Musical terminology: A glossary of music terms


This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores. Most of the defined 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 defined terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "(Fr)" and "(Ger)", respectively. Others are from languages such as Latin and Spanish. 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 definition of terms here.

A

  • a, à (Fr) – at, to, by, for, in, in the style of
  • aber (Ger) – but
  • a cappella – in the manner of singing in a chapel; i.e., without instrumental accompaniment
  • accelerando – accelerating; gradually increasing the tempo
  • accentato – accented; with emphasis
  • acciaccatura – crushing; i.e., a very fast grace note that is "crushed" against the note that follows and takes up no value in the measure
  • accompagnato – accompanied; i.e., with the accompaniment following the soloist, who may speed up or slow down at will
  • adagietto – rather slow
  • adagio – at ease; i.e., slow
  • adagissimo – very slow
  • ad libitum (commonly ad lib; Latin) – at liberty; i.e., the speed and manner of execution are left to the performer
  • affettuoso – tenderly
  • affrettando – hurrying, pressing onwards
  • agile – swiftly
  • agitato – agitated
  • al, alla – to the, in the manner of (al before masculine nouns, alla before feminine)
  • alla breve – two minim (half-note) beats to a bar, rather than four crotchet (quarter-note) beats
  • alla marcia – in the style of a march
  • allargando – broadening, becoming a little slower
  • allegretto – a little lively, moderately fast
  • allegro – cheerful or brisk; but commonly interpreted as lively, fast
  • als (Ger) – than
  • altissimo – very high
  • alto – high; often refers to a particular range of voice, higher than a tenor but lower than a soprano
  • am Steg (Ger) – at the bridge; i.e., playing a bowed string instrument near its bridge (see sul ponticello in this list)
  • amabile – amiable, pleasant
  • amoroso – loving
  • andante – at a walking pace; i.e., at a moderate tempo, just this side of slow
  • andantino – slightly faster than andante (but earlier it sometimes used to mean slightly slower than andante)
  • animato – animated, lively
  • antiphon – a liturgical or other composition consisting of choral responses, sometimes between two choirs; a passage of this nature forming part of another composition
  • apaisé (Fr) – calmed
  • a piacere – at pleasure; i.e., the performer need not follow the rhythm strictly
  • appassionato – passionately
  • appoggiatura – a grace note that "leans" on the following note, taking up some of its value in the measure
  • a prima vista – at first sight; i.e., playing something at first sight of the sheet music
  • arietta – a short aria
  • arioso – airy, or like an air (a melody); i.e., in the manner of an aria; melodious
  • arpeggio – like a harp; i.e., the notes of the chords are to be played quickly one after another (usually ascending) instead of simultaneously. In music for piano, this is sometimes a solution in playing a wide-ranging chord whose notes cannot be played otherwise. Music generated by the limited hardware of video game computers uses a similar technique to create a chord from one tone generator. Arpeggios (or arpeggi) are also accompaniment patterns. See also broken chord in this list.
  • arco – the bow used for playing some string instrument; i.e., played with the bow, as opposed to pizzicato (plucked), in music for bowed instruments; normally used to cancel a pizzicato direction
  • assai – very
  • assez (Fr) – enough, sufficiently; sometimes used in the same sense as assai
  • a tempo – in time; i.e., the performer should return to the main tempo of the piece (after an accelerando or ritardando, etc.); 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)
  • attacca – attack, or go on; i.e., at the end of a movement, a direction to begin (attack) the next movement immediately, without a gap or pause
  • Ausdruck (Ger) – expression
  • ausdrucksvoll (Ger) – expressively
  • avec (Fr) – with

B

  • barbaro – barbarous
  • basso continuo – continuous bass; i.e., a bass part played continuously throughout a piece to give harmonic structure, used especially in the Baroque period
  • beat – (1) the pronounced rhythm of music; (2) one single stroke of a rhythmic accent
  • bellicoso – warlike, aggressive
  • ben or bene – well, as in, for example, ben marcato (meaning "well-marked")
  • bewegt (Ger) – moved, speeded
  • bis – twice; i.e., repeat the relevant action or passage
  • bisbigliando – whispering; i.e., a special tremolo effect on the harp where a chord or note is rapidly repeated ata low volume
  • bocca chiusa – with closed mouth
  • bravura – boldness; as in con bravura, boldly
  • breit – broad
  • brillante – brilliantly, with sparkle
  • brio – vigour; usually in con brio (see in this list)
  • brioso – vigorously (same as con brio)
  • broken chord – 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 in this list, which as an accompaniment pattern may be seen as a kind of broken chord; see Alberti bass.
  • bruscamente – brusquely

C

  • cadenza – a cadence; i.e., a florid solo, often improvised or (more commonly in modern practice) in improvisatory style, usually near the end of a movement (but sometimes played between the development and recapitulation sections), embellishing and elaborating on a perfect cadence, sometimes at considerable length
  • calando – lowering; i.e., getting slower and softer: ritardando along with diminuendo
  • cambiare – to change; i.e., any change, such as to a new instrument
  • cantabile – singingly
  • capo – head; i.e., the beginning (of a movement, normally)
  • capriccioso – capriciously
  • cédez (Fr) – yield, give way
  • cesura or caesura (Latin form) – break, stop; i.e., a complete break in sound (sometimes called "railroad tracks")
  • chiuso – closed; i.e., muted by hand (for a horn, or similar instrument; but see also bocca chiusa, which uses the feminine form, in this list)
  • coda – a tail; i.e., a closing section appended to a movement
  • codetta – a small coda (see last), but usually applied to a passage appended to a section of a movement, not to a whole movement
  • col, colla – with the (col before a masculine noun, colla before a feminine noun); (see next for example)
  • colla parte – with the soloist
  • colla voce – with the voice
  • col legno – with the wood; i.e., the strings (for example, of a violin) are to be struck with the wood of the bow; also battuta col legno: beaten with the wood
  • coloratura – coloration; i.e., elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line, or (especially) a soprano voice suited to such elaboration
  • colossale – tremendously
  • col pugno – with the fist; i.e., bang the piano with the fist
  • come prima – like the first (time); i.e., as before, typically referring to an earlier tempo
  • come sopra – as above; i.e., like the previous tempo (usually)
  • common time – the time signature 4/4: four beats per measure, each beat a quarter note (a crotchet) in length. 4/4 is often written on the musical staff as 'C'. 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.
  • comodo – comfortable; i.e., at moderate speed
  • con – with; used in very many musical directions, for example con allegrezza (with liveliness), con amore (with tenderness); (see also col, colla, above)
  • con amore, or (in Spanish and sometimes in Italian) con amor – with love, tenderly
  • con affetto – with affect (that is, with emotion)
  • con brio – with spirit, with vigour
  • con effetto – with effect
  • con fuoco – with fire, in a fiery manner
  • con moto – with motion
  • con slancio – with enthusiasm
  • con sordino – with the mute
  • coperti (plural of coperto, which may also be seen) – covered; i.e., on a drum, muted with a cloth
  • crescendo – growing; i.e., progressively louder (contrast diminuendo)
  • cut time – same as the meter 2/2: two half-note (minim) beats per measure. Notated and played like common time (4/4), except with the beat lengths doubled. Indicated by three quarters of a circle with a vertical line through it, which resembles the cent symbol '¢'. This comes from a literal cut of the 'C' 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.

D

  • da capo – from the head; i.e., from the beginning (see capo in this list)
  • deciso – decisively
  • decrescendo – same as diminuendo or dim. (see below)
  • delicatamente – delicately
  • devoto – religiously
  • diminuendo, dim. – dwindling; i.e., with gradually decreasing volume (same as decrescendo)
  • dissonante – dissonant
  • divisi or div. – 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: see in this list.)
  • dolce – sweetly
  • dolcissimo – very sweetly
  • dolente – sorrowfully, plaintively
  • doloroso – sorrowfully, plaintively
  • D.S. al coda or dal segno al coda (or, strictly but rarely seen, ...alla coda) – from the sign to the coda; i.e., return to a place in the music designated by the sign (a marking resembling a letter S with a diagonal through it and a dot to either side) and continue until directed to move to the coda, a separate ending section. (See Coda in this list.)
  • D.S. al fine or dal segno al fine – from the sign to the end; i.e., return to a place in the music designated by the sign (see preceding entry) and continue to the end of the piece.
  • Duple Meter - A meter, or time signature, where the basic unit of pulse of the music recurs in groups of 2 (cut time or 2/2, 2/4, 4/4). Duple meter is historically associated with Marches but can be found in nearly all forms of contemporary music.
  • dur (Ger) – major; used in key signatures as, for example, A-dur (A major), B-dur (B� major), or H-dur (B major). (See also moll (minor) in this list.)
  • dynamics – refers to the relative volumes in the execution of a piece of music. (See dynamics (music)).

E

  • echo – an effect in which a group of notes is repeated, usually more softly, and perhaps at a different octave, to create an echo effect
  • Empfindung (Ger) – feeling
  • encore (Fr) – again; i.e., perform the relevant passage once more
  • energico – energetic, strong
  • enfatico – emphatically
  • eroico – heroically
  • espirando – expiring; i.e., dying away
  • espressivo – expressively
  • estinto – extinct, extinguished; i.e., as soft as possible, lifeless

F

  • facile – easily
  • fermata – finished, closed; i.e., a rest or note is to be held for a duration that is at the discretion of the performer or conductor (sometimes called bird's eye)
  • feroce – ferociously
  • fieramente – proudly
  • fine – the end, often in phrases like al fine (to the end)
  • flebile – mournfully
  • focoso or fuocoso – fiery; i.e., passionately
  • forte or f (usually) – strong; i.e., to be played or sung loudly
  • fortepiano – strong-gentle; i.e., 1. loud, then immediately soft (see dynamics), or 2. an early pianoforte
  • fortissimo – as loudly as possible (see note at pianissimo, in this list)
  • forzando or fz – see sforzando in this list
  • fresco – freshly
  • fuoco – fire; con fuoco means with fire
  • furioso – wildly

G

  • gaudioso – with joy
  • gentile – gently
  • geschwind (Ger) – quickly
  • getragen (Ger) – sustainedly
  • giocoso – gaily
  • giusto – strictly, exactly
  • glissando (simulated Italian) – a continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a true glissando), or an incidental scale played while moving from one melodic note to another (an effective glissando). See glissando for further information; and compare portamento in this list.
  • grandioso – grandly
  • grave – slowly and seriously
  • grazioso – gracefully
  • gustoso – with gusto

H

  • Hauptstimme (Ger) – "head" voice, chief part; i.e., the contrapuntal line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme

I

  • immer (Ger) – always
  • imperioso – imperiously
  • impetuoso – impetuously
  • improvisando – with improvisation
  • in altissimo – in the highest; i.e., play or sing an octave higher
  • incalzando – getting faster and louder (the exact opposite of calando)
  • in modo di – in the art of, in the style of
  • intimo – intimately
  • irato – angrily

K

  • kräftig (Ger) – strongly

L

  • l'istesso – the same
  • lacrimoso – tearfully; i.e., sadly
  • lamentando – lamenting, mournfully
  • lamentoso – lamenting, mournfully
  • langsam (Ger) – slowly
  • larghetto – somewhat slowly; not as slow as largo
  • largo – broadly; i.e., slowly
  • lebhaft (Ger) – briskly, lively
  • legato – joined; i.e., smoothly, in a connected manner (see also articulation)
  • leggiero – lightly, delicately
  • lent (Fr) – slowly
  • lento – slowly
  • liberamente – freely
  • libero – free, freely
  • loco – [in] place; i.e., perform the notes at the pitch written (generally used to cancel an 8va direction)
  • lugubre – lugubrious
  • luminoso – luminously
  • lusingando – coaxingly

M

  • ma – but
  • ma non troppo – but not too much
  • maestoso – majestically, in a stately fashion
  • magico – magically
  • magnifico – magnificent
  • main droite (Fr) – [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD or m.d.)
  • main gauche (Fr) – [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MG or m.g.)
  • malinconico – melancholy
  • mano destra – [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD or m.d.)
  • mano sinistra – [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MS or m.s.)
  • marcatissimo – very accentuatedly
  • marcato – marked; i.e., accentuatedly, play every note as if it were to be accented
  • marcia – a march; alla marcia means in the manner of a march
  • martellato – hammered out
  • marziale – in the march style
  • mässig (Ger) – moderately
  • MD – see mano destra and main droite
  • melancolico – melancholic
  • melisma – the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a syllable of text while it is being sung
  • measure – the period of a musical piece that encompasses a complete cycle of the time signature, e.g., in 4/4 time, a measure has four quarter-note beats
  • meno – less; see meno mosso, for example, under mosso
  • mesto – mournful, sad
  • meter (or metre) – the pattern of a music piece's rhythm of strong and weak beats
  • mezza voce – half voice; i.e., with subdued or moderated volume
  • mezzo – half; used in combinations like mezzo forte (mf), meaning moderately loud
  • mezzo forte – half loudly; i.e., moderately loudly. See dynamics.
  • mezzo piano – half softly; i.e., moderately softly. See dynamics.
  • mezzo-soprano – 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 an alto.
  • MG – see main gauche
  • misterioso – mysteriously
  • mobile – flexible, changeable
  • moderato – moderate; often combined with other terms, usually relating to tempo; for example, allegro moderato
  • modesto – modest
  • moll (Ger) – minor; used in key signatures as, for example, a-moll (A minor), b-moll (B� minor), or h-moll (B minor) (see also dur (major) in this list)
  • molto – very
  • morendo – dying; i.e., dying away in dynamics, and perhaps also in tempo
  • mosso – moved, moving; used with a preceding più or meno (see in this list), for faster or slower respectively
  • MS – see mano sinistra
  • moto – motion; usually seen as con moto, meaning with motion or quickly
  • Moto primo - First (the feminine form) motion
  • munter (Ger) – lively

N

  • narrante – narratingly
  • naturale or nat. – natural; i.e., discontinue a special effect, such as col legno, sul tasto, sul ponticello, or playing in harmonics
  • Nebenstimme (Ger) – under part; i.e., a secondary contrapuntal part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme
  • nicht (zu) schnell (Ger) – not (too) fast
  • nobile – in a noble fashion
  • notes inégales (Fr) – unequal notes; i.e., a principally Baroque performance practice of applying long-short rhythms to pairs of notes written as equal

O

  • omaggio – homage, celebration
  • ossia – or instead; i.e., according to some specified alternative way of performing a passage, which is marked with a footnote, additional small notes, or an additional staff
  • ostinato – obstinate, persistent; i.e., a short musical pattern that is repeated throughout an entire composition or portion of a composition

P

  • passionato – passionately
  • pesante – heavy, ponderous
  • peu à peu (Fr) – little by little

Note: it should be noted that any dynamics in a piece should always be played relative to the other dynamics found in the music. Thus, pp should be played as softly as possible, but if ppp is found later in the piece, pp should be markedly louder than ppp. Likewise, ff should be played as loud as possible, but if fff is found later in the piece, ff should be noticeably quieter. More than three ps (ppp) or three fs (fff) are uncommon.

  • pianissimo or pp (usually) – very gently; i.e., perform very softly, even softer than piano. This convention can be extended; the more p's that are written, the softer the composer wants the musician to play, thus ppp (pianississimo) would be softer than pp.
  • piano or p (usually) – gently; i.e., played or sung softly (see dynamics)
  • piano-vocal score – the same as a vocal score, a piano arrangement along with the vocal parts of an opera, cantata, or similar
  • piacevole – pleasant
  • piangevole – plaintive
  • più – more; see mosso for an example
  • pizzicato – pinched, plucked; i.e., in music for bowed strings, plucked with the fingers as opposed to played with the bow; compare arco (in this list), which is inserted to cancel a pizzicato instruction
  • pochettino or poch. – very little
  • poco – a little, as in poco più allegro (a little faster)
  • poco a poco – little by little
  • poco moto - a little motion
  • poi – then, indicating a subsequent instruction in a sequence; diminuendo poi subito fortissimo, for example: getting softer then suddenly very loud
  • portamento – carrying; i.e., 1. generally, sliding in pitch from one note to another (especially in singing; more often called glissando in instrumental music); or 2. in piano music, an articulation between legato and staccato, like portato, in this list
  • portato – carried; i.e., non-legato, but not as detached as staccato (same as portamento [2], in this list)
  • posato – settled
  • potpourri or pot-pourri (Fr) – potpourri (as used in other senses in English); i.e., a kind of musical form structured as ABCDEF... etc.; the same as medley or, sometimes, fantasia
  • precipitato – precipitately
  • prestissimo – extremely quickly, as fast as possible
  • presto – very quickly
  • prima volta – the first time; for example prima volta senza accompanimento (the first time without accompaniment)
  • primo or prima (the feminine form) – first

Q

  • quasi (Latin and Italian) – as if, almost

R

  • rallentando or rall. – progressively slower
  • rapido – fast
  • rasch (Ger) – fast
  • religioso – religiously
  • repente – suddenly
  • restez (Fr) – stay; i.e., remain on a note or string
  • rinforzando (rf) – reinforced; i.e., emphasized; sometimes like a sudden crescendo, but often applied to a single note
  • risoluto – resolutely
  • rit. – an abbreviation for ritardando[1][2][3][4]; also less frequently considered an abbreviation for ritenuto[5][6][7]
  • ritardando, ritard. – slowing down; decelerating; opposite of accelerando (see in this list)
  • ritenuto, riten. – held back; i.e., slower (usually more so but more temporarily than a ritardando, and it may, unlike ritardando, apply to a single note)
  • roulade (Fr) – a rolling; i.e., a florid vocal phrase
  • rubato – robbed; i.e., flexible in tempo, applied to notes within a musical phrase for expressive effect

S

  • sanft (Ger) – gently
  • scherzando – playfully
  • scherzo – a joke; i.e., a musical form, originally and usually in fast triple time, 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.
  • schnell (Ger) – fast
  • schneller (Ger) – faster
  • scordatura – out of tune; i.e., an alternative tuning used for the strings of a string instrument
  • secco – dry
  • sehr (Ger) – very
  • sempre – always
  • senza – without
  • senza sordino – without the mute
  • serioso – seriously
  • sforzando or sfz – made loud; i.e., a sudden strong accent
  • silencio – silence
  • simile – similarly; i.e., continue applying the preceding directive, whatever it was, to the following passage.
  • smorzando or smorz. – dying away, extinguishing or dampening; usually interpreted as a drop in dynamics, and very often in tempo as well
  • soave – smoothly, gently
  • solo, plural soli – alone; i.e., played by a single instrument. The instruction soli requires more than one player; in a jazz big band this refers to an entire section playing in harmony.
  • sostenuto – sustained
  • sotto voce – under voice; i.e., softly and subdued, as if speaking under one's breath
  • spiccato – distinct, separated; i.e., a way of playing the violin and other bowed instruments by bouncing the bow on the string, giving a characteristic staccato effect
  • spiritoso – spiritedly
  • staccato – an indication to play with a sharp attack, and briefly. In music notation a small dot under or over the note indicates that it is to be sounded staccato.
  • stanza – a verse of a song
  • strepitoso – noisy
  • stretto – 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
  • stringendo – tightening, narrowing; i.e., with a pressing forward or acceleration of the tempo (that is, becoming stretto, see preceding entry)
  • subito – suddenly
  • sul ponticello – on the bridge; i.e., in string playing, an indication to bow (or sometimes 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
  • sul tasto – on the fingerboard; i.e., in string playing, an indication to bow (or sometimes to pluck) over the fingerboard; the opposite of sul ponticello

T

  • tacet – silent; do not play
  • tempo – time; i.e., the overall speed of a piece of music
  • teneramente – tenderly
  • tenuto – held; i.e., touch on a note slightly longer than usual, but without generally altering the note's value
  • tranquillo – calmly, peacefully
  • tremendo – frightening
  • tremolo – shaking; i.e., a rapid repetition of the same note, or an alternation between two or more notes. It can also be intended (inaccurately) to mean a rapid and repetitive variation in pitch for the duration of a note (see vibrato). It is notated by a strong diagonal bar across the note stem, or a detached bar for a set of notes (or stemless notes).
  • tre corde or tc (or sometimes inaccurately tre corda) – three strings; i.e., release the soft pedal of the piano (see una corda)
  • troppo – too much; usually seen as non troppo, meaning moderately or, when combined with other terms, not too much, such as allegro [ma] non troppo (fast but not too fast)
  • tutti – all; i.e., 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.

U

  • un, uno, or una – one, as for example in the following entries
  • una corda – one string; i.e., in piano music, depress the soft pedal, altering, and reducing the volume of, the sound. In some pianos, this literally results in the hammer striking one string rather than two or three. (For most notes on modern instruments, in fact it results in striking two rather than three strings.) Its counterpart, tre corde (three strings; see in this list), is the opposite: the soft pedal is to be released.
  • un poco – a little
  • unisono or unis (Fr) – 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 (see in this list).

V

  • vibrato – vibrating; i.e., a more or less rapidly repeated slight alteration in the pitch of a note, used to give a richer sound and 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.
  • vittorioso – victoriously
  • vivo – lively
  • vivace – very lively, up-tempo
  • vivacissimo – very lively
  • vocal score or piano-vocal score – a music score of an opera, or a vocal or choral composition with orchestra (like oratorio or cantata) where the vocal parts are written out in full but the accompaniment is reduced to two staves and adapted for playing on piano.
  • volante – flying
  • VS (volti subito) – turn suddenly; i.e., turn the page quickly

W

  • wolno (Polish) – loose, slowly; found as a directive in The Elephant from The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns

Z

  • Zählzeit (Ger) – beat
  • zart (Ger) – tender
  • Zartheit (Ger) – tenderness
  • zärtlich (Ger) – tenderly
  • Zeichen (Ger) – sign
  • Zeitmass, also spelled Zeitmaß (Ger) – time-measure, i.e., tempo
  • zelo, zeloso, zelosamente (It.) – zeal, zealous, zealously
  • ziehen (Ger) – to draw out
  • zitternd (Ger) trembling; i.e., tremolando
  • zögernd (Ger) – doubtful, delaying; i.e., rallentando

Published: 7 January 2005

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