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.
Opera seria was the form of Italian serious opera that held sway from the reforms of the early 18th century for a hundred years. It came to be governed by strict rules as to subject and structure, and underwent reform in the interests of greater realism in the second half of the 18th century with the composer Gluck.
Operetta is light opera, a development largely of the 19th century, exemplified in the work of Offenbach in France and Johann Strauss the younger in Vienna.
Opus (= Latin: work) is generally used in the listing of a composer's works by opus numbers, usually abbreviated to Op. Since the Latin plural opera would lead to unnecessary confusion it is best avoided, although the alternative opuses remains an unsatisfactory substitute. Opus numbers are not always a guide to the date of composition or even to the date of publication.
Oratorio has its origin in the musical performances used by the followers of St. Philip Neri, the Oratorians, a religious order founded in 1575, although it has a possible remoter origin in the liturgical drama of the Middle Ages. Forms of oratorio change, but it remains primarily a work in which religious texts often with a narrative content are set for performance by singers and instruments.
A chamber orchestra has come to indicate an orchestra smaller in size than the usual symphony orchestra.
Orchestration is the art of arranging music for the orchestra or the way in which this is done.
The organ is a keyboard instrument in which the sound is produced by air passing through pipes of various size and construction to give a wide variety of pitches and timbres. The instrument has its probable Western origin in the Hellenistic period, with the water-organ of Alexandria. Varying in size and mechanical efficiency, the organ had by the later 17th century given rise to an important school of performance, leading directly to the achievement of Johann Sebastian Bach in the first half of the 18th century.
Ostinato (Italian: obstinate) indicates a part that repeats the same rhythm or melodic element. The basso ostinato or ostinato bass occurs in the ground bass of baroque arias where a melody is set over a repeated bass pattern. Ostinato is used by the Bavarian composer Carl Orff in his instrumental teaching methods, where it may form a basis for improvisation by pupils.
The overture (= French: ouverture; German: Ouvertüre; Italian: sinfonia) is an introductory piece, often designed to initiate an opera or other dramatic work. The late 17th century French overture of Lully opens with a slow section in dotted (uneven) rhythm, followed by a fugal section, before the return of the slow opening. The Italian overture provides the origin of the symphony, with two fast movements framing a central slow movement. The word Ouvertüre or Ouverture is sometimes used to mean an orchestral suite, as in the four orchestral suites of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Although a pantomime in Britain has come to indicate a children's Christmas entertainment, making use of traditional and topical elements in a mixture of fairy-story, comic routine and popular song, the word originally indicated a performance entirely in mime, in this sense having a long history. In this second and original sense pantomime is sometimes found as part of a descriptive title of a musical work or part of a work originally so intended.
A part may indicate the line or music intended for a particular performer. Earlier choral music, for example, was written in separate part-books, one for each part, as is the modern practice with orchestral parts, rather than in the full vocal score now usual. The art of part-writing or, in American, voice-leading, is the art of writing simultaneous parts according to the established rules of harmony. A part-song is a vocal work in which different voices are used, as distinct from a song in which all sing the same melody.
Partita is another word for suite, used, for example, by Johann Sebastian Bach in the title of a set of keyboard suites or in the three Partitas for unaccompanied violin.
The passacaglia is a baroque dance variation form on a short melodic formula usually occurring in the bass. It is similar in form to the chaconne, in which a recurrent bass pattern forms the basis of the composition, implying a recurrent harmonic progression. The two forms are sometimes confused by composers.
Famous examples of the passacaglia include Johann Sebastian Bach's C minor Passacaglia for the organ. Something of the form appears in the last movement of the Fourth Symphony of Brahms, and passacaglias occur in Berg's opera Wozzeck and in Britten's opera Peter Grimes.
The four accounts of the suffering and death of Christ, as given in the first four books of the New Testament, were customarily sung during the Catholic rites of Holy Week to plainchant, with a division of parts where direct speech is involved. It became customary in the 15th century to allow the singing of the parts of the crowd (= Latin: turba) in the biblical narrative in polyphonic settings, with a gradual extension of the polyphonic element in the next century.
Pastorale is a musical expression of a genre familiar in European literature from Hellenistic times or earlier, an idealisation of the rural, in literary form, in the lives and loves (often fatal) of shepherds and shepherdesses, and then, by extension, of the country in general. The word may be used as the title of a piece of music suggesting a rural idyll. In Italy it was associated particularly with the dance-form, the Siciliano, used to suggest the scene of shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem at the birth of Christ.
The pavan (= French: pavane), a stately duple metre dance of the 16th and early 17th centuries, appears in various English spellings, paven, pavin and other forms. Coupled with the quicker triple metre galliard, it was among the most popular dances of the time. The origin of the word is attributed either to the Italian town of Padua or to the peacock (= Italian: pavone). Well known examples include the English composer John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans or Ravel's nostalgic Pavane pour une infante dfunte, (Pavan for a Dead Infanta).
The pentatonic or five-note scale is formed by the black notes of the keyboard, or the white notes C, D, E, G and A - two whole tones, a minor third and a whole tone. This form of scale is the basis of folk melodies in many countries, from China to Scotland, and occasionally occurs, in passing at least, in the work of 20th century composers. It is an important element in the educational music of Carl Orff and in the choral method of the Hungarian composer Zoltn Kodly.
The percussion section of the orchestra includes all instruments that are played by being struck, including the piano and celesta. Originally consisting of a pair of kettledrums or timpani, appearing normally with a pair of trumpets, in the orchestra of the later 18th century, a military importation, the percussion section was significantly enlarged with the allegedly Turkish fashion of the later 18th century, involving the occasional use of bass drum, cymbals and triangle in an imitation of the Janissary band.
Performance practice or performing practice (= German: Aufführungspraxis) indicates the attempt to perform music in the way envisaged originally by the composer. The second half of the 20th century has brought a significant interest in musicology and the technology and scholarship necessary to the construction of copies of earlier instruments and to the study of methods of performance on these instruments. The study of performing practice extends from the study of music of the earliest periods to that of relatively recent periods of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The adjective Philharmonic and noun Philharmonia are generally used as adopted titles by orchestras or by music-loving societies of one sort or another. The words have no other technical meaning.
A phrase in music, on the analogy of syntactical use, is a recognisable musical unit, generally ending in a cadence of some kind, and forming part of a period or sentence. Phrasing in performance has a less precise use, indicating the correct grouping of notes, whether as phrases in the technical sense or in smaller distinct units, corresponding to the various possible syntactical uses of punctuation.
Piano (Italian: soft) is generally represented by the letter p in directions to performers. Pianissimo, represented by pp, means very soft. Addition of further letters p indicates greater degrees of softness, as in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, where an excessive pppppp is used.
Piano trio, piano quartet and piano quintet indicate works for the piano with varying numbers of string instruments. The piano trio is scored for piano, violin and cello, the piano quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello, and the piano quintet for piano, two violins, viola and cello.
The pianoforte, known generally as the piano, was developed during the 18th century. A keyboard instrument, it is distinguished from the harpsichord by its hammer action, with hammers striking the strings when keys are depressed. Dynamic change is possible by applying more or less force to the keys. The instrument underwent a number of technical changes during the century and in the years following became the most popular instrument of domestic entertainment.
The piccolo (Italian: small) is the small flute, pitched an octave higher than the ordinary flute. Adjectivally the word may be applied to other instruments or groups, as in coro piccolo, small chorus. The violino piccolo, a smaller violin, is used by Johann Sebastian Bach in the first Brandenburg Concerto, where it is to be tuned a third higher.