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 Latin word Missa, the Catholic Mass or Eucharist, is found in the title of many polyphonic settings of the liturgical texts. The phrase Missa brevis, short Mass, was at first used to indicate a Mass with shorter musical settings of the Ordinary. It later came to be used on occasion for settings that included only the first two parts of the ordinary of the Mass, the Kyrie and the Gloria. Mass titles, particularly in the 16th century, are often distinguished by the musical material from which they are derived, sacred or secular, as in Missa Adieu mes amours, or Missa Ave Regina. The Missa Papae Marcelli, the Mass of Pope Marcellus, is the setting of the Mass written by Palestrina, supposedly to preserve polyphony from condemnation by the Council of Trent.
Modal scales are found in various forms. Plainchant, the traditional music of the Catholic liturgy, makes use of eight modes, the church modes, with names derived from very different, earlier Greek modes. The first church mode is the Dorian, the third the Phrygian, the fifth the Lydian and the seventh the Mixolydian. These are the so-called authentic modes, their range from D to D, E to E, F to F and G to G respectively. Each authentic mode has an associated plagal mode using the same final note, but within an octave range that starts a fourth below the final and extends a fifth above it. These plagal modes take the Greek prefix hypo-, as in Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian and Hypomixolydian. Theorists later distinguished two further pairs of authentic and plagal modes, the Aeolian, A to A, and the Ionian, C to C. The Locrian mode, B to B, is inaccurately named, but was early distinguished as Hyperaeolian. Early polyphony, reaching a height of perfection in the 16th century, is modal, and its techniques continue to be studied as modal counterpoint, a necessary element in the training of a musician. These listed modes and a variety of other modes may be distinguished in folk-music, while composers of the 20th century have constructed their own synthetic scales or modes.
Moderato (Italian: moderate) is used as an indication of the speed to be adopted by a performer. It may be used to qualify other adjectives, as allegro moderato, moderately fast.
Molto (Italian: much, very) is often found in directions to performers, as in allegro molto or allegro di molto, molto vivace or molto piano.
Mosso (Italian: moved, agitated) is generally found in the phrases più mosso, faster, and meno mosso, slower.
A motet is generally a choral composition for church use but using texts that are not necessarily a part of the liturgy. It is the Catholic equivalent of the anthem of the Church of England. Motets appear in very different forms from the 13th century onwards.
The word motif, coined from French, is used in English instead of the German Motiv, or English and American motive. It may be defined as a recognisable thematic particle, a group of notes that has a recognisable thematic character, and hence longer than a figure, the shortest recognisable element.
Moto (Italian: motion, movement) is found in the direction 'con moto', with movement, fast. A moto perpetuo is a rapid piece that gives the impression of perpetual motion, as in the Allegro de concert of Paganini or the last movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata.
A movement is a section of a more extended work that is more or less complete in itself, although occasionally movements are linked together, either through the choice of a final inconclusive chord or by a linking note, as in the first and second movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.
Mutes (= Italian: sordino; French: sourdine; German: Dämpfer) are used to muffle the sound of an instrument, by controlling the vibration of the bridge on a string instrument or muffling the sound by placing an object in the bell of a brass instrument.
Nachtmusik (German: night-music) is best known from Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, a serenade.
A natural is a note that is neither a sharp nor a flat. The adjective is used to describe the natural horn or natural trumpet, without valves.
Neoclassical style in music indicates a 20th century eclectic return by some composers to various styles and forms of earlier periods, whether classical or baroque. The style is exemplified in the score for the ballet Pulcinella by Stravinsky or by the same composer's opera The Rake's Progress.
A nocturne is a night-piece, music that evokes a nocturnal mood. It was developed as a form of solo piano music by the Irish pianist and composer John Field in the early 19th century, leading to its notable use by Chopin. The title has been used more recently by other composers for both instrumental and vocal compositions.
A nonet is a composition for nine performers.
Notation is the method of writing music down, practices of which have varied during the course of history. Staff notation is the conventional notation that makes use of the five-line staff or stave, while some recent composers have employed systems of graphic notation to indicate their more varied requirements, often needing detailed explanations in a preface to the score. Notation is inevitably imprecise, providing a guide of varying accuracy for performers, who must additionally draw on stylistic tradition.
A note in English is either a single sound or its representation in notation. American English refers to a single sound as a tone, following German practice.
Obbligato (Italian: obligatory) is often used virtually as a noun in English, in spite of its derivation. It is used to indicate an additional instrumental part that cannot be omitted, particularly when a solo instrument adds an accompanying melody in some baroque vocal forms. There is, for example, a well known violin obbligato to the mezzo-soprano aria Laudamus te, in the B minor Mass of Bach.
The oboe is a double-reed instrument, an important part of the woodwind section of the modern orchestra. The mechanism of its keys underwent considerable development in the 19th century. In earlier times it formed an important part of the outdoor military band, but the Western symphony orchestra normally uses a pair of instruments. The oboe d'amore is the alto of the oboe family, used in the baroque period, and the tenor is found in the cor anglais or, in the mid-18th century, in the oboe da caccia. The tone of the instrument, much affected by different methods of cutting the reeds, can impart a characteristic sound to a whole orchestra.
The octave is an interval of an eighth, as for example from the note C to C or D to D. The first note can have a sharp or flat providing the last note has the corresponding sharp or flat (i. e. C sharp to C sharp).
An octet is a composition for eight performers.
The ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument invented by the French musician Maurice Martenot, produces single sounds by means of a keyboard that controls the frequencies from an oscillator. It has a wide range and offers the possibility of glissando. It became popular among French composers, including Milhaud, Honegger, Koechlin, Schmitt, Ibert, Jolivet, Messiaen and Boulez. Varèse also wrote for it, as he did for the less versatile electronic instrument, the theremin.
An opera is a drama in which most of the actors sing all or most of their parts. The form developed at the end of the 16th century in Italy, from where it spread to other regions of Europe, although it never became a regular part of London musical life until the early 18th century. Internationally Italian opera has proved immensely important and popular, while opera in France underwent independent development in the later 17th century under the Italian-born composer Lully. The 19th century brought particular developments in German romantic opera and in the innovative music-dramas of Wagner. The word opera covers a wide variety of musico-dramatic forms, from the Orfeo of Monteverdi to The Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper) of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht of 1928, derived from the English anti-heroic Beggar's Opera two centuries earlier.
Opéra buffa is Italian comic opera, particularly in the form it took in early 18th century Italy.
Opéra bouffe is the French term for comic operetta of composers such as Offenbach in 19th century France.