Music Terminology

Posted on October 6, 2021

A complete glossary of all the musical terms you need to know.

12 bar blues

12 bar blues is one of the most common chord progressions in popular music and the most common one in the blues genre. The number 12 refers to the number of measures, or bars.

Example of a 12 bar blues progression in the key of A:

12 Bar Blues

a capella

Music performed without instrumental background. A capella is often performed with multiple voices with a choir but can be sung by a single singer as well. The word ‘a capella’ comes from Italian and means ‘in the style of the chapel’.

 

Accelerando

Accelerando is a term for the change of tempo where the composition is played at an increasing tempo. In other words, the tempo of the song or composition speeds up until the next tempo marking.

 

Acoustic

Acoustics is a wide concept with different meanings depending on what is referred to. Generally acoustics refers to the quality of sounds and the sonic qualities of a space, such as a concert hall.

Acoustic music consists of instruments that don’t use electronics to produce the sound. These include the acoustic guitar and bass as well as drums, piano, violin, trumpet and other classical instruments. Meanwhile, the electric guitar, electric bass guitar and synthesizer don’t count as acoustic instruments. However, acoustic instruments can be amplified electrically, for example with a microphone running into a speaker system.

 

Adagio

Adagio is one of the basic tempo markings, indicating that the composition is played at a slow speed.

 

Allegro

In tempo markings, an allegro is a piece of music played quickly (120-156 bpm) or in a lively way.

 

Andante

In tempo markings, andante refers to music played at a moderate tempo or at a walking pace.

 

Arpeggio

Arpeggio, also known as a broken chord, means that the notes of a chord are played in an ascending or descending order. The notes in an arpeggio can include only the chord’s notes in an ascending or descending order played back to back, or the notes can be played up and down. An example of a technique used to play arpeggios on a guitar is known as sweep picking. In addition, many keyboards and midi-controllers have a built-in feature for playing arpeggios.

 

Ballad

Ballads aren’t necessarily songs and the definition of a ballad has changed throughout the centuries. However, today in music a ballad is a slow and often highly emotional form of narrative song. Common themes of ballads are love, loss and longing, making them often sad and sentimental at least in modern popular music. The AABA song structure is also known as the ballad form.

 

Bar

A bar is the unit used to indicate how many beats are in a single segment of music. Bar is a synonym of measure.

 

Baritone

In the context of classical music, baritone is a male singing voice that is placed between the lowest bass voice type and a higher tenor voice. Baritone is the most common singing voice for men and this includes many well known singers in popular music, such as Frank Sinatra and David Bowie.

 

Baroque

In music, baroque is a particular style of music, composed around the 17th and 18th centuries. This time period is located between the earlier Renaissance era and the following Classical era. Famous composers of the baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, to name only two.

 

Bass

In music, bass can refer either to sounds with low frequency as well as the lowest type of male singing voice in classical music. The word ‘bass’ is generally also used to refer to a family of instruments including the bass guitar and double bass.

 

Bridge

In modern popular music the bridge refers to a musical section that most often connects the second chorus of a song to the third (and often final) chorus. In classical music the transition between sequences can be called a bridge as well.

 

Cadence

The end of a phrase that indicates the end of a passage of music. In jazz music, cadence can also refer to a sequence of chords. Cadence creates a sense of resolution within the phrase in question.

 

Capo

A clip-like tool attached to the neck of a stringed instrument used to shorten the strings’ length. For example a guitar capo is used to raise the pitch of the instrument. The word ‘capo’ is short for ‘capodastro’, which is Italian for “head of the fretboard”.

 

Chord

Multiple musical tones played at the same time, such as playing three or more guitar strings or piano keys simultaneously. There are many types of chords, the most common being “major” and “minor”.

 

Chorus

Chorus is a section of a song that is repeated more than once and contrasts with the other sections. Often the lyrics of a chorus don’t change between each repetition. The chorus can be preceded by a shorter pre-chorus or a bridge that connects the chorus to a verse. A chorus is also known as a refrain.

 

Circle of fifths

A concept in music theory where the 12 chromatic pitches are ordered as a sequence consisting of perfect fifths. The circle of fifths can be used as a tool for learning the general structure of music and expanding your knowledge of music theory.

 

Clef

The word ‘clef’ is derived from the French word for ‘key’, but in music refers to the symbol used in musical notation. A clef indicates the position of different notes in musical notation. The most common clefs are the G, F and C clefs.

 

Coda

Coda is the section that concludes a piece of music, such as the ending of a song. In popular music the coda is also known as an outro. The length of a coda can range from a few measures to an entire segment that concludes the piece.

 

Consonance

Notes and chords played in consonance sound pleasing to the ear and “right”, as opposed to dissonant notes and chords. However, how one experiences dissonance or consonance is dependent on culture, experience and what one has learned to identify as sounding good or bad.

 

Crescendo

Crescendo refers to increasing volume and intensity in a piece of music. It’s opposite is decrescendo where the volume gradually decreases. The abbreviation cresc. is used to indicate a crescendo in musical notation.

 

da capo

The term ‘da capo’ (abbreviated D.C.) is Italian and translates literally to ‘from the head’. However, in music da capo means ‘from the beginning’ and indicates a repetition of the previous section that was just played.

 

Dissonance

Dissonance in music refers to notes and chords that, when played together, sound harsh and unpleasant. The opposite of dissonance is consonance.

 

Drone

A sustained low pitched tone that can play continuously throughout a piece of music. Also referred to the part of an instrument that produces the sound, such as certain pipes in the bagpipes. Drone is also a genre of music, consisting of minimalistic, ambient and often low sustained sounds.

 

Dynamics

In music, dynamics refers to how strongly or loudly a piece of music should be played. By indicating the dynamics of a composition in sheet music, the composer can express variation in the intensity of playing and mood of the piece. Examples include ‘piano’ and ‘forte’.

 

Elegy

A type of sad and mournful song, usually about lamenting the death of someone. The word ‘elegy’ is derived from a Greek word meaning “a song of mourning”. However, the word is not used only in music but can also refer to a poem dealing with similar themes.

 

Encore

An encore is an extra performance by a band or an orchestra after they have already ended their performance. An encore is often demanded by the audience who claps and cheers to tell that they want the performers to return on stage. For example, in a rock concert the band may return to play a couple or a few more songs when they are invited back on stage by the audience. An encore is also a part of a classical music concert where the entire orchestra first leaves and then returns during the audience’s applause. More than one encore is possible as well.

 

Ensemble

In the context of musical performance, an ensemble is a group of people playing and/or singing together. An ensemble can be entirely instrumental (such as an orchestra), vocal (a choir for example) or a combination of both (for instance a rock band). In other words, all bands are a type of ensemble. Ensembles come in many sizes from small trios playing jazz to great symphonic orchestras and choirs with tens of members.

 

Fill

In music terminology, fill is a brief passage that is used to “fill gaps” in the song and sustain the listeners attention. A fill can be in the form of a drum fill, for instance, and this is likely the most common context where the word fill is used. However, a fill can be played with other instruments as well or even sung. A fill can be used as a transitory tool between two sections of a song.

 

Flat

The term ‘flat’ in music refers to a note being lower in pitch. In musical notation, if a note is flat it’s a semitone, or half a step, lower than the surrounding notes. Thesymbol is used to indicate a flat note. While flat notes are a semitone lower, sharp notes are a semitone higher. However, this is only one meaning of the term ‘flat’ in the context of music. You can also sing or play “flat”, which means producing a note that is slightly lower than the intended note; this is also known as playing “out of tune”.

 

Forte

Forte is a  term referring to the dynamics of a piece of music, indicating that a certain piece is to be played loudly or strongly. In musical notation forte is indicated with ‘f’.

 

Harmony

Simply, harmony refers to the process where different notes are played together in a way where the notes sound good together. Harmony is one of the most important aspects of music together with rhythm and melody.

 

Hook

Hook is an element of a song or a musical idea used to make the song catchy and memorable to the listener. In modern popular music a hook can be a line of lyrics, a riff or a melody, for example.

 

Improvisation

Improvisation in music refers to composing the music one plays while performing. In other words, improvisation is coming up with the music “in the moment”. Improvisation is a common element of a number of genres, for example jazz, but also rock music where solos may be improvised by skilled musicians.

 

Interval

The word ‘interval’ comes from the Latin word ‘intervallum’, meaning distance. In music, an interval describes the distance between the pitch of two tones.

 

Intro

Intro is the beginning of a song that is often followed by the first verse in the basic verse-chorus form of popular music. The intro of a song usually establishes the tone, mood, genre and lyrical themes of the song and may also introduce some recurring melodies and other musical ideas.

 

Key

The key is a central scale of notes that a song is built on, named by the root note, also called a tonic. It can be major or minor, for example D major. A key signature determines the key and which notes will be flat or sharp by default to match the harmony of the song.

The key can also change in the middle of a song, one common example is to take the key of the song a step higher to increase excitement. This is called a modulation. Also it’s not uncommon to deviate from the key as it can produce interesting results.

 

Legato

Legato refers to playing musical notes smoothly and there’s no break between the notes when they’re played. In musical notation, legato is indicated with a curved line. For example when playing the guitar, slides, bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs are indicated with a curved line as the strings aren’t picked between different notes.

 

Lyrics

Lyrics are the words of a song sung by the vocalist. The lyrics can be performed in other ways than singing as well, for example by rapping, screaming or as spoken word. While the performer is referred to as a vocalist, the person (or persons) who writes the lyrics is known as a lyricist.

 

Major

In music, the term major can be used to describe a chord, scale or key. A way to identify a major chord or scale for instance, is to listen whether it sounds happy. You can contrast major scales and chords with minor ones and, as a consequence, change the mood and tone of a song.

 

Melody

A melody consists of a series of musical tones that constitute a whole. This is perceived by the listener as a single cohesive entity. Melody is one of the most important aspects of music together with rhythm and harmony.

 

Minor

As opposed to major chords, scales and keys, minor ones can be identified by listening if they sound dark and sad. For example, minor chords are written with a lower-case ‘m’, while major chords are written without the ‘m’.

 

Motif

Motifs are recurring and recognizable fragments or a musical idea in a composition. A motif may be repeated with or without changes to it throughout the musical piece.

 

Octave

An octave is the distance between the 1st and 8th notes of a major scale. For example, the C major scale goes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, and the distance between the first C and the final C is called an octave. Each time you go up an octave, you double the frequency of the note. For example, if you play a note at 440Hz, then the octave is at 880Hz. The word ‘octave’ is derived from the Latin word for eight, ‘octavus’.

 

Outro

Outro is the ending or conclusion of a song. The term ‘outro’ is usually used in the context of popular music, while the term ‘coda’ is more commonly used in classical music. An outro can have different forms and there’s no single correct way to end a song. For example, the outro can be a gradual decrease in volume as the song fades out or a more abrupt ending.

 

Overture

Overture is a musical introduction to a performance, such as an opera, play or even a movie. An overture is often played by an orchestra and its purpose is to set the mood for the performance that’s about to begin.

 

Pentatonic

A pentatonic scale is a scale with five notes for each octave. Pentatonic scales are widely used throughout the world, not only in Western music. Pentatonic scales are also used in different musical genres and can be divided into major and minor pentatonic scales.

 

Pitch

Pitch is a sound that is clear enough to distinguish from noise, that makes it possible to tell if a sound is higher or lower than another. Pitch is an attribute of sound along with loudness, length and timbre.

 

Quartet

A quartet is a band, choir, ensemble or some other group of four musicians performing together. The word ‘quartet’ can also be used to refer to a piece of music composed for four instruments or voices.

 

Reprise

Reprise is the repetition of a piece of music within a song, album or performance. For example, many movie scores contain a repetition of a motif during more than a single scene.

 

Rhythm

Rhythm is the placement of sounds, rests and emphasis in time. It’s a crucial building block and basis of all music. In sheet music, rhythm is marked by varying note lengths, with tempo defining the pace of the rhythm and time signature defining how it’s counted.

 

Riff

A riff is a short passage consisting of notes and chords that is repeated throughout a song. In popular music, and especially different rock genres, riffs are usually played with the guitar and bass. For example, many rock songs are known especially for their memorable guitar riffs. A good example of a guitar riff is the opening riff of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. Other famous guitar riffs can be found in “Come as You Are” by Nirvana, “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, just to name a few. However, riffs can be played with a number of different instruments and in many different genres of music.

 

Root

A root is the base note of a key, scale or chord. In the key of B major, the root is B.

 

Scale

A scale is a set of notes ordered by the root note. It defines the notes that fit the harmony at hand. The most common ones are the major and minor scales, but there are plenty of other scales like chromatic, mixolydian or harmonic minor, for example.

 

Sharp

The term ‘sharp’ in music refers to a note being higher in pitch. In musical notation, if a note is sharp, it is a semitone higher than the surrounding notes. The # symbol is used to indicate a sharp note. While sharp notes are a semitone higher, flat notes are a semitone lower. In addition to referring to a note being higher in pitch, the term ‘sharp’ can also refer to sharp singing or tuning.

 

Sheet music

Sheet music is a printed form of musical notation showing the pitches, rhythm and/or chords of a song.

 

Solfège

Solfège is a method of music education teaching aural skills, recognition of pitches, harmony and rhythm, and reading notation.

 

Solo

A piece of music performed by a single singer or player, known as the soloist. Solos are common in rock and pop genres, for example in the form of a guitar solo where the guitarist is the center of attention while the rest of the band plays in the background.

 

Sonata

Sonata is a principle of composing large scale works, often referring to Western classical music from the early 19th century onwards. A famous example is the Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig Van Beethoven.

 

Soprano

Soprano is one of the female singing voices alongside mezzo-soprano and alto. The soprano is the one with the highest vocal range and a soprano is able to sing the middle C note or even higher.

 

Symphony

A large scale composition for an orchestra consisting of sections called movements.

 

Tablature

Tablatures or tabs are a type of musical notation that is used commonly with fretted instruments, such as the guitar, bass and ukulele. For example, guitar tablatures use fret numbers and strings to indicate which notes are played, unlike in traditional sheet music. Drums can also be played with tablature.

 

Tempo

The speed of a piece of music is often indicated in beats per minute (or BPM).

 

Tenor

Tenor is the highest type of singing voice for men. Famous tenors include Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti as well as Freddie Mercury and Bruce Dickinson in the world of rock music.

 

Time signature

Time signature defines how many beats there are in a bar, and which note value the beats are. In the most common time signature 4/4 (read: four four time), there are four quarter notes per bar. Other common signatures are ¾ (waltz) and 6/8, less common examples are 5/4 (‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck Quartet, Theme from Mission Impossible) or 7/4 (‘Money’ by Pink Floyd). The time signature can also change within a song. In the context of Western music, unusual time signatures and surprising time signature changes are a common characteristic of experimental music genres and progressive rock, for instance.

 

Tone

Tone can refer to a single pitch or to the audible characteristics of sound (timbre).

 

Tremolo

Tremolo has two common meanings. The first is playing a note repeatedly and rapidly, for example a guitarist picking a note quickly, over and over. This kind of tremolo picking is a common technique in a variety of music genres, such as black metal and surf music.

The second meaning of tremolo is a rapid variation in volume, for example quickly turning the volume up and down, creating a shuddering effect. Guitarists often achieve this using an electronic effect. A good example of the tremolo effect in rock music can be found in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of Midnight Special.

 

Tune

In music the term ‘tune’ can have a number of meanings. When used as a noun tune can refer to the song itself as well as the melody of a song. As a verb, ‘tune’ refers to the act of tuning an instrument and setting it to the correct tune.

 

Tuning

Tuning refers to the process of adjusting an instrument so it produces the desired notes at the correct pitch.

For example, guitar strings are typically tuned to the notes E-A-D-G-B-E. To tune a guitar means to adjust the strings so they precisely match those pitches. There are also “alternate tunings”, in which the strings can be tuned to different notes.

Tuning is standardized so that the note A4 (the A above middle C on the piano) is usually set to the frequency of 440Hz.

 

Verse

In popular music, verse is a part of the song structure. In the commonly used verse-chorus form, a verse is followed by the song’s chorus and contrasts with other parts. A pop or rock song usually consists of at least two verses that have similar chords, melody and rhythm but may differ lyrically.

 

Vibrato

An effect in music where the pitch of a note changes rapidly, resulting in a vibrating effect. Vibrato can be achieved with an instrument, for example by using an effect pedal, the whammy bar of a guitar or by moving your finger up and down while holding down the fret. Vibrato can be also achieved with the human voice and is a technique often used by skilled vocalists.

 

Virtuoso

A person who has exceptional talent, skills and knowledge of for example music, painting or some other art form. For instance, a guitar virtuoso would be a highly skilled guitar player who is commonly praised for their guitar ‘virtuosity’, such as Eddie Van Halen.

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