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List of definitions of terms and concepts used by professional musicians
This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores, music reviews, and program notes. Most of the terms are Italian (see also Italian musical terms used in English), in accordance with the Italian origins of many European musical conventions. Sometimes, the special musical meanings of these phrases differ from the original or current Italian meanings. Most of the other terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "Fr." and "Ger.", respectively.
Unless specified, the terms are Italian or English. The list can never be complete: some terms are common, and others are used only occasionally, and new ones are coined from time to time. Some composers prefer terms from their own language rather than the standard terms listed here.
On these organ stops, some of the knobs have numbers indicating the length in feet of the longest (the lowest note) organ pipe of the stop
usually for orchestral string instruments, used to indicate that the player should play the passage on the string adjacent to the highest-pitched, thinnest string, ie the 2nd highest string
cymbal stop on pipe organ
usually for orchestral string instruments, used to indicate that the player should play the passage on string adjacent to (but higher in pitch) than the lowest-pitched, thickest string, ie the 3rd highest string
intended as a duet; for two voices or instruments; together; two instruments are to play in unison after a solo passage for one of the instruments
To nothing; indicating a diminuendo which fades completely away
At pleasure (i.e. the performer need not follow the rhythm strictly, for example in a cadenza)
a prima vista
lit. "at first sight". Sight-reading (i.e. played or sung from written notation but without prior review of the written material; refer to the figure)
In time (i.e. the performer should return to the main tempo of the piece, such as after an accelerando or ritardando); also may be found in combination with other terms such as a tempo giusto (in strict time) or a tempo di menuetto (at the speed of a minuet)
A liturgical or other composition consisting of choral responses, sometimes between two choirs; a passage of this nature forming part of another composition; a repeated passage in a psalm or other liturgical piece, similar to a refrain.
A style of composition in which two sections of singers or instrumentalists exchange sections or music one after the other; typically the performers are on different sides of a hall or venue
played like a harp (i.e. the notes of the chords are to be played quickly one after another instead of simultaneously); in music for piano, this is sometimes a solution in playing a wide-ranging chord whose notes cannot be played otherwise; arpeggios are frequently used as an accompaniment; see also broken chord
Much, Very much
Attack or attach; go straight on (i.e. at the end of a movement, a direction to attach the next movement to the previous one, without a gap or pause). Often used as "attacca subito," meaning a "sudden" movement transition (literally, "sudden attack").
ausdrucksvoll or mit Ausdruck (Ger.)
Expressively, with expression
German for B flat (also in Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, Danish, Croatian, Estonian and Hungarian); H in German is B natural
(from the Italian Ballabile meaning "danceable") In ballet the term refers to a dance performed by the corps de ballet. The term Grand ballabile is used if nearly all participants (including principal characters) of a particular scene in a full-length work perform a large-scale dance.
The lowest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano); the lowest melodic line in a musical composition, often thought of as defining and supporting the harmony; in an orchestral context, the term usually refers to the double bass.
Continuous bass, i.e. a bass accompaniment part played continuously throughout a piece by a chordal instrument (pipe organ, harpischord, lute, etc.), often with a bass instrument, to give harmonic structure; used especially in the Baroque period
Used in the 17th century to refer to ornaments consisting of two adjacent notes, such as trills or mordents
To strike the strings with the bow (on a bowed stringed instrument)
Boldness; as in con bravura, boldly, flaunting technical skill
1. Transitional passage connecting two sections of a composition, or between two A sections (e.g., in an A/B/A form).
2. Part of a violin family or guitar/lute stringed instrument that holds the strings in place and transmits their vibrations to the resonant body of the instrument.
Brilliantly, with sparkle. Play in a showy and spirited style.
brio or brioso
Vigour; usually in con brio: with spirit or vigour
A chord in which the notes are not all played at once, but in some more or less consistent sequence. They may follow singly one after the other, or two notes may be immediately followed by another two, for example. See also arpeggio, which as an accompaniment pattern may be seen as a kind of broken chord; see Alberti bass.
The concluding, rapid, audience-rousing section of an aria
In a singing style. In instrumental music, a style of playing that imitates the way the human voice might express the music, with a measured tempo and flexible legato.
a vocal melody or instrumental passage in a smooth, lyrical style
Chorus; choral; chant
cantus mensuratus or cantus figuratus (Lat.)
Meaning respectively "measured song" or "figured song". Originally used by medieval music theorists, it refers to polyphonic song with exactly measured notes and is used in contrast to cantus planus. A later term for cantus mensuratus or cantus figuratus is cantus musicus ("musical song").
1. capo (short for capotasto: "nut") : A key-changing device for stringed instruments (e.g. guitars and banjos)
With the addition of the octave note above or below the written note; abbreviated as col 8, coll' 8, and c. 8va
With the soloist; as an instruction in an orchestral score or part, it instructs the conductor or orchestral musician to follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo performer (usually for a short passage)
With the voice; as an instruction in a choral music/opera score or orchestral part, it instructs the conductor or orchestral musician to follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo singer (usually for a short passage)
The time signature4 4: four beats per measure, each beat a quarter note (a crotchet) in length. 4 4 is often written on the musical staff as . The symbol is not a C as an abbreviation for common time, but a broken circle; the full circle at one time stood for triple time, 3 4.
Comfortable (i.e. at moderate speed); also, allegro comodo, tempo comodo, etc.
1. abbreviation of accompanying, accompanying music, accompaniment
2. describes the chords, rhythms, and countermelodies that instrumental players used to support a musician's melody and improvised solos.
Brassy. Used almost exclusively as a French Horn technique to indicate a forced, rough tone. A note marked both stopped and loud will be cuivré automatically
Symbol at the very end of a staff of music which indicates the pitch for the first note of the next line as a warning of what is to come. The custos was commonly used in handwritten Renaissance and typeset Baroque music.
Same as the meter2 2: two half-note (minim) beats per measure. Notated and executed like common time (4 4), except with the beat lengths doubled. Indicated by . This comes from a literal cut of the symbol of common time. Thus, a quarter note in cut time is only half a beat long, and a measure has only two beats. See also alla breve.
Repeat to the sign and continue to the coda sign, then play coda
dal segno al fine (D.S. al fine)
From the sign to the end (i.e. return to a place in the music designated by the sign and continue to the end of the piece)
dal segno segno alla coda (D.S.S. alla coda)
Same as D.S. alla coda, but with a double segno
dal segno segno al fine (D.S.S. al fine)
From the double sign to the end (i.e. return to place in the music designated by the double sign (see D.S. alla coda) and continue to the end of the piece)
Slowing down; decelerating; opposite of accelerando (same as ritardando or rallentando)
Solemn, expressive, impassioned
Gradually decreasing volume (same as diminuendo)
From the Latindeesse meaning to be missing; placed after a catalogue abbreviation to indicate that this particular work does not appear in it; the plural, desunt, is used when referring to several works
Divided (i.e. in a part in which several musicians normally play exactly the same notes they are instead to split the playing of the written simultaneous notes among themselves); it is most often used for string instruments, since with them another means of execution is often possible (the return from divisi is marked unisono)
Jazz term referring to a note that slides to an indefinite pitch chromatically upwards
Sweet; con dolcezza: with sweetness
Pain, distress, sorrow, grief; con dolore: with sadness
Stop (i.e. a rest or note to be held for a duration that is at the discretion of the performer or conductor) (sometimes called bird's eye); a fermata at the end of a first or intermediate movement or section is usually moderately prolonged, but the final fermata of a symphony may be prolonged for longer than the note's value, typically twice its printed length or more for dramatic effect
A jazz or rock term which instructs performers to improvise a scalar passage or riff to "fill in" the brief time between lyrical phrases, the lines of melody, or between two sections
The end, often in phrases like al fine (to the end)
A symbol (♭) that lowers the pitch of a note by a semitone. The term may also be used as an adjective to describe a situation where a singer or musician is performing a note in which the intonation is an eighth or a quarter of a semitone too low.
Flutelike mode; used especially for string instruments to indicate a light, rapid bowing over the fingerboard
Literally "flight"; hence a complex and highly regimented contrapuntal form in music; a short theme (the subject) is introduced in one voice (or part) alone, then in others, with imitation and characteristic development as the piece progresses
Funeral; often seen as marcia funebre (funeral march), indicating a stately and plodding tempo
Fire; con fuoco: with fire, in a fiery manner
Grand Pause, General Pause; indicates to the performers that the entire ensemble has a rest of indeterminate length, often as a dramatic effect during a loud section
A continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a true glissando), or an incidental scale executed while moving from one melodic note to another (an effective glissando). See glissando for further information; and compare portamento.
The imposition of a pattern of rhythm or articulation other than that implied by the time signature; specifically, in triple time (for example in 3 4) the imposition of a duple pattern (as if the time signature were, for example, 2 4). See Syncopation.
A musical texture with one voice (or melody line) accompanied by subordinate chords; also used as an adjective (homophonic). Compare with polyphony, in which several independent voices or melody lines are performed at the same time.
A term for brass players that requires them to direct the bell of their instrument into the music stand, instead of up and toward the audience, thus muting the sound but without changing the timbre as a mute would
Getting faster and louder
Opening section of a piece
A suffix meaning as ... as can be (e.g. leggerissimamente, meaning as light as can be)
A suffix meaning extremely (e.g. fortissimo or prestissimo)
A musician who plays any instrument with a keyboard. In Classical music, this may refer to instruments such as the piano, pipe organ, harpsichord, and so on. In a jazz or popular music context, this may refer to instruments such as the piano, electric piano, synthesizer, Hammond organ, and so on.
The same; applied to the manner of articulation, tempo, etc.
[in] place, i.e. perform the notes at the pitch written, generally used to cancel an 8va or 8vb direction; in string music, also used to indicate return to normal playing position (see Playing the violin)
A female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the F an eleventh above middle C. Mezzo-sopranos generally have a darker vocal tone than sopranos, and their vocal range is between that of a soprano and that of a contralto.
Rapid alternation of a note with the note immediately below or above it in the scale, sometimes further distinguished as lower mordent and upper mordent. The term "inverted mordent" usually refers to the upper mordent.
Dying (i.e. dying away in dynamics, and perhaps also in tempo)
Moved, moving; used with a preceding più or meno, for faster or slower respectively
Motion; usually seen as con moto, meaning with motion or quickly
A dance or tune of a drone-bass character, originally played by a musette
Change [to...]: an instruction either to change instrument (e.g. flute to piccolo, horn in F to horn in B♭) or to change tuning (e.g. guitar muta 6 in D). Note: muta comes from the Italian verb mutare (to change); therefore it does not mean "mute", for which con sordina or con sordino is used.
nach und nach (Ger.)
Literally "more and more" with an increasing feeling. Ex. "nach und nach belebter und leidenschaftlicher" (with increasing animation and passion)
In piano scores, this instructs the player to press the damper pedal to sustain the note or chord being played. The player may be instructed to release the pedal with an asterisk marking (*). In organ scores, it tells the organist that a section is to be performed on the bass pedalboard with the feet.
Dying away; decrease in dynamics, perhaps also in tempo
peu à peu (Fr.)
Little by little
Literally 'crying' (used in Liszt's La Lugubre Gondola no. 2).
very gently (i.e. perform very softly, even softer than piano). This convention can be extended; the more ps that are written, the softer the composer wants the musician to play or sing, thus ppp (pianissimissimo) would be softer than pp. Dynamics in a piece should be interpreted relative to the other dynamics in the same piece. For example, pp should be executed very softly, but if ppp is found later in the piece, pp should be markedly louder than ppp. More than three ps (ppp) or three fs (fff) are uncommon.
Gently (i.e. played or sung softly) (see dynamics)
A Picardy third, Picardy cadence ('p?k?rdi ) or, in French, tierce picarde is a harmonic device used in Western classical music. It refers to the use of a major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical section that is either modal or in a minor key.
Full, as, for example, a voce piena = "in full voice"
Pinched, plucked (i.e. in music for bowed strings, plucked with the fingers as opposed to played with the bow; compare arco, which is inserted to cancel a pizzicato instruction; in music for guitar, to mute the strings by resting the palm on the bridge, simulating the sound of pizz. of the bowed string instruments)
Jazz term referring to a note that slides to an indefinite pitch chromatically downwards.
pochettino or poch.
Very little; diminutive of poco
pochissimo or pochiss.
Very little; superlative of poco
A little, as in poco più allegro (a little faster)
a gradual decrease in speed
poco a poco
Little by little
Then, indicating a subsequent instruction in a sequence; diminuendo poi subito fortissimo, for example: getting softer then suddenly very loud
ponticello or sul ponticello (pont.)
On the bridge (i.e. in string playing, an indication to bow or to pluck very near to the bridge, producing a characteristic glassy sound, which emphasizes the higher harmonics at the expense of the fundamental); the opposite of sul tasto
Carrying (i.e. 1. generally, sliding in pitch from one note to another, usually pausing just above or below the final pitch, then sliding quickly to that pitch. If no pause is executed, then it is a basic glissando; or 2. in piano music, an articulation between legato and staccato, like portato)
A musical introduction to subsequent movements during the Baroque era (1600s/17th century). It can also be a movement in its own right, which was more common in the Romantic era (mid-1700s/18th century)
Half of a semitone; a pitch division not used in most Western music notation, except in some contemporary art music or experimental music. Quarter tones are used in Western popular music forms such as jazz and blues and in a variety of non-Western musical cultures.
quasi (Latin and Italian)
Almost (e.g. quasi recitativo almost a recitative in an opera, or quasi una fantasia almost a fantasia)
A light, "joking" or playful musical form, originally and usually in fast triple metre, often replacing the minuet in the later Classical period and the Romantic period, in symphonies, sonatas, string quartets and the like; in the 19th century some scherzi were independent movements for piano, etc.
schleppend, schleppen (Ger.)
In a dragging manner, to drag; usually nicht schleppen ("don't drag"), paired with nicht eilen ("don't hurry") in Gustav Mahler's scores
A symbol (♯) that raises the pitch of the note by a semitone;the term may also be used as an adjective to describe a situation where a singer or musician is performing a note in which the intonation is somewhat too high in pitch
Alone (i.e. executed by a single instrument or voice). The instruction soli requires more than one player or singer; in a jazzbig band this refers to an entire section playing in harmony. In orchestral works, soli refers to a divided string section with only one player to a line.
A jazz term that instructs a lead player or rhythm section member to play an improvised solo cadenza for one or two measures (sometimes abbreviated as "break"), without any accompaniment. The solo part is often played in a rhythmically free manner, until the player performs a pickup or lead-in line, at which time the band recommences playing in the original tempo.
sommo (masc.), somma (fem.)
Highest, maximum; con somma passione: with the greatest passion
A mute, Note: sordina, with plural sordine, is strictly correct Italian, but the forms sordino and sordini are much more commonly used as terms in music. Instruments can have their tone muted with wood, rubber, metal, or plastic devices, (for string instruments, mutes are clipped to the bridge; for brass instruments, mutes are inserted in the bell), or parts of the body (guitar; French Horn), or fabric (clarinet; timpani), among other means. In piano music (notably in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata), senza sordini or senza sordina (or some variant) is sometimes used to mean keep the sustain pedal depressed, since the sustain pedal lifts the dampers off the strings, with the effect that all notes are sustained indefinitely.
Tight, narrow (i.e. faster or hastening ahead); also, a passage in a fugue in which the contrapuntal texture is denser, with close overlapping entries of the subject in different voices; by extension, similar closely imitative passages in other compositions
Gradually getting faster (literally, tightening, narrowing) (i.e. with a pressing forward or acceleration of the tempo, that is, becoming stretto)
To be played with a smooth slur, a glissando
Immediately (e.g. subito pp, which instructs the player to suddenly drop to pianissimo as an effect); often abbreviated as sub.
Lit. "on the", as in sul ponticello (on the bridge); sul tasto (on the fingerboard); sul E (on the E string), etc.
"on the E", indicating a passage is to be played on the E string of a violin. Also seen: sul A, sul D, sul G, sul C, indicating a passage to be played on one of the other strings of a string instrument.
Actual sound; primarily used with notated harmonics where the written pitch is also the sounding pitch
On the fingerboard (i.e. in string playing, an indication to bow or to pluck over the fingerboard); playing over the fingerboard produces a duller, less harmonically rich, gentler tone. The opposite of sul ponticello.
The middle section of a double aria, commonly found in bel canto era Italian operas, especially those of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries as well in many early operas by Verdi. When present, the tempo di mezzo generally signals a shift in the drama from the slow cantabile of the first part to the cabaletta of the second, and this can take the form of some dramatic announcement or action to which the character(s) react in the cabaletta finale.
tempo di valzer
In strict time
tempo primo, tempo uno, or tempo I (sometimes tempo I° or tempo 1ero)
All; all together, usually used in an orchestral or choral score when the orchestra or all of the voices come in at the same time, also seen in Baroque-era music where two instruments share the same copy of music, after one instrument has broken off to play a more advanced form: they both play together again at the point marked tutti. See also ripieno.
un, una, or uno
One or "a" (indefinite article), as exemplified in the following entries
un poco or un peu (Fr.)
One string (i.e., in piano music, depressing the soft pedal, which alters and reduces the volume of the sound). For most notes in modern pianos, this results in the hammer striking two strings rather than three. Its counterpart, tre corde (three strings), is the opposite: the soft pedal is to be released.
In unison (i.e., several players in a group are to play exactly the same notes within their written part, as opposed to splitting simultaneous notes among themselves); often used to mark the return from divisi
A fast, lively, or increased tempo, or played or done in such a tempo; it is also used as an umbrella term for a quick-paced electronic music style
Lit. "wandering": the fifth part in a motet, named so most probably because it had no specific range
Improvised accompaniment, usually a repeating pattern played before next musical passage. See vamp till cue. See comp and comping.
vamp till cue
A jazz, fusion, and musical theatre term which instructs rhythm section members to repeat and vary a short ostinato passage, riff, or "groove" until the band leader or conductor instructs them to move onto the next section
Variations, con variazioni: with variations/changes
Speed; con velocità: with speed
As fast as possible; usually applied to a cadenza-like passage or run
Away, out, off; as in via sordina or sordina via: 'mute off'
Vibrating (i.e. a more or less rapidly repeated slight variation in the pitch of a note, used as a means of expression). Often confused with tremolo, which refers either to a similar variation in the volume of a note, or to rapid repetition of a single note.
Turn immediately (i.e. turn the page quickly). While this indication is sometimes added by printers, it is more commonly indicated by orchestral members in pencil as a reminder to quickly turn to the next page.