Glossary: Musical Terms


Acoustics – The science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound.

Action – The mechanism in a piano that connects the keys to the strings.

Arpeggio – The notes of a chord played consecutively, usually in quick succession.

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) – A prolific German composer and organist. His sacred and secular compositions for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments are considered among the greatest and most moving works of European art.

Ballad – A narrative composition in rhythmic verse suitable for singing.

Ballade – A musical composition, usually for piano, suggesting an epic poetic ballad.

Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770–1827) – A German composer of classical music, widely regarded as one of history’s supreme composers. Beethoven lived mostly in Vienna, Austria, and continued composing even after he became deaf. His works form a bridge between the classical and romantic eras in music.

Cadenza – A passage that allows a soloist to shine while the orchestra remains silent.

Chopin, Frédéric (1810–1849) – An influential composer, especially for the piano and Poland’s most famous composer. Chopin’s style emphasizes poetry, nuance, and expressiveness. He is considered one of the mainstays of romanticism in 19th-century classical music.

Chord – Three or more musical notes played simultaneously. The use of chords is the foundation for harmony.

Chromatic – A sequence of notes moving up or down by half-steps (i.e., half the distance of whole steps, such as do–re–mi.)

Classical music – Music made in the traditions of European religious and concert music, from roughly 1000 AD to the present day. This is distinct from the classical style in Western music, which rose to prominence from about 1730 to 1820, and in which bright contrasts in melody and harmony were prominent for the first time.

Con brio – A musical term meaning “with energy or spirit.”

Concerto – A musical work written for one or more solo instruments and orchestra.

Debussy, Claude (1862-1918) – A French composer who developed the style often called impressionist music (though he dismissed the term). Debussy’s compositions represent the transition from late-romantic music to 20th-century modernist music.

Debut – First public appearance by a musician.

 Ear-training – What musicians do to improve their ability to identify the sounds of different chords, intervals, rhythms, and other elements of music.

Fugue – A musical composition in which a theme is repeated by voices that enter successively and continue in a woven-together fashion.

 Grieg, Edvard (1843–1907) – A Norwegian composer and pianist who wrote during the romantic period of Western music. He is best known for his Piano Concerto in A Minor and for his lyric pieces for the piano.

 Harmony – The combination of notes to create chords, and the relationship between successive chords.

Impressionist music – A movement in music occurring from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. As an artistic movement, impressionism sought to convey the atmosphere of an event, place, or thing, rather than a realistic portrayal of the subject itself.

 Largo – A musical term meaning “at a very slow tempo.”

Liebestraum – A German word meaning “dream of love.” Franz Liszt wrote three nocturnes for piano that he called Liebestraűme, or “Dreams of Love.”

Liszt, Franz (1811–1886) – A Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer of some of the most technically challenging piano compositions ever written.

Lyricism – Music that expresses direct personal emotion, especially in the manner of a song. An example is the gentle, melodic section of the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Metronome – An instrument designed to mark exact time by a regularly repeated tick.

 Nocturne – A piano composition that expresses a pensive, dreamy mood. The word is related to “nocturnal,” meaning night. 

 Octave – A musical interval separated by the seven notes of the musical scale. The human ear tends to hear two notes separated by an octave as “the same,” even though one is higher (by exactly double the frequency) than the other.

Opus (Op.) – A musical work. Individual works in some composers’ output are assigned “opus numbers,” such as Op. 9. These numbers roughly reflect the order in which pieces were composed.

Partita – A combination of several musical pieces, played in a single sitting (sometimes called a suite).

 Prelude – A section of a musical work introducing the theme or main subject, or a separate concert piece for piano or orchestra based entirely on a short motif.

Presto con fuoco – An Italian musical term meaning “very fast, with fire.”

Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873–1943) – A Russian-American composer, pianist, and conductor. He was one of the great pianists of his generation, having legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive.

Reprise – In music, the repetition or return of a theme.

Romantic music – The period of European classical music running from the early 1800’s to the first decade of the 20th century. The romantic tradition in the arts held that there are inescapable realities in the world that can only be reached through emotion, feeling, and intuition. Romantic music stressed these elements.

 Saint-Saëns, Camille (1835–1921) – A French composer and performer whose long life spanned almost the entire romantic period of music.

Scale – A series of single notes progressing up or down stepwise.

Scherzo – A usually light-hearted section or movement of a longer musical piece such as a symphony. The word means "joke" in Italian. 

Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915) – A prominent Russian composer and pianist.

Solfeggio (solfège) – A system that assigns syllables to the steps of the musical scale, useful in singing and ear-training. In order, the syllables are Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, and Do (for the octave).

Sonata – An instrumental musical composition typically of three or four movements in contrasting forms and keys. A sonata is usually written for solo piano or for a solo instrument with piano accompaniment.

Steinway – A leading maker of pianos. The “D” model is a full-length grand piano for use in concert halls. Steinway Artists are outstanding pianists who choose to perform exclusively on Steinway pianos.

Tempo ? The rate of speed of a musical piece or passage. Tempo is indicated by such directions as largo (slow), presto (quick), or allegro (merry), and sometimes by exact metronome markings.

Theory ? An area of musical study concerned with the elements of music and methods for analyzing and composing music. Timpani ? Large percussion instruments, often called ?kettle drums,? that can dramatically punctuate orchestral arrangements with a low, loud rumble akin to thunder. They consist of a skin (or ?head?) stretched over large bowls, commonly made of copper.

Triads ? Three-note chords consisting of the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale.

Trill ? Rapid alternation between notes that are a half-step or whole-step apart.

Vinyl – A type of record, popular from the 1950s to the 1990s, most commonly used for mass-produced recordings of music.

Wigmore Hall – A concert hall specializing in classical music, on Wigmore Street in London, England.