There are many different musical terms used to indicated the dynamics, speed and character of a piece of music. A big part of these terms are in Latin, which makes it easier for musicians to communicate regardless of their native language. We have compiled the most popular music terms to guide you through the very basics of terminology.

A cappella – vocalist performing without accompaniment

Accelerando – similar to the word ‘accelerate’, this term is used to describe gradual increase in the tempo

Accents – notes played louder than normal to give it a distinctive beat. These are usually played to compliment other musicians or to make the current beat more expressive

Allegro – indicates to play lively and fast

Arpeggio – a broken chord, involves playing the notes of separately and consecutively, rather than all together

Andante – indicating to play at medium, walking pace

Atonal – music that has not been written with regard to any specific key or tonality

Bar – this is a music technology term used to describe a unit that measures time decided by amount of beats in the time signature. For example if the bar 2/4 the bar would include 2 counts

Beat – unit of musical rhythm

Canon – is a type of composition that employs a melody followed by imitations of it played after some sort of duration

Choir – a group of singers singing simultaneously aka chorus

Chord – 3 or more notes played in harmony

Click Track – similar to metronome, this is used to keep the correct time, especially useful for a drummer to develop a natural sense of time

Common Time – the 4/4 time signature. This is commonly used in most genres of music, sometimes indicated in sheet music as ‘’C’’ which stands for common time

Conductor – a director of a group of performers. The conductor indicates temp, dynamics and phrasing within a piece using a variety of gestures and facial expressions

Concerto – a musical piece written for a solo instrument

Crescendo – a gradual increase in volume and intensity in a piece of music

Development – where the main melody proceeds on to a different one, commonly found in Sonata form

Diminuendo – also known as decrescendo is a decrease in loudness or intensity within a piece of music usually

crescendo-diminuendo

Dissonance – an interval/chord that lacks in harmony and therefore sounds harsh and discordant. It can sometimes occur before resolving itself with a harmonious chord/interval

Dynamics – expressing the loudness, softness and different levels of intensity of a music piece. Indicated through symbols in a piece of music specifying volume

Flat – a symbol indicating the key is diminished by a half a tone (semitone)

Forte – a symbol indicating to play loud

Glissando – sliding between notes, particularly popular on a piano, especially during improvisations

Harmony – an ear-pleasing combination of at least two notes played simultaneously. This also refers to chord progressions

Homophony – a piece of music written to be sung or played in unison

Impromptu – mainly an improvisational, short piece of music

Interval – the distance between two notes

Key – scale of notes/tonality named after the key (1st) note

Key signature – flats/sharps at the beginning of the piece indicating the tonality and key it is written in

Legato – a musical articulation technique that indicates the notes are played or sung smoothly, evenly and connected. On a piano this can also be achieved by some help from the sustain pedal

Libretto – a book of text with words of an opera

Maestro – refers to a particularly outstanding musician

Major – a tonality that has a positive, uplifting character

March – a piece of music written in marching two-step time. Originally used for military events

Measure – this is a music theory term referring to space of time decided by amount of beats in the time signature

Metronome – a metronome is used to keep and develop a sense of time for musicians. A metronome can be set to any tempo and some can be set to also play smaller measures of the bar such as 8th notes, 16th notes etc

Mezzo – stands for ‘inbetween’, for example mezzo soprano range is between soprano and alto or mezzo forte would be louder than piano but not quite as loud as forte and so on

Minor – the opposite of major tonalities, minors have a more sombre and darker character

Moderato – moderate

Motif – leading or primary melody that is developed further in a piece of music

Musicology – study of many forms, methods and history of music

Natural – a symbol in sheet music that returns a note to its original pitch after it has been altered by flats or sharps

Notation – developed in 8th century, refers to different methods of writing/scoring music

Octave – begins and ends with a keynote and incorporates 8 full tones (Latin ‘octa’ = eight)

Opera – a musical drama where lines are sung rather than spoken

Ostinato – repeated phrase

Phrase – a musical sentence

Piano – and indicator in sheet music to play softly, quietly

Pitch – a frequency determining how high or low a note sounds

Poco – a little

Polyrhythm or Cross Rhythms – these refers to playing 2 contrasting rhythm patterns simultaneously, for example:

Polyrhythm

Polyphony – a combination of different but harmonising melodies played at the same time

Polytonality – two or more keys played simultaneously

Portamento – a milder form of glissando

Presto – indicating that the piece of music is to be played very fast

Progression – a movement of chords/intervals

Rallentando – gradually getting slower

Recital – a piece of music written for a solo instrument without accompaniment

Register – in other words, the range of an instrument or voice

Relative major/minor – majors and minors that share the same notes within a scale. In majors, you will find a relative minor on the 6th note of the major scale and in minors you will find the relative major on the 3rd note of the minor scale

Rhythm – element of music that keeps the time and supports other instruments using accented and unaccented beats

Root – the key note of a triad/chord

Scale – consecutive notes based on a tonality or mode either ascending or descending. There are many alternative variations and types to major and minor scales

Sharp – a sharp indicates that a note is raised by a semi tone

Slide – another word for glissando or portamento. Slide can also refer to the moving part of a trombone

Slur – a curve over/underneath notes to indicate that they are to be played legato

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Sonata form – a complex piece of music that usually starts from exposition, followed by development and recapitulation

Staccato – a form of musical articulation that involves playing notes sharply and detached or separated from others

Symphony – a piece written for an orchestra, commonly in sonata form

Tempo – indicates speed

Theme – a leading melody or an idea in a piece of music

Time Signature – a numeric at the start of the piece indicating a number of beats per bar

Tone – the intonation, pitch and character of a piece of music expressing the feeling and attitude

Treble – playing or singing in the upper range

Triad – a combination of three notes consisting of root note (first), third and the fifth notes of the scale or mode

Tuning – altering of the pitch in order to produce the correct tone

Unison – two or more notes/voices being sung/played simultaneously

Vibrato – common in singing, vibrato refers to slight variation in pitch to create a reverberating, fuller sound

Vivace – lively

Instrumental/Vocal ranges

Instrumental range – below is a basic chart of approximate note range for the most popular classical instruments against a piano. This may vary depending on the instrument and specification.

Vocal range similar to instruments, human voice also has different registers or pitch. Female voices span from Alto/Contralto (lowest range) up to Soprano (highest range) and some even have a whistle register. The lowest male voice is Bass and the highest voice would be tenor, however, some male singers also sing falsetto. This limits vibration of the vocal notes and is usually limited in power, however, allows you to sing beyond your vocal range. Below is an approximate chart of different vocal ranges, however, this may vary. 

See also: 

Musical Terms Glossary – Brass

Musical Terms Glossary – Woodwinds

Musical Terms Glossary – Strings

Musical Terms Glossary – Guitars

Musical Terms Glossary – Digital Pianos and Keyboards

Musical Terms Glossary – Percussion

About the author

Diana was Normans Piano & Strings specialist for a number of years. She is a singer songwriter, plays piano and speaks 3 languages. In her spare time, she enjoys travelling as well as blogging about anything.

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