn of an animal, the original form of this wind instrument in ancient times. The instrument was long associated with hunting and as a means of military signalling. The instrument now generally known as the French horn developed in France in its familiar helical form, but in one form or another the horn had come to be a frequent instrument in music for the church, the theatre and the chamber by the early 18th century.
The hornpipe is a rapid British dance that exists in various metres, triple, duple and quadruple. In its earlier English form it is found in the keyboard suites and stage music of the English composer Henry Purcell, and in keyboard and orchestral movements by Handel. It later came to be popularly associated particularly with sailors in the so-called Sailors' Hornpipe derived from a fiddle-tune.
Schumann was the first composer to use the title Humoreske for a relatively long work for piano, the humour of the title used rather in the sense of a mood of one sort or another. The word later came to indicate very much shorter pieces, such as the well known G flat Humoresque by Dvorák, one of a set of eight.
A hymn is a song of praise, whether to a god, saint or hero. The plainchant hymn has a place in the Divine Office. In Protestant Christian worship, where the hymn assumed considerable importance, after the chorales of Martin Luther and his followers, the metrical homophonic form dominated.
Impressionism was a term at first used mockingly to describe the work of the French painter Monet and his circle, who later made use of the word themselves. It was similarly used to describe an element of vagueness and imprecision coupled with a perceived excess of attention to colour in the early music of Debussy, who did not accept the criticism or the label, although his harmonic innovations and approach to composition have points in common with the ideals of Monet.
The word impromptu was first used as a title for a musical composition in 1822 by the Bohemian composer Vorisek for six piano pieces, to be imitated by Schubert's publisher in naming a set of four piano Impromptus, to be followed by four more, perhaps so named by the composer. Chopin used the title for four compositions in this seemingly improvised form, and there are further impromptus by other composers from that period onwards, generally, but not always, for a single instrument.
Improvisation was once a normal part of a performer's stock-in-trade. Many of the greatest composer-performers, from Bach to Mozart and Beethoven, were masters of improvisation, but in the 19th century this became a less common part of public performance, although it remained and remains a necessary skill for a church organist, traditionally required to provide a musical accompaniment of varying length to liturgical ritual.
Instrumentation is generally used to mean orchestration, the art of writing music for instruments, or, alternatively, the actual scoring of a particular composition.
In the theatre an interlude performs the same function as an entr'acte, music between acts or scenes, designed to bridge a gap. It may also be used to indicate music played or sung between two other works or two sections of a work.
Earlier signifying a comic interlude inserted between the acts of an opera seria, the 19th century intermezzo was often either a musical interlude in a larger composition or a piece of music in itself, often for solo piano. In this second sense it is used by Schumann and later by Brahms in their piano music, while both Mendelssohn and Brahms use the word as a movement title in chamber music.
In music an interval is the distance in pitch between two notes, counted from the lower note upwards, with the lower note as the first of the interval. The violin, for example, is tuned in intervals of a fifth, G to D, D to A and A to E, the double bass in fourths, from E to A, A to D and D to G. Harmonic intervals occur simultaneously, as when a violinist tunes the instrument, listening carefully to the sound of two adjacent strings played together. Melodic intervals occur between two notes played one after the other.
Intonation is the exactness of pitch or lack of it in playing or singing. Collective intonation is that of a group of instruments, where slight individual variations in pitch can be lost in a generally more favourable effect.