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Glossary of Musical Terms

Music Literature

Peter Kun Frary


a cappella, (Italian), "in the chapel." Vocal music without instrumental accompaniment.

a tempo (Italian), "in tempo." Resume normal tempo.

absolute music, instrumental compositions written purely as music; i.e., not intented to suggest extra-musical ideas such as stories or nationalism.

accelerando (Italian), "accelerate." Gradually increase tempo. Abbr.: accel.

adagio (Italian), "slowly, at ease." Slower than andante and faster than largo.

ad libitum (Latin), "at liberty." 1) After an instrument name (e.g., Guitar II ad libitum) it indicates the optional omission of that part. 2) As a tempo marking it indicates rhythmic freedom. 3) In a cadenza it indicates improvisation or rhythmic freedom. Abbr.: ad lib.

aerophone, a musical instrument that produces sound by causing a column of air to vibrate, i.e., a wind instrument. The French horn is an example of an aerophone:

affettuoso (Italian), "affectionate."

agitato (Italian), "agitated."

alla breve (Italian), "in shortness." Cut time or 2/2 meter. Indicated with the symbol "¢."

allargando (Italian), "broadening, becoming slower."

allegretto (Italian), "cheerful, lively." Moderately fast but a little slower than allegro.

allegro (Italian), "cheerful, lively."

alzapúa (Spanish), use of the right hand thumb with up and down strokes for single-line notes or strumming.

andante (Italian), "walking." Moderately slow: faster than adagio and slower than allegro.

andantino (Italian). A little faster than andante.

animando, animato, animandosi (Italian), "animating, animated, becoming animated."

apoyando (Spanish), "leaning." Rest stroke.

appassionato (Italian), "passionately."

arm., abbr. for armonici (harmonic).

armonici (Italian), "harmonic." Abbr.: arm. The sound of harmonics (last 5 notes):

Ars nova, (Latin) "new art." Musical style that flourished in France and the Burgundian Low Countries during the Late Middle Ages.

assai (Italian) "much, very." Allegro assai: very lively.

atonal or atonality, lacking a tonal center or key.


B [plus Roman numeral), abbr. for barré or bar. BII indicates a second fret bar.

bar or barré (French). Fretting of two or more strings with the first finger. Indicated with a capitol B and a Roman numeral corresponding to the fret: BII, bar second fret. A slash through the letter indicates a half bar. See capotasto.

Baroque, c. 1600 to 1750, the era in European history between the Renaissance and Classical eras.

basso continuo, (Italian) "continuous bass." During the Baroque, an accompanying part that includes a bass line and improvised harmonies.

basso ostinato (Italian) or ground bass, a repeated pattern of bass and chords, typically 8 to 16 measures in length.

beat, the steady pulse underlying most music:

binary form, musical form with two sections of related materials. Typically each section is repeated, yielding an A A B B structure.

BPM, beats per minute.

brio, con (Italian), "with vigor."

bugaku (Japanese), imperial court music and dance of Japan.


C [plus Roman numeral], abbr. for capotasto or ceja, i.e., bar technique. CII indicates a second fret bar. See bar.

cadence, notes or chords that create a sense of repose at the end of a phrase. The final note of Row, row, your boat is a cadence:

cadenza, a virtuosic solo passage inserted into a concerto or other work.

cantabile, cantando (Italian), "song-like, singing."

cantata (Italian), "sung." During the Baroque, a narrative work for voices with instrumental accompaniment, typically with solos, chorus, and orchestra.

cantus firmus, (Latin) "fixed song." A pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.

capotasto (Italian), ceja, cejilla (Spanish). Fretting of two or more strings with the first finger. Indicated with a capitol C and a Roman numeral corresponding to the fret: CII, bar the second fret. A slash through the letter (¢) indicates a half bar.

chamber music, instrumental music played by a small ensemble with one player to a part.

chordophone, a musical instrument that produces sound via a vibrating string, e.g., a stringed instrument. The guitar is a common chordophone:

chromatic scale, a musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone (half step) apart:

Classical, a term that refers to both an era and a category of music. The Classical era is approximately approximately 1750 to 1820, falling between the Baroque and Romantic eras. Classical music is also used as a broad catch-all term for Western art music created during the last one thousand years of European and American history.

clef, a symbol placed at the beginning of a staff to indicate the pitch of the notes written on it. A treble clef or G clef:

coda (Italian) "tail." The concluding section of a piece.

con (Italian), "with." For phrases beginning with this term, see the second word.

concertino (Italian), in the Baroque concerto grosso, the group of solo instruments pitted against the orchestra or ripieno.

concerto grosso (Italian), during the Baroque, a musical composition for a group of solo instruments (soli/concertino) accompanied by a larger group (tutti/ripieno).

contrapuntal, refers to a musical texture consisting of two or more melodic lines of relatively equal importance. Often used as a synonym for polyphonic.

countertenor, male singing voice with a range equivalent to the female alto or soprano range.

cresc., abbr. for crescendo.

crescendo (Italian). Gradual increase in volume. Abbr.: cresc.

cut time, alla breve or 2/2 meter. Indicated with the symbol "¢."


da capo (Italian), "from the head." Return to the beginning. Abbr.: D.C. Da capo al fine: return to the beginning and play to fine. Da capo al: return to the beginning and skip ahead to the next occurrence of the sign (the coda).

dal segno (Italian), "[play] from the sign." Abbr.: D.S. Dal segno al fine: go to the sign and end at fine.

D.C., abbr. for da capo.

D.S., abbr. for dal segno.

decresc., abbr. for decrescendo.

decrescendo (Italian). Gradual decrease in volume. See diminuendo. Abbr.: decresc.

dim., abbr. for diminuendo.

diminuendo (Italian). Gradual decrease in volume. See decrescendo. Abbr.: dim.

dodecaphony, "twelve-tone technique." A method of composing with twelve tones devised by the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

dolce, (Italian), "sweetly, softly.

doloroso (Italian), "painful, sorrowful."

downbeat, the accented first beat of a meter or measure, e.g., in triple meter (1-2-3), beat 1 is the downbeat.

dynamics, degrees of loudness or softness in music.


Elizabethan, the English high Renaissance framed by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

electrophone, a musical instrument that produces sound by electrical means. The synthesizer is an example of an electrophone:

equal or even temperament, a tuning system where the semitones of the chromatic scale are all adjusted to be exactly the same size.

espressivo (Italian), "expressively."

étouffé (French), "suffocate or smother." The technique of muting (not stopping) a tone on the guitar by laying the palm on the bridge while plucking the string. See pizzicato.

étude (French) or estudio (Spanish), "study." A musical composition designed to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.

Expressionism, an early 20th century musical style in which the composer used jarring rhythms and dissonance to stir emotions from the darkest recesses of the human psyche.


f, abbr. for forte.

ff, abbr. for fortissimo.

figured bass, notation system for basso continuo. The numbers below bass notes indicate the intervals of the harmony.

fine (Italian), "finish, end." See da capo.

First Viennese School, the three principle composers of the Classical era in late-18th-century Vienna: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.

flamenco (Spanish), the folkloric music traditions of the Romani of Southern Spain.

forte (Italian), "loud." Abbr.: f.

fortissimo (Italian), "very loud." Abbr.: ff.

forzando, forzato (Italian), "forced." A sudden stress on a single note or chord in a passage. Abbr.: fz. See sforzando.

fugue (French) or fuga (Italian), "flight."A polyphonic composition in which a subject (the theme) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.

fz, abbr. for forzando or forzato.


gagaku (雅楽, Japanese), imperial court music of Japan.

gayageum (가야금, Korean), a Korean string instrument belonging to the zither family.

gayageum byeongchang (Korean), traditional Korean musical style where singers accompany themselves on gayageum.

gliss., abbr. for glissando.

glissando (Italian), "slide." A rapid succession of pitches made by sliding a finger up or down a string. Indicated with a straight line between note heads. Abbr.: gliss.

Gothic, latter part of the Middle Ages, c. 1150-1450.

golpe (Spanish) "blow, stroke." Percussive tapping on the guitar body. See tambora.

grave (Italian), "heavy, solemn." Slow and serious. Similar to adagio.

grazioso (Italian), "graceful."

Gregorian chant, also known as plainsong, is the sacred melody of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

ground bass or basso ostinato (Italian), a repeated pattern of bass and chords, typically 8 to 16 measures in length.


har., harm., abbr. for harmonic or harmoniques.

harmonic (English), harmoniques (French), "overtone." Abbr.: har., harm. See armonici. The sound of harmonics (last 5 notes):

homophonic, musical texture in which a melody is supported with chords.

hydraulis (Greek), a pipe organ invented in Greece during the 3rd century BC.

idiophone, a musical instrument that creates sound by vibration of the entire body of the instrument when struck, shaken, or scraped. Typical idiophones include the bell, gong, rattle, cymbal and xylophone. Here's a xylophone:

Impressionism, an anti-realistic and anti-romantic musical style from late 19th century France, centering around the compositions of Debussy and Ravel.

intabulation or intavolatura (Italian), an arrangement of a vocal or ensemble piece for keyboard, lute or other plucked string instruments. Intabulation literally means "to write in tablature" and was a common practice during the Renaissance era.

interval, the distance between two pitches.


larghetto (Italian). Slow and broad but faster than largo.

largo (Italian), "wide." Slow and broad.

legato (Italian), "bound." Played smoothly with no separation between notes.

leggiero (Italian), "lightly." Light, nimble and quick. Abbr.: legg.

lento, lentamente (Italian) "slow."

ligado (Spanish), slur technique, i.e., use of the left hand fingers to hammer or pull off notes.

luthier (French), "lute builder." A maker of stringed instruments such as violins, lutes and guitars.


maestoso (Italian), "majestically."

major scale, a seven-tone scale with the interval pattern of whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. The eighth tone starts the pattern over at the octave. This scale may also be symbolized as solfege syllables, do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do and sounds thus:

marcato (Italian), "marked." With emphasis or stress. Abbr.: marc.

mass, Roman Catholic Eucharist or Holy Communion service.

melisma, a group of notes sung to one syllable of text.

membranophone, an instrument that produces sound via a stretched membrane, e.g., a drum. The snare or side drum is a common example of a membranophone:

meno (Italian), "less." Meno mosso: less moved (slower).

mensural notation, musical notation used for European music from the late 13th century until about 1600. Mensural notation from the late 16th century:

metàlico (Spanish), "metallic." Play near the bridge. See sul ponticello.

meter, grouping of pulses into regular patterns of stressed and unstressed beats. A grouping of strong-weak (1-2) is called duple meter; strong-weak-weak (1-2-3) is triple meter; etc.

meter signature or time signature, placed on the staff, consists of two numbers written one over the other: the top number specifies how many beats are contained in each measure whereas the bottom number indicates the note value equal to one beat.

metronome, a device, invented in 1815 by Johann Maelzel, used to play a beat for practicing music and specifying tempo.

mezzo forte (Italian), "half loud." Moderately loud (softer than forte, louder than mezzo piano). Abbr.: mf.

mezzo piano (Italian), "half soft." Moderately soft (louder than piano, softer than mezzo forte). Abbr.: mp.

mf, abbr. for mezzo forte.

Middle Ages, c. 450-1450.

minuet (French), a moderate 18th century French dance in triple time, often in binary form. Minuet and trio expands the simple binary minuet into a longer structure of A B A, and was popular as a third movement in Classical sonatas and symphonies.

moderato (Italian), "moderately." A tempo midway between andante and allegro.

modulation, change of key.

molto (Italian), "very, much." Molto accelerando: accelerate greatly.

monody, solo vocal style from 17th century Italy distinguished by having a single melodic line and instrumental accompaniment.

monophonic, musical texture consisting of a single melodic line.

morendo (Italian), "fading away, dying."

mosso (Italian), "moved."

mp, abbr. for mezzo piano.


namdo minyo (남도민요, Korean), folk song from the southern region of Korea.

Neoclassicism, an early 20th century musical style based on traditional forms such as the concerto grosso, fugue and symphony, and often paying tribute to earlier masters such as Bach and Handel.

niente (Italian), "nothing." Diminuendo niente: decrescendo [to] nothing (until inaudible).

nocturne (French), "of the night." A single movement work of a romantic or dreamy character suggestive of night, typically written for piano.

non troppo (Italian), "not too much." Allegro non troppo: lively [but] not too lively.

octave, the interval from do to do. The scale pattern of do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do starts over at the octave.

opera (Italian), "work." A dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.

oratorio (Italian), a large work for orchestra and voices, typically with a libretto based on stories from the Bible. Handel's Messiah is the best known example of an oratorio.


p, abbr. for piano.

pentatonic scale, a scale with five notes per octave:

perdendosi (Italian), "dying away." See morendo.

pesante (Italian), "heavy." Play with emphasis.

piacere, a (Italian), "to please." With rhythmic freedom.

pianissimo (Italian), "very soft" (softer than piano). Abbr.: pp.

piano (Italian), "soft." Abbr.: p.

pipa (琵琶, Chinese), Chinese lute.

pitch, the highness or lowness of a musical tone.

più (Italian), "more."

più mosso (Italian), "more moved." Faster.

pizz., abbr. for pizzicato.

pizzicato (Italian), to pluck or pinch the strings of a bowed instrument such as violin. On plucked string instruments such as guitar, pizzicato is used to indicate muting or palming the strings. Abbr.: pizz. See étouffé. The sound of violins playing pizzicato:

plainsong, also known as Gregorian chant, is the sacred melody of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

poco (Italian), "little." Poco crescendo: crescendo slightly.

poco a poco (Italian), "little by little." Poco a poco crescendo: crescendo in small increments.

polyphonic, musical texture consisting of two or more melodic lines of relatively equal importance. Often used as a synonym for contrapuntal.

pp, abbr. for pianissimo.

prestissimo (Italian). As fast as possible.

presto (Italian), "quickly." Very fast, faster than allegro.

Primitivism, an early 20th century musical style that borrows or evokes sounds from non-Western or prehistoric cultures.

program music, instrumental music intended to evoke images, stories or a sense of place.


quasi (Italian), "almost." Quasi allegro: almost allegro (slightly slower than allegro).

raga (Sanskrit), "color, musical tone." A melodic structure or pattern of notes used in classical Indian music.

rall., abbr. for rallentando.

rallentando (Italian), "slowing down." Abbr.: rall. See ritardando.

rasgueado (Spanish). A strumming technique that uses the fingernails to strike the strings, often in a rapid and percussive rhythm. Abbr.: rasg.

Renaissance, c. 1450-1600, the era in European history between the Middle Ages and Baroque.

ripieno, (Italian), the group of instruments accompanying the concertino in the Baroque concerto.

risoluto (Italian), "resolute, energetic."

rit., abbr. for ritardando.

recitative (French) or recitativo (Italian), a style of singing in operas, oratorios, and cantatas in which speech rhythms are used. The resulting sound is half way between speaking and singing.

ritardando (Italian), "gradually slowing down." Abbr.: rit., ritard. See rallentando.

ritenuto (Italian), "held back." A sudden slowing of tempo. Abbr.: riten.

ritmico (Italian), "rhythmic."

ritornello (Italian), the recurring tutti section in the Baroque concerto grosso.

rondo (Italian) or rondeau (French), a musical form with a recurring theme (A) alternates with one or more contrasting themes called episodes. Typical rondo schemes include A B A C A and A B A C A B A.

Romanesque, latter part of the Middle Ages, c. 1000-1150

Romantic, c. 1820-1900, the era in European history between the Classical and Modern eras.

rubato (Italian), "rob." Use of a flexible beat.


SATB, abbreviation for soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

scherzando (Italian), scherzhaft (German), "playfully."

schnell (German), "fast."

segue (Italian) "follows." Indicates that a movement or section should continue without a break.

sempre (Italian), "continuously, always." Sempre legato: continuously legato.

senza (Italian), "without." Senza tempo, senza misura: without a strict tempo.

sforzando, sforzato (Italian), "forcing." A sudden stress on a note or chord. Abbr.: sfz or sf. See forzando.

sfz, sf, abbr. for sforzando or sforzato.

simile (Italian), "same." Continue in the same manner.

sitar (Persian), a large, long-necked Indian lute with movable frets.

slentando (Italian), "slowing down."

solfege, musical syllables: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

sonata (Italian), "sounded." A composition for instrumental soloist, typically in several movements.

sonata form, a musical form in three sections--exposition, development and recapitulation--in which two themes are developed according to set key relationships.

sostenuto (Italian), "sustained." Andante sostenuto: moderately slow [and] sustained. Abbr.: sost.

Spanish Phrygian, a gapped scale used in flamenco:

staccato (Italian), "detached." Note durations are shortened by stopping the sound immediately after articulation. Indicated by a dot over or under the note.

stendendo (Italian), "slowing or stretching out."

stentando, stentato (Italian), "halting, labored."

stringendo (Italian), "pressing, becoming faster."

subito (Italian), "suddenly." p subito: suddenly soft.

suite, an ordered set of instrumental dance inspired movements.

sul ponticello (Italian), "on the bridge." Playing the string near the bridge. Produces a bright and metallic tone. Abbr.: sul pont. or pont.

sul tasto (Italian), "on the fingerboard." Playing the string over the fingerboard. Produces a soft, hollow tone. Abbr.: tasto.

sul, sulla (Italian). Preposition meaning at, on or on the. Sul Re or sul D: on the D [string].

symphonic poem, also tone poem, a single movement programmatic work for orchestra.

symphony, a composition for orchestra, typically in four movements organized in a fast-slow-dance related-fast tempo scheme.


tabla (Hindi), a South Asian membranophone similar in size to bongos.

tablature, musical notation indicating instrument fingering rather than musical pitches. Lute tablature:

tala (Sanskrit), "handclapping, musical time." A traditional rhythmic pattern in classical Indian music.

tambora (Spanish), "two-headed drum." Percussive tapping on the body of an instrument. See golpe.

tanto (Italian), "so much." Non tanto: not so much.

tempo (Italian), "time." Speed of the beat.

tambura or tanpura, a large four-stringed lute used in Indian music as a drone accompaniment.

tremolo (Italian), rapid repetition of a single treble note, often following a bass note.

tempo mark, descriptive word or words used in a score to indicate tempo, e.g., allegro con brio (cheerful with vigor).

tempo primo (Italian), "first tempo." Return to the original tempo.

ten., abbr. for tenuto.

teneramente (Italian), "tenderly."

tenuto (Italian), "held." The holding of a note pass its indicated value, slightly delaying the following beat. Indicated by an abbreviation (ten.) or a short dash (-) over or under the note.

ternary form, a three-part musical form where the first section (A) is repeated after the second section (B) ends, yielding an A B A structure.

theme and variation form, a technique where a theme is stated and subsequently repeated in an altered form.

time signature or meter signature, two numbers written one over the other: top number specifies how many beats are contained in each measure whereas the bottom number indicates the note value equal to one beat.

tirando (Spanish), free stroke.

tremolo (Italian), rapid reiteration of a note.

tristamente (Italian), "sadly, sorrowfully."

twelve-tone technique or dodecaphony, method of composing with twelve tones devised by the composer Arnold Schoenberg.


un (Italian), indefinite article similar to 'a' in English: un poco rubato, a little rubato.

vivace (Italian), "lively, brisk." The same or faster than allegro. If used after another term (allegro vivace), play faster than the first term's normal tempo.

vibrato, enhancement of a musical tone by rapidly fluctuating pitch slightly sharp and flat. A flute playing a major scale with vibrato on each tone:

vivo (Italian), "lively, brisk."

whole tone scale, a scale made of six tones separated by whole steps:

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