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Most musical terms are in Italian or its predecessor Latin. There are 2 main reasons - necessity and tradition. A common language is necessary in order to spread information to other countries. For a long time, all well-educated people understood Latin (and often Greek) in addition to their native language. So all forms of learning used Latin or Greek terms. Also the Church (headed by the Pope in Rome) controlled much of the music. So a tradition of using Latin and then Italian grew. While composers in each country have sometimes used their own language, this just makes things more confusing. The best policy is to learn enough German etc words to read other people's music but to use only Italian ones when writing music.

Interestingly, English (or American English) is currently in the position once occupied by Latin and then French (eg for dance). So new forms of learning use English, eg in aviation and computers. This is perfectly sensible - despite the sulky attitude of certain countries. Unreasonable insistence on the local language is unhelpful to everyone else and can even be extremely dangerous in aviation.


Speed / Tempo

  • Prestissimo
  • Presto
  • Vivace
  • Affrettando
  • Agitato
  • Animato
  • Allegro
  • Allegretto
  • Moderato
  • Andantino
  • Andante
  • Adagietto
  • Adagio
  • Adagissimo
  • Allargando
  • Larghetto
  • Largo
  • Lento
  • Grave
  • Doppio Movimento
  • L'istesso Tempo
  • Meno Mosso
  • Tempo Comodo
  • Tempo Giusto
  • Tempo Primo
  • Tempo Rubato
  • Accelerando
  • Rallentando (rall.)
  • Ritardando (ritard.)
  • Ritenuto (rit.)
  • Slargando / Slentando
  • Incalzando
  • Calando
  • Morendo / Smorzando

Volume / Intensity

  • Sforzando (sfz.)
  • Rinforzando (rfz.)
  • Fortissimo (ff / fff)
  • Forte (f)
  • Mezzo Forte (mf)
  • Mezzo Piano (mp)
  • Piano (p)
  • Pianissimo (pp / ppp)
  • Sotto Voce
  • Crescendo (cresc.)
  • Decrescendo (decresc.)
  • Diminuendo (dim.)
  • Perdendosi
  • Incalzando
  • Calando
  • Morendo / Smorzando


  • Con Sordini
  • Senza Sordini
  • Pizzicato (pizz.)
  • Arco
  • Col Legno
  • Sul Ponticello
  • Flautato
  • Vibrato
  • Spiccato
  • Staccato
  • Marcato (marc.)
  • Martellato
  • Legato
  • Glissando
  • Arpeggio
  • Tenuto (ten.)
  • Sostenuto
  • Pedal (Ped.)
  • Una Corda
  • Tre Corde


  • A Piacere
  • Appassionato
  • Brillante
  • Cantabile
  • Cantando
  • Con Anima
  • Con Brio
  • Con Fuoco
  • Deciso
  • Delicato
  • Dolce
  • Dolcissimo (dolciss.)
  • Doloroso
  • Energico
  • Espressivo (espress.)
  • Furioso
  • Giocoso
  • Grandioso
  • Grazioso
  • Impetuoso
  • Lacrimoso
  • Lamentoso
  • Largamente
  • Lontano
  • Lusingando
  • Maestoso
  • Marziale
  • Mesto
  • Misterioso
  • Nobilmente
  • Pesante
  • Piangevole
  • Precipitoso
  • Risoluto
  • Scherzoso
  • Semplice
  • Sospirando
  • Spiritoso
  • Teneramente
  • Tranquillo
  • Vigoroso
  • Volante


  • Duet / Duo
  • Trio
  • Quartet
  • Quintet
  • Sextet
  • Septet
  • Octet
  • Nonet
  • Ensemble
  • Divisi (div.)
  • Unison / (unis.)
  • Solo / Soli
  • Tutti
  • Concertante
  • Ripieno
  • Basso Continuo
  • Tasto Solo
  • Tacet
  • A Cappella

Flow Notation

  • Coda
  • Da Capo (D.C.)
  • Dal Segno (D.S.)
  • Fine
  • Prima Volta
  • Reprise
  • Ritornello
  • Senza Repetizone


  • Appoggiatura
  • Acciaccatura
  • Mordent
  • Tremolo (trem.)
  • Trill (tr.)
  • Turn

A (I/F)
"In / at / by / to". For example, a 2 or a 3 indicates the number of parts in a fugue or the number of instruments on a part.
Shortened by having some sections removed. This can apply to an arrangement of existing music or to the structure used in creating the original.
Accelerando (accel.) (I)
Gradually faster.
Acciaccatura (I)
"Crushed". A very short grace note before the main note. It is shown as a small quaver crossed out and linked by a slur to the next note.
Adagietto (I)
"Little slowly".
Adagio (I)
Adagissimo (I)
"Extremely slowly".
Ad Libitum (ad lib.) (L)
"At pleasure", ie any performance style or speed.
Affrettando (I)
Agitato (I)
A simple tune for voice or instrument. The old English and Italian names, Ayre & Aria, now have more specific meanings.
Alberti bass
The splitting of a keyboard bass chord into a patterned accompaniment (as used by Domenico Alberti).
Al Coda (I)
"To the end", ie a jump out of a repeat to the end section (coda).
Alla Breve (I)
"Like a brief [note]", ie a time signature / rhythm. Originally 4 minims per bar - now often used to mean 2 minims.
Allargando (I)
"Enlarged", ie gradually slower and more expansive.
Allegretto (I)
"Little lively", ie fairly fast.
Allegro (I)
"Lively", ie fast.
Allemande (F)
"German", ie allegedly a German-style dance. One of the standard constituents of an 18th century suite. 4/4 time signature, starting on the last 1 or 3 semiquavers of a bar. Not fast but using semiquavers (or quavers). Binary form.
Andante (I)
"Flowing", ie at a moderate pace.
Andantino (I)
Either slower or faster than Andante!
Anglaise (F)
"English", ie allegedly an English-style dance. One of the possible constituents of an 18th century suite. Any simple time signature (eg 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4).
Anima (I)
Animato (I)
The second entry in a Fugue (the first being the Subject). This re-entry would usually be in the dominant key. If it is an exact transposition of the Subject then it is a Real Answer. If it is changed slightly to fit better then it is a Tonal Answer.
The use of statement and response phrases between two groups of singers. Typically between a soloist and the worshippers in a religious service.
Appassionato (I)
Appoggiatura (I)
"Leaning". A slow grace note taking about half the value of the following note. It is shown as a small quaver linked by a slur to the next note.
Arco (I)
"Bow". An instruction to string players to resume bowing after a pizzicato passage.
Aria (I)
"Song" or song-like composition, usually in ternary form.
Arietta (I)
"Little song". An aria shortened by omission of the middle section.
Arpeggio (I)
"Harp-like", ie a chord (on a keyboard part) broken into a sequence of notes, usually ascending.
Assai (I)
Attacca (I)
"Attack / connect", ie go on to the next section immediately.
The reappearance of a subject (eg in a fugue) with longer notes than originally (eg doubled).
An old English spelling of Air. Still used to refer to a type of song, eg by J. Dowland (1600). The melody is in the top part and is usually repeated for each verse. The accompaniment (lute or other voices) is below.
Bagatelle (I)
"Trifling", ie a short, unpretentious composition.
Ballad / Ballade (I/F)
"Dancing song". Now a song with multiple verses set mostly to the same tune - ie strophic. The narrative element is important and ballads have often been social or political commentaries. Also used by Romantic composers (eg Chopin & Brahms) for solo instrument pieces.
Barcarola / Barcarolle (I)
"Boat song". Usually a lyrical piece in compound rhythm (eg 6/8) and ternary form.
Baroque (F)
A musical style.
Basso (I)
"Low". For example:
Basso Continuo = "low continuous" ie a figured bass part.
Basso Ostinato = "low obstinate" ie a ground bass part.
Bemolle / Bémol (I/F)
Flat sign (b).
Bene / Ben (I)
Berceuse (F)
"Cradle-song / lullaby" or an instrumental in that style (ie quietly rocking).
Bewegt (G)
"With movement".
Binary Form
A musical form with 2 sections.
Bis (L)
A musical style.
Bolero (S)
A lively Spanish dance (and its music), usually in 3/4 time. The rhythm is 3 pairs of quavers, the second quaver being further split into a duplet or triplet.
Bourrée (F)
A French dance similar to a Gavotte. One of the possible constituents of an 18th century suite. 2/2 time signature, starting on the last crotchet of a bar.
Bravura (I)
"Bravery / spirit".
Breit (G)
Breve (I)
"Brief", originally a short note and now the longest recognised - equal to 2 semibreves. It is shown as a hollow ellipse with 2 short vertical lines on either side.
Bridge Passage
A link between subjects in the exposition section of sonata form. There is often a bridge between the verse and refrain of a song.
Brillante (I)
Brio (I)
"Fire / spirit / vivacity".
Cadence (F)
"Cadence / rhythm" (also Latin/Italian "falling"). Referred originally to the tonal change at the end of a spoken phrase. By extrapolation, it now refers to a chord change at the end of a musical phrase.
Cadenza (I)
A section near the end of a Concerto movement designed to show off the expertise of the soloist. It is nearly always unaccompanied.
Calando (I)
"Lowering". Gradually decreasing both in volume and tempo (ie quieter and slower).
A composition in which several parts duplicate and closely follow each other. The same melody restarts in the next part at some interval higher or lower while continuing in the previous part. In a Round this interval is always unison.
Cantabile / Cantando (I)
"Singing", ie smooth and expressive.
Cantata (I)
"Sing", ie vocal music (now usually religious and with orchestral accompaniment).
Cantilena (I)
"Sing-song intonation", ie a short, song-like piece.
Canto Fermo (I)
"Song firm". This usually means plainsong, but it may also be a slow tenor song with decoration in the other parts.
Canzona (I)
"Teasing song". Also a short contrapuntal instrumental piece in the 16th - 18th centuries.
Canzonet (I)
"Little teasing song". Also a 2 or 3 voice madrigal in the 16th & 17th centuries.
Capo (I)
"Head / beginning". Da Capo = "from the head", ie go to the beginning and repeat.
Cappella (I)
"Chapel", originally similar in meaning to Ripieno (ie full sounding). However, now a cappella = "in church style" means unaccompanied vocal music.
Caprice / Capriccio (F/I)
"Goat-like / whimsy" - a free-form & light-hearted piece of music.
A traditional English celebratory song (also involved dancing in medieval times). Most people only know about Christmas carols.
A Round with a play on words (eg puns in the lyrics).
Cavatina (I)
A short but slow composition (like an aria). It is usually vocal but may be instrumental.
Often mis-spelled as chacony. A piece in slow triple time, originally for dancing, using variations on a ground bass. Like a passacaglia.
The simultaneous sounding of 3 or more notes (whether concordant or discordant).
A large group of singers - ie non-soloists. Also a colloquial term for the refrain of a song.
A musical style.
Clef / Clé (F)
"Key" to a staff that fixes the position for notation of a particular pitch. The treble or G clef was once a decorative letter G and fixes the second line from the bottom as G above middle C. The bass or F clef was once a decorative letter F and fixes the second line from the top as F below middle C. The alto, tenor or C clef fixes the position of middle C.
Coda (I)
"Tail / end", ie the end section of a piece. It may be required as an exit from repeated sections or just be a description of the final section. The coda symbol is a circle (o) combined with a slightly larger cross (+). Al Coda = "to the tail", ie a jump out of a repeat to the end section.
Codetta (I)
"Little tail", eg at the end of the exposition section of a movement in sonata form. Also a link between subject and answer in the exposition section of a fugue.
Col / Colla (I)
"With the". For example:
Colla Parte = "with the part", an instruction to the accompanist to follow the soloist.
Colla Voce = "with the voice", an instruction to the accompanist to follow the solo voice or instrument.
Col Legno = "with the wood", an instruction to string players to reverse the bow and use the back rather than the hairs.
Coloratura (I)
An excessively ornamented style of vocal music or singing performance.
Come (I)
"As". For example:
Come Prima = "as first", ie revert to original style (tempo etc).
Come Sopra = "as above", ie revert to previous style (tempo etc).
Con (I)
"With". For example:
Con Anima = "with soul", ie with deep feeling.
Con Brio = "with spirit", ie lively.
Con Fuoco = "with fire", ie very lively.
Con Sordino / Sordini = "with mute(s)", an instruction to string or brass players to use their mutes.
A large-scale musical performance, eg by orchestra, band or choir. See also recital.
Concertante (I)
"Together", the soloists as opposed to the background players (Ripieno) in a concerto grosso.
Concerto (I)
"Agreement". A musical work, usually in 3 movements for 1 or more soloists and orchestra.
Concerto Grosso (I)
"Agreement big". A musical work for several soloists (concertante) and backing parts (ripieno), common in the 18th century.
Continuo (I)
"Continuous", an abbreviation of Basso Continuo, not the name of an instrument as commonly mistaken.
Contra Fagotto (I)
"Double bassoon".
Contrapuntal (I)
"Using counterpoint".
Corda / Corde (I)
"String(s)". For example:
Una Corda = "one string", an instruction to a piano player to depress the left/soft pedal. This reduces the number of strings used for each note (usually 3 or 2). It has no effect on low notes with just one string in the first place.
Tre Corde = "three strings", an instruction to a piano player to release the left/soft pedal.
Corrente (I)
"Current / usual / fluent". An Italian dance, faster than the French Courante. One of the possible constituents of an 18th century suite. Triple time signature (3/4 or 3/8) with running half-beat notes. Binary form.
In a fugue, a second exposition in which the voices enter in a different order.
The weaving of multiple melodies to make harmonies, eg in the construction of a fugue. In double counterpoint, 2 melodies are designed to work well whichever is on top. Triple counterpoint is the same thing with 3 melodies.
In a fugue, the counterpoint continuation of the subject to accompany the answer.
Country & Western
A musical style.
Courante (F)
"Current / standard". A French dance, slower than the Italian Corrente. One of the standard constituents of an 18th century suite. Triple time signature (3/2 or 3/4) with a variety of rhythms (eg becoming 6/4 at cadences).
Crescendo (cresc.) (I)
"Increasing", ie gradually louder.
Da / Dal (I)
"From the". For example:
Da Capo (D.C.) = "from the head", ie go back to the beginning and repeat from there.
Dal Segno (D.S.) = "from the sign", ie go back to the special symbol and repeat from there.
Deciso (I)
Decrescendo (decresc.) (I)
"Decreasing", ie gradually quieter.
Delicato (I)
The middle section in sonata form, following the exposition and developing the subjects introduced. There may be new material - episodes.
Dièse (F)
Sharp sign (#).
Diminuendo (dim.) (I)
"Diminishing", ie gradually quieter.
The reappearance of a subject (eg in a fugue) with shorter notes than originally (eg halved).
Divisi (div.) (I)
"Divide", an instruction to players (usually strings) to split into 2 or more sub-groups on the part. Otherwise each player would be playing more than one note at a time.
Dolce (I)
Dolcissimo (dolciss.) (I)
"Extremely sweet".
Dolente / Dolore / Doloroso (I)
Doppio Movimento (I)
"Double movement", ie twice as fast.
Due / Duet / Duo (I/L)
"Two", ie 2 performers or piece for them.
Dur (G)
Ecossaise (F)
"Scottish", ie allegedly a Scottish-style dance. 3/4 time signature.
Ein Wenig (G)
"A little".
En (F)
"In". For example:
En Dehors = "in front", ie emphasized to make it more prominent.
En Pressant = "in urgency", ie faster.
En Retenant = "in retention", ie gradually slower.
Energico (I)
Entr'acte (F)
"Between acts", ie the interval between acts of an opera or music performed in that interval (interlude).
In a fugue, the passage linking entries of the subject after the exposition section. In ternary or rondo form, the contrasting sections between repeats of the main subject. In sonata form, new material introduced during the development section.
Espressione / Espressivo (espress.) (I)
"Expression / Expressively".
Etude (F)
"Study", ie a piece of music designed to practise a particular technique.
Etwas (G)
The opening section in which the main subject(s) are introduced. In a fugue, all voices must have entered with subject or answer. In sonata form, both subjects and any codetta are included.
Facile (I)
"Easy", ie simply.
Old English (16th - 17th century) term for Fantasia.
Fantasia / Fantaisie / Phantasie (I/F/G)
"Fantasy", ie a movement in no specific form but sounding improvised. It may be a prelude to another movement, eg a fugue. Free Fantasia is another term for the development section of sonata form.
Farandole (F)
A dance in 6/8 time with pipe and tabor accompaniment.
Feurig (G)
Figured Bass
English term for Basso Continuo. It is a bass line annotated with numerals that indicate the harmony to be constructed above the given note. It is typically played on a keyboard instrument or lute.
Finale (F)
"Final" movement of a multi-movement piece, eg of a Sonata.
Fine (I)
"Finish", ie end the repeated section here.
Flautando / Flautato (I)
"Flute-like", an instruction to string players to generate harmonic notes. These have a thinner sound - allegedly like a flute.
A musical style.
Forte (f) (I)
"Strongly", ie loudly.
Fortissimo (ff / fff) (I)
"Extremely Strongly", ie as loudly as possible.
Forza / Forzando (fz) (I)
"Force / Forcing", ie accented.
Fuga / Fugue (I/E)
A contrapuntal piece created from one or more short subjects that interlock in various ways (musical form). A fugue may use augmentation, diminution, pedal-point and stretto (see also Ricercare). In a double fugue, there are 2 subjects (either together throughout or introduced separately and eventually combined). Fughetta = "little fugue", is usually a fugue without the middle section.
Fugato (I)
A piece in fugal style but not full structure.
Fuoco (I)
Furioso (I)
Originally an old Italian dance in quick triple time, but used in 16th-17th century English works. A suite might consist of a prelude, pavan and galliard.
Gavotte (F)
A dignified French dance. One of the possible constituents of an 18th century suite. It is often followed by a second Gavotte or Musette with a repeat of the first Gavotte. 2/2 time signature, starting on the last 2 crotchets of a bar.
Gigue / Giga / Gique (F?)
"Jig". A lively dance, in triple or compound time (usually 6/8 or 12/8 but sometimes 3/8 or 9/8). Usually the final constituent of an 18th century suite. Binary form. Bach's were sometimes fugal - the second half subject being an inversion of that in the first half.
Giocoso / Giojoso (I)
Giusto (I)
"Just", ie exact / strict.
Glissando (F)
"Sliding", ie play a rapid scale by sliding across a keyboard (thumb/finger) along a string or on a trombone.
Grandioso (I)
"Grandiose", ie pompously.
Grand Pausa / General Pause (G.P.) (I/E)
Indication that all players are to be silent at this point.
Grave (I)
"Grave / serious", ie very slow
Grazia / Grazioso (I)
"Grace / Gracefully".
Ground Bass
English term for Basso Ostinato. It is a bass tune, typically of 4 to 8 bars, which is repeated with varying upper parts.
One of many related frequencies a length of pipe or string can produce - including its fundamental. On a stringed instrument, the deliberately generated upper harmonics are also called flageolet notes. The harmonic minor scale displays notes that could be used to create a harmony.
The combining of notes at related frequencies.
A short repeated passage designed to be popular and memorable. It is usually in the melody but can also apply to lyric or rhythm. The equivalent in harmony or instrumental accompaniment is a riff.
A lively English dance - with nautical associations. Originally triple time but later quadruple time.
A quiet pastoral piece.
The immediate (but inexact) copying of one part by another part.
Immer (G)
Impetuoso (I)
Impromptu (F)
A piece that is supposed to sound improvised.
A passage or variation of a tune made up on the spur of the moment (especially in jazz).
In Alt (L/I)
"In height", ie notes above the treble staff - first octave from G to F.
In Altissimo (L/I)
Notes further above the treble staff - second octave from G to F.
Incalzando (I)
"Chasing", ie increasing tempo and possibly volume (ie faster and louder).
The intensity, volume or loudness of a sound can be measured in decibels (dB). It is the pressure difference in the air of the high-low cycles. However, as usual in music notation, only relative intensity is shown. Imagine a neutral intensity of sound for an instrument. Then the markings mf - f - ff are successively louder and mp - p - pp are successively quieter. Some instruments can't vary the intensity of notes (eg harpsichord and bagpipes).
Intermezzo (I)
"Between halves", ie the interlude music between acts/movements. Also used as a name for a nondescript piece (eg for piano).
A pitch difference named for its written form rather than the ratio of frequencies.
A short contrapuntal piece on 1 musical theme/idea (typically with 2 or 3 parts/voices).
A musical style.
See Gigue.
The principal pitch and scale on which some music is based (eg A minor). The lever of a piano or similar instrument.
Lacrimoso (I)
Lamentoso (I)
Langsam (G)
Largamente (I)
Larghetto (I)
"Little broad", ie less slow than largo.
Largo (I)
"Broad", ie slow and stately.
Lebhaft (G)
Legatissimo (I)
"Extremely connected", ie very smoothly.
Legato (I)
"Connected", ie notes played to their full length and each joining smoothly to the next.
Leggero / Leggiero (I)
"Lightly" (the second spelling is obsolete).
Leitmotif (G)
A musical theme in an opera, ballet or symphonic poem that represents a particular idea or character.
Lento / Lent (I/F)
Left hand.
Lied / Lieder (G)
"Song(s)". For example, Mendelssohn's Lieder Ohne Worte = "songs without words".
L'istesso Tempo (I)
"The same time", ie maintain the beat despite a change in notation.
Loco (L)
"Place", ie return to normal pitch after being an octave higher or lower.
Lontano (I)
Loure (F)
An old French dance in slow 6/4 time (occasionally 3/4). Occasionally one of the constituents of an 18th century suite.
Lunga Pausa (I)
"Long pause".
Lusingando (I)
"Alluringly / coaxingly".
The words of a song.
Ma (I)
"But". For example: Ma Non Troppo = "but not too much".
Madrigal (I)
A contrapuntal song for 3 to 8 unaccompanied voices. Originally Italian, but much used by 16th and early 17th century English composers.
Maestoso (I)
Major (L)
"Greater", ie a scale (and key) having larger intervals than another.
Mancando (I)
"Lacking", ie dying away.
Mano Destra / Main Droite (M.D.) (I/F)
"Hand Right", an instruction in keyboard music to use the right hand (R.H.). This is usually because the right-hand part has joined or crossed the left-hand one on the bass staff.
Mano Sinistra (M.S.) / Main Gauche (M.G.) (I/F)
"Hand Left", an instruction in keyboard music to use the left hand (L.H.). This is usually because the left-hand part has joined or crossed the right-hand one on the treble staff.
Marcato (marc.) (I)
"Marked", ie accented.
Marcia / March (I/E)
A piece in strong duple or quadruple time (eg 2/4 or 4/4) - usually for processions.
Martellato (I)
"Hammered", ie louder but also using a slightly different keyboard or bowing technique.
Marziale (I)
Masque (F)
A dramatic production combining poetry, music and dancing - popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
A musical setting of a biblical text for a church service. See also oratorio.
Mässig (G)
Mazurka (P)
A Polish dance in triple time (eg 3/4) but with the second beat of the bar accented.
A musical style.
A group of notes sung to one syllable (rather than one note per syllable). See coloratura for use of melismata.
"Tuneful". The melodic minor scale displays notes that could be used to create a melody.
A tune - ie a sequence of notes with a distinctive shape (pitch and rhythm).
Meno (I)
"Less". For example: meno mosso = "less movement", ie immediately slower.
Mesto (I)
The rhythmic arrangement of beats in music or syllables in verse (poetry).
Mezza / Mezzo (I)
"Half". For example:
Mezza Voce = "half voice", ie in an undertone.
Mezzo Forte (mf) = "half strong", ie less loud than forte.
Mezzo Piano (mp) = "half soft", ie less quiet than piano.
Minor (L)
"Lesser", ie a scale (and key) having smaller intervals than another.
A stately dance. One of the possible constituents of an 18th century suite. It may also appear in a sonata. It is often followed by a second Minuet or Trio with a repeat of the first Minuet. 3/4 time signature.
Misterioso (I)
Misura (I)
"Measure", ie a regular division such as bars with bar-lines.
Mit (G)
Moderato (I)
Moll (G)
Molto (I)
Mordent (I)
"Biting". An ornamentation of a note. The normal symbol is a zig-zag. It means a three note sequence on the written note. This is note, note above, note. There is an inverted form using the note below instead of above. The symbol is the same with a vertical line through it. An accidental may be added above or below the normal or inverted forms respectively.
Morendo (I)
"Dying", ie gradually quieter and possibly also slower.
Mosso / Moto / Movimento (I)
"Motion / movement", ie speed.
Motet (L?)
A sacred choral composition, contrapuntal and usually unaccompanied.
Musette (F)
Either a type of bagpipes or a (pastoral) piece with a drone bass that sometimes follows a gavotte.
As a noun, it is a play or film where the dialogue is punctuated by songs (contrast this with opera).
As an adjective it means capable of producing music (eg person or instrument) or reminiscent of music (eg laughter or speech).
Muta (I)
"Change", eg re-tune a drum.
A device that reduces the volume of an instrument (string or brass). It also changes the quality of its sound (tone).
Nicht (G)
Nobilmente (I)
Nocturne (F)
"Nocturnal", ie dreamy, lyrical music supposedly invoking a night-time scene.
Non (I)
"Not". For example:
Non Tanto = "not so much".
Non Troppo = "not too much".
Nonet (L)
"Nine", ie 9 performers or piece for them.
A musical sound, having pitch and duration. Also its written form or the lever on a keyboard that generates it.
Obbligato (I)
Octet (L)
"Eight", ie 8 performers or piece for them.
Open String
A string played at tuned pitch without any fingering. It has a different quality of tone than the same pitch fingered on a different string of the same instrument. So music will often specify whether the open string version should be used or not.
Opera (L/I)
"Work". A play set to music - usually for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Grand Opera has music throughout while Light Opera has some spoken dialogue. Operetta ("little work") is another term for light opera and may mean a shorter work (eg 1 act). See also recitative, oratorio and musical.
Opus (L)
"Work", ie a published composition (may be just one piece or a collection).
Oratorio (L/I)
An opera of a biblical story.
A large and varied collection of instrumentalists. Typically includes string, wind, brass and percussion sections.
Ossia (I)
"Or", ie an alternative version of a passage.
Ostinato (I)
"Obstinate", ie a repeated section (eg basso ostinato).
Ottava (ott.) (I)
"Octave / eighth", usually an octave up but ottava bassa means an octave lower.
An opening movement or instrumental introduction, eg to an Opera or Oratorio. In the 18th century, some special overture types had 3 contrasting sections. The Italian type was quick-slow-quick. The French type was slow-quick-slow, with the 2nd section being fugal and the 3rd being a dance style.
Parlando / Parlante (I)
"Speaking", ie to be sung in a declamatory manner.
Partita (I)
Either a suite or a set of variations.
Partitur (G)
Full orchestral score.
Passacaglia (I)
A piece in slow triple time using variations on a ground bass, like a chaconne. However, the bass theme may be transferred to other parts or be decorated.
Passepied (F)
"Pass-foot". A quick dance in triple time. Occasionally one of the constituents of an 18th century suite.
Passionato (I)
Pastorale (I)
"Pastoral", ie music invoking some countryside scene. 6/8 or 12/8 time signature.
Patetico (I)
"Pathetic", ie with feeling.
Pausa (L)
"Pause / Rest".
Pavan (F)
A stately dance in duple time. A suite might consist of a prelude, pavan and galliard.
Pedale / Pedal (Ped.) (I/E)
An instruction in keyboard music to use the right foot pedal to sustain the notes. It is released temporarily at the ^ sign, or more permanently at the * sign.
Pedal Point
A sustained or repeated note in one part on or around which the other parts move to vary the harmony. It is usually but not necessarily in the bass part.
Perdendosi (I)
"Losing itself", ie gradually quieter.
Pesante (I)
Piacere (I)
"Pleasure". For example: a piacere = "at pleasure", ie any performance style or speed.
Piacevole (I)
Piangevole (I)
Pianissimo (pp / ppp) (I)
"Extremely soft", ie as quietly as possible.
Piano (p) (I)
"Soft", ie quietly.
The frequency of vibration of a musical sound. It can be measured by the cycles per second, with units called Hertz (Hz). The wavelength depends on the speed of travel in a given medium. Instruments actually produce a collection of related pitches (harmonics) when trying to play a given note. These additional frequencies are less obvious than the main one but contribute to the tone of an instrument.
Piu / Plus (I/F)
"More". For example: piu allegro = "more lively", piu lento = "more slowly", piu mosso = "more movement".
Pizzicato (pizz.) (I)
"Plucked", an instruction to string players with bows.
Poco (I)
"Little". For example: Poco A Poco = "little by little".
Poi (I)
A lively 19th century Bohemian dance for couples. 2/4 time signature, starting on the last quaver of a bar and having an accented second beat.
Polonaise / Polacca (F/I)
A Polish dance in triple time (eg 3/4) that sounds quick because of repeated notes and chords. Phrases end on the third beat of the bar.
The simultaneous sounding of more than one note. Also used to mean counterpoint - the combining of multiple melodies to produce harmonies. The alternative is homophony - a single melody accompanied by chords.
Ponticello (I)
"Bridge" of a stringed instrument.
A musical style.
Portamento (I)
"Carriage". Sliding from note to note (with voice or on a stringed instrument).
Precipitato / Precipitoso (I)
An opening movement in a suite or an introduction, eg to a fugue. Some sets of stand-alone preludes have been written for the piano.
Prestissimo (I)
"Extremely quickly".
Presto (I)
Prima / Primo (I)
"First". For example: Prima Volta = "first turn", ie the first ending of a repeated section.
Quartet (L)
"Four", ie 4 performers or piece for them.
Quasi (I)
"As / almost / like". For example:
Quasi Recitativo = "as a recital".
Quasi Una Fantasia = "as a fantasy".
Quintet (L)
"Five", ie 5 performers or piece for them.
Rag / Ragtime
A musical style.
Rallentando (rall.) (I)
"Lessening", ie gradually slower.
The final section of sonata form in which the subjects are restated. It usually ends with a coda.
A small-scale musical performance, eg by soloists and duettists. See also concert.
Speech-like singing, eg in an opera or the introduction to a song.
A lively dance, originally Scandinavian but popular in Scotland & northern England. 4/4 time signature (occasionally 6/4).
Part of a song that recurs (both words and music) after each stanza or verse. The text should hold the main message or moral of the story. The music usually contains the hook of the song - an immediately memorable melody. It is typically sung by the chorus whereas each verse is sung by a soloist.
Renaissance (F)
A musical style.
Replica / Repetizone (I/?)
Requiem (L)
A mass for the dead, set to music.
Right hand.
A free-form composition, like a fantasia but highly emotional.
A pattern in time and volume of sounds and the gaps between them - ie long and short, loud and soft. Metre is the equivalent in verse or poetry.
Having a well-defined rhythm.
Ricercare (I)
"To inquire into / search for". A fugue which explores all treatments of a subject.
A very short repeated device or passage in the accompaniment, eg in instrumental sections of a song. It is similar to a hook in the melody, eg in the refrain of a song.
Rigaudon (F)
An old but lively French dance in duple or quadruple time. A little like a bourrée.
Rigoroso (I)
"Rigorous", ie strict.
Rinforzando (rf.) (I)
"Reinforcing", ie note(s) played more strongly but not suddenly accented.
Ripieno (I)
"Full / replenished", ie with more background. Either a non-soloist player (ie opposite of concertante in a concerto grosso) or an instrument with additional resonances.
Risoluto (I)
"Resolute / determined".
Risvegliato (I)
"Revived", ie with increased animation.
Ritardando (ritard.) (I)
"Retarded", ie gradually slower.
Ritenuto (rit.) (I)
"Retained", ie held back / slower.
Ritornello (I)
"Little return", ie a recurring passage or refrain. An instrumental link between verses of a song or entries of the soloist in a concerto. Ritornello Form is the use of such repeats (in various keys) to construct a movement.
A musical style.
Rock 'n' Roll
A musical style.
A musical style.
A musical style.
Rondo / Rondeau (I/F)
A musical form or composition based on this form. It has a recurring theme separated by several contrasting episodes. It is often the last movement of a sonata or concerto.
A canon at unison for 3 or more voices. Each voice starts a fixed time after the previous one. So the melody combines with itself to form the harmonies. See also catch.
Rubato (I)
"Robbed". Tempo Rubato = "robbed time", ie one note group takes some time from the next group. So the former part is slower and the latter part is faster, but the overall duration is the same.
Ruhig (G)
Sarabande (F)
A slow dance in simple triple time (3/4 or 3/2) with the second beat of the bar accented. One of the standard constituents of an 18th century suite.
Scala / Scale (I/E)
"Ladder", ie a sequence of note steps and the intervals between them.
Scherzando / Scherzoso (I)
"Joking / playful".
Scherzo (I)
"Joke", ie a piece intended to be funny or light-hearted. The structure may be that of a minuet and trio. It is often a movement in a sonata or symphony.
Schnell / Schneller (G)
"Quick / Quicker".
Sec (F)
"Dry", ie detached.
Segno (I)
"Sign", ie a crossed and dotted squiggle symbol used to mark the jump-in point when repeating a section.
Segue (I)
"Follow", ie go on.
Sehr (G)
Semplice (I)
"Simple / unaffected".
Sempre (I)
Senza (I)
"Without". For example:
Senza Misura = "without measures", ie in free time.
Senza Repetizone = "without repetition", ie reprise an earlier section ignoring its repeats.
Senza Sordini = "without mutes", an instruction to string or brass players to remove their mutes.
Septet (L)
"Seven", ie 7 performers or piece for them.
Sextet (L)
"Six", ie 6 performers or piece for them.
Sforzando / Sforzato (sf. / sfz.) (I)
"Forcing", ie accented.
Siciliano / Sicilienne (I/F)
"Sicilian", ie allegedly a Sicilian-style dance. Slow and gentle in 6/8 or 12/8 time.
Simile (I)
"Alike", ie in the same manner.
Sin' / Sino / Fino (I)
Slargando / Slentando (I?)
Gradually broader / slower.
Smorzando (I)
"Smothered", ie dying away.
Soave (I)
"Soft / smooth".
Solenne (I)
Solo / Soli (I)
"Alone". This may mean the part is unaccompanied. It may also mean just one or a few players on an orchestral part instead of the full number, eg for a quiet passage.
Sonata (I)
"Blow / play / ring / sound". Originally meant any instrumental music as opposed to Cantata for vocal music. Later limited to a relatively large work, usually in 3 or 4 movements for 1 or 2 instruments. A piece for more instruments would be a Trio, Quartet, Quintet etc up to a Symphony for full orchestra.
Sonata Form
A musical form having exposition, development and recapitulation sections. The last section usually has a coda but the others may have codettas.
Sonatina (I)
"Little sonata", ie having smaller and/or fewer movements.
Sonore (I)
"Sonorous", ie with a full or rich tone.
Sopra (I)
Sordini (I)
Sospirando (I)
Sostenuto (I)
"Sustained", ie extremely legato notes (possibly by use of the sustain pedal on the piano).
Sotto (I)
"Below". For example: Sotto Voce = "below voice", ie in an undertone.
Spiccato (I)
"Springing", an instruction to string players to play notes detached with a springing bow.
Spiritoso (I)
Staccatissimo (I)
"Extremely detached" and therefore notes as short as possible.
Staccato (stacc.) (I)
"Detached" and therefore shortened notes.
Staff / Stave
A system of horizontal lines which provides a framework for positioning notes. A single line is still used for untuned percussion. Plainsong uses a 4-line staff. Modern music uses a 5-line staff and leger lines to allow a wide range of pitches. A clef fixes a particular pitch to a particular line.
Strepitoso (I)
"Noisy, boisterous".
Stretto (I)
"Straits". The squeezed entry of voices in a fugue so that the subject is in canon. It often occurs in the final section over a pedal-point. If all voices have complete subject entries in stretto, this is stretto maestrale.
Stringendo (I)
"Tightening", ie gradually faster.
Suave (F)
Subito (I)
"Sudden(ly)". For example: Volti Subito (V.S.) = "turn suddenly", ie turn the page quickly.
The main melody or one of the melodies of fugal, rondo or sonata forms.
Suite (F)
"Continuation". A collection of related pieces. For example, the movements in a classical 18th century suite were all dances (except for any Prelude / Overture). They were all in binary form and usually in the same key. The standard constituents were Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. Other possibilities were Gavotte, Bourrée, Minuet and Passepied. Rarer ones were Corrente, Musette, Rigaudon, Trio, March, Hornpipe, Forlane, Loure, Polonaise, Anglaise, Siciliana, Air, Capriccio, Rondo and Tambourin.
Sul (I?)
"On". For example:
Sul G = "on G", ie fingered on the G string (as opposed to using a higher string).
Sul Ponticello = "on the bridge", an instruction to string players to bow near the bridge. This produces a different sound than normal.
Süss (G)
An orchestral work, like a sonata but larger and with little use of soloists. Bizarrely, it may also refer to an instrumental prelude or interlude in vocal music.
Tacet (L)
"Silent", ie don't play this bit.
Tanto (I)
"So much".
Tarantella (I)
A very lively Italian dance in 6/8 time. It is supposed to represent death by spider-bite!
Tasto Solo (I)
"Key alone", an instruction on a figured bass part to play the notes without adding harmony.
Tempo (I)
"Time" or speed in some contexts. For example:
A Tempo = "in time", ie a return to the correct speed after some change (slower or faster).
Tempo Comodo = "time convenient", ie play at a convenient speed.
Tempo Giusto = "time exact", ie play strictly in time.
Tempo Primo = "time first", ie revert to the original speed after some change.
Tempo Rubato = "robbed time", ie one note group takes some time from the next group.
Tenerezza / Teneramente (I)
"Tenderness / Tenderly".
Tenuto (ten.) (I)
"Held", ie notes extended to their full duration.
Ternary Form
A musical form with 3 sections.
Theme & Variations
A piece where a simple melody (usually in binary form) is repeated several times with changing/increasing elaboration.
Toccata (L)
"Touch". A keyboard piece designed to display the player's expertise.
A musical sound, having a pitch. Also the quality of sound produced by an instrument, including its volume.
Tosto (I)
Tranquillo (I)
Traurig (G)
Tre (I)
Tremolando / Tremolo (trem.) (I)
"Trembling", ie rapid repetition or alternation of notes. The notation for a single note is to cross out the stem. Each line doubles the number of notes actually played in the written time. The notation for two notes is to join the stems of minims just like quavers or semiquavers etc.
Trillo / Trill (I/E)
This is sometimes called a shake. It is the rapid alternation of the written note with the note above but ending with a turn. In early music (up to and including Mozart & Haydn) it always starts on the upper note, giving an even number of notes. In later music, unless the original note is a repeat, it starts on the written note and thus requires a triplet near the end.
Trio (L)
"Three", ie 3 performers or piece for them. Also a movement attached to another (eg a Minuet) that originally had 3 "voices".
Trionfale / Trionfante (I)
"Triumphal / triumphant".
Troppo (I)
"Too much".
Turno / Turn (I/E)
An ornamentation of a note. The normal symbol is a squiggle like a reflected 'S' lying on its side. It means a four or five note sequence centred on the written note. This is (note, ) note above, note, note below, note. There is an inverted form swapping the positions of the notes above and below. The symbol is the same squiggle with a vertical line through it, rather than its reflection. An accidental may be added above or below as appropriate.
Tutta / Tutti (I)
"All". On its own, Tutti marks the end of a solo or divided section. Also Tutta Forza = "all force", ie as loudly as possible.
Una / Uno / Un (I/F)
"One / a", eg Un Poco / Un Peu = "a little".
Unisono / Unison / (unis.) (I/E)
"As one", ie the end of a divided section (all being on the one pitch).
Veloce (I)
The equivalent in a song of the stanza in a poem. The text of each verse should carry the story forwards. It is typically sung by a soloist whereas the refrain is sung by the chorus. In a strophic song, each verse is sung to the same melody. There may also be a bridge between verse and refrain.
Vibrato (I)
"Vibrating", ie a micro-tone fast tremolo, usually performed by string players.
Vigoroso (I)
Vivace / Vivo / Vite / Vif (I/F)
Vivacissimo (I)
"Extremely lively".
Voce (I)
A musical thread, not necessarily sung or notated as a separate part nor even always melodic. It is a logical concept in the construction of a piece of music. A fugue typically has 3 or 4 "voices" but is actually played on a keyboard instrument and written across a staff-pair.
Volante (I)
Voll (G)
Volta / Volti (I)
"Turn". For example:
Prima Volta = "first turn", ie the first ending of a repeated section.
Volti Subito (V.S.) = "turn suddenly", ie turn the page quickly because the music continues.
Wenig (G)
Zart (G)
Zu (G)

© Susan Foord ( 2010-06-24
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