If you’re like me, from time to time you may have to look up an occasional musical term; thus, with the help of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, and other such reference works, I’ve compiled this little guide to some of the most commonly used classical music expressions you might run across, alphabetically arranged.
If you need to refer to the glossary again, you’ll find it in the left-hand column of every page.
A cappella: Without orchestral accompaniment.
A piacere: An indication for a performer to play according to his own pleasure, especially in regard to tempo and rubato.
Abbellimenti: Embellishments; ornamentation.
Absolute music: Music free of extramusical associations, usually thought of as the opposite of “program music,” where the music describes something, a scene or a poem. People sometimes call absolute music “abstract music.”
Accelerando or accelerato: Faster, or becoming faster.
Accent: An emphasis on one pitch or chord; a stress or emphasis given to certain notes.
Accompaniment: The musical background for a principal part.
Adagietto: A tempo a bit faster than adagio. Also, a brief composition in a slow tempo.
Adagio: Slow, somewhere between andante and largo. Also, a brief composition in a slow tempo, especially the second, slow movement of a sonata, symphony, etc.
Affabile: Gentle; pleasing.
Affettuoso: Affectionate; tender.
Air: A song, tune, or aria in general. Also, in Baroque suites and later, a movement of a melodic rather than dancelike character.
Alla: In the manner of.
Alla breve: A tempo mark indicating quick duple time.
Allargando: Slowing down, becoming broader, usually with a corresponding crescendo.
Allegretto: Moderately fast but not so fast as allegro. Also, a short piece in fast tempo.
Allegro: Fast. Also, a composition in fast tempo, especially the first or last movement of a sonata or symphony.
Allemande: A dance in moderate duple time, first appearing in the 16th century.
Allentando: Slowing down.
Alto: A female voice of low range; sometimes called contralto; also, the second-highest part of a four-part chorus and, applied to the clarinet, flute, saxophone, etc., the second or third-highest member of the family.
Amabile: Amiable; with love.
Amore or Amorevole: With love.
Andante: A moderate or “walking” tempo, between allegretto and adagio.
Andantino: A short piece of andante tempo or character; sometimes, also, a tempo very slightly quicker than andante.
Animo: Spirited; sometimes written as “con animo” or “animoso.”
Appoggiatura: An ornamental or embellishing note, usually melodically connected with the main note that follows it and taking a portion of its time.
Ardore, con: With ardor.
Aria: A composition for solo voice; also, a short instrumental piece of songlike character.
Arpeggio: The notes of a chord played one after another instead of simultaneously.
Articulation: The characteristics of attack and decay of single tones or groups or tones.
Assai: Much, as in “allegro assai” or quite fast.
Atonality: The absence of tonality; the absence of key or tonal center.
Attack: The characteristics of the beginnings of a sound.
Bagatelle: A short, light piece, usually for piano.
Barcarole: A boating song of Venetian gondoliers or any song in imitation of the style.
Baritone: The male voice between bass and tenor; also, when applied to instruments (oboe, horn, saxophone), any size above the bass.
Baroque: In music history, the period from approximately 1600 to 1750. In personal history, the period following a visit to Harrah’s Tahoe Casino.
Bass: The lowest of men’s voices; also, as applied to instruments, the lowest and usually largest of any family.
Battaglia: It., battle. A composition that features, drum rolls, fanfares, and the general commotion of battle.
Batterie: The percussion group of an orchestra.
Bel canto: It., beautiful singing. The Italian vocal technique of emphasizing beauty of sound and brilliance of performance over dramatic or romantic expression.
Bitonality: The simultaneous use of two (sometimes more) different keys in different parts of a composition.
Bourdon: Usually, a low note of long duration, like a drone or pedal point.
Bourrée: A 17th-century French dance.
Breve, brevis: Short. A note value that is brief.
Brio, con; brioso: With spirit, vigor, or vivacity.
Cantata: A composite vocal form consisting of a number of movements based on a continuous text.
Cantabile: Singable; songlike and flowing in style.
Capriccio: A humorous or capricious piece of music.
Chanson: Song, for one or more voices.
Chant: A general term for liturgical music similar to plainsong. More specifically, the liturgical music of the Christian churches.
Chorale: A hymn tune of the German Protestant Church. Also, a choir.
Chord: A combination of three or more tones sounded simultaneously, two simultaneous tones usually being designated as an interval.
Chromatic: The scale that includes all of the twelve pitches contained in an octave.
Classical: All art music as opposed to popular music. Also, the period of music from about 1770-1830.
Clavier: French term for keyboard.
Coda: A concluding section or passage, more or less independent of the basic structure of a composition, usually to indicate closure or finality.
Concerto: A composition for orchestra and solo instrument or small group of instruments.
Concerto grosso: An important type of Baroque concerto, characterized by a small group of solo instruments against a full orchestra.
Consonance, dissonance: Subjectively, combinations of pitches that are pleasing or displeasing.
Continuo: From Baroque scores on, the bass part, usually performed by the harpsichord or organ together with a viola da gamba or cello.
Contralto: The lowest female voice; usually, the same as the alto voice.
Counterpoint: Music consisting of two or more melodic lines that sound simultaneously.
Crescendo, decrescendo: Terms for the increasing or decreasing of loudness.
Cyclic: Compositions in which related thematic material is used in all or some of the movements.
Diminution: The repetition or imitation of a subject or theme in notes of shorter duration than those first used.
Dirge: A vocal or instrumental composition written for performance at a funeral.
Divertimento: An instrumental composition in several movements, light and diverting in character, similar to a serenade.
Dynamics: The aspect of music related to degrees of loudness.
Elegy: A piece of music with a mournful quality; a lament.
Embellishment: Ornamentation; auxiliary tone.
Ensemble: A group of musicians performing together.
Entr’acte: A usually instrumental piece performed between acts of an opera or play.
Epilogue: A coda or concluding part.
Espressivo: Expressive, expressively.
Etude: A musical composition, usually instrumental, intended mainly for the practice of some point or technique, sometimes designed purely for study, sometimes also for public performance.
Exposition: In sonata form, the first section containing the statement of themes. In a fugue, the first as well subsequent sections containing the imitative presentation of the theme.
Expressionism: The use of distortion, exaggeration, symbolism, and abstraction as means of emphasizing and conveying a composer’s subjective ideas to a listener.
Falsetto: The male voice above its normal range.
Fanfare: A short tune, a flourish, for trumpets and the like.
Fantasy: Fantasia; a composition of fanciful or irregular form or style.
Finale: The last movement of a musical composition or performance.
Flauto: Flute, although up until the middle of the 18th century, it used to mean recorder.
Flourish: A trumpet call or fanfare; a showy or decorative passage.
Fortissimo: Very loud.
Fugue: A polyphonic composition based upon one or more themes enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end.
Gigue: In Baroque suites, one of the four standard dance movements, often the final one; evolved from the Irish or English jig.
Giusto: Just, right; fitting tempo or strict tempo.
Glee: An 18th-century form of English choral music, unaccompanied, in three or more parts.
Gregorian chant: The liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church, named after Pope Gregory I (Pope from 590 to 604), whom tradition says first formulated the repertory.
Gross: Large, great.
Ground, ground bass: A short melodic phrase repeated again and again as a bass line, with varying music for the upper parts.
Harmony: The characteristic of music consisting of simultaneously sounded pitches or tones as opposed to simultaneously sounded melodies or lines.
Hymn: A song of praise, usually to a god or hero.
Idee fixe: Hector Berlioz’s name for the principal subject of his Symphonie fantastique; a “fixed idea” recurring in all movements of a musical work.
Impressionism: A term borrowed from painting in which there is a concern for light and its perception rather than the symbolic, literary, or emotive value of the thing perceived; thus, there is an avoidance of traditional musical forms. A composition suggesting lush harmonies, subtle rhythms, and unusual tonal colors to evoke moods and impressions.
Impromptu: Character pieces marked by an offhand or extemporized style.
Improvisation, extemporization: The art of creating music spontaneously in performance.
Incidental music: Music used in connection with a play.
Interlude: Music played between sections of a composition or dramatic work.
Intermezzo: A light theatrical entertainment introduced between the acts of a play or opera.
Interval: The distance (in terms of pitch) between two pitches.
Kapellmeister: Originally an honorable title (chapel master) for the conductor of a small or private orchestra, band, or chorus; now an old-fashioned provincialism for conductor.
Key: In a tonal composition, the main pitch or tonal center to which all of the composition's pitches are related.
Key signature: The sharps or flats appearing at the beginning of each staff to indicate the key of the composition.
Lament: Compositions commemorating the death of a famous person; a song used at funerals or mournful occasions.
Landler: An Austrian dance in triple meter, very much like a slow waltz; it was popular in the early 19th century before the waltz came into vogue.
Larghetto: Somewhat slow; the diminutive of “largo” and, therefore, slightly faster.
Largo: A very slow tempo.
Lauda: Hymns of praise or devotion in Italian.
Legato: Played with no interruption between notes.
Leitmotiv or Leitmotif: Leading motif. Coined by Wagner to designate certain motifs used in association with certain characters, ideas, or situations in his music.
Libretto: The text of an opera or oratorio.
Lied, Lieder: Song, songs.
Litany: A series of solemn supplications addressed to God or the Saints.
Liturgy: The authorized service of a Christian church.
Lunga, lungo: Long or long rest.
Madrigal: The name for several different types of Italian vocal music.
Maestoso: With majesty; stately.
Maestro: Master; an honorary title for a distinguished teacher, composer, or conductor.
Magnum opus: A great work, esp. the chief work of a writer or artist.
Mass: The most solemn service of the Roman Catholic church; a musical setting of certain parts of this service.
Measure: A group of beats or pulses marked off in musical notation by bar lines.
Melody: Musical sounds in agreeable succession or arrangement. The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.
Meter: The rhythmic element as measured by division into parts of equal time value.
Metronome: An apparatus that sounds regular beats at adjustable speeds, used to indicate an exact tempo.
Mezzo, mezza: Half loud, moderately forte.
Minuet: A French country dance introduced at the court of Louis XIV around 1650.
Moderato: In moderate speed, i.e., between andante and allegro.
Modulation: Change of key within a composition.
Motet: An important form of polyphonic music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, usually an unaccompanied choral composition based on a Latin sacred text.
Motif, motive: A short, generally fragmentary rhythmic figure that recurs throughout a composition.
Moto: Motion; usually used to indicate a tempo somewhat faster than indicated.
Movement: An independent division of a musical composition.
Neoclassicism: A 19th-century trend in music characterized by features of 17th and 18th-century music.
Nocturne: A piece of music appropriate to the night or evening, usually a romantic character piece for piano, with an expressive, dreamy, or pensive melody.
Non troppo: Not too fast.
Notturno: A nocturne. Also, a term for a variety of multi-movement works, intended for performance in the evening.
Obbligato: Obligatory, in regard to an instrument or part that must not be omitted.
Opera buffa: Comic opera.
Oratorio: An extended musical composition with a text more or less dramatic in character and usually based upon a religious theme, for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, and performed without action, costume, or scenery.
Ornamentation: The practice of embellishing musical works through additions to or variations of their essential rhythm, melody, or harmony.
Ostinato: A constantly recurring melodic fragment.
Overture: An instrumental introduction to an opera, oratorio, or such work.
Paean: A song of praise.
Partita: An instrumental suite common chiefly in the 18th century; also, a set of variations.
Piano, pianissimo: Very soft. Sometimes ppp and pppp can indicate further degrees of softness.
Pitch: The perceived highness or lowness of a sound.
Pizzicato: Played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using the bow, as on a violin.
Pizzicato: Played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using the bow, as on a violin.
Poco, un poco: Little; a little or somewhat little.
Polka: A lively dance of Bohemian origin, with music in duple meter.
Polonaise: A slow, stately, festive dance of Polish origin, in triple meter, consisting chiefly of a march or promenade.
Prelude: Originally, a piece of music intended to be played as an introduction; later, a relatively short, independent instrumental composition, free in form and resembling an improvisation.
Presto: Very fast; and prestissimo, the greatest possible speed.
Presto: Very fast; and prestissimo, the greatest possible speed.
Program music: Music inspired by a program, for instance a nonmusical idea, which is usually indicated in the title and sometimes described in explanatory remarks or preface. Thus, program music is the opposite of absolute music.
Psalm: A sacred song or poem.
Recitative: A style of vocal music intermediate between speaking and singing. It is used particularly in opera, where it serves to carry the action from one aria to the next.
Renaissance music: Music of the period from about 1450-1600.
Resonance: The transmission of vibrations from one vibrating body to another; the prolongation of sound by reflection; reverberation.
Retrograde: Backward, i.e., beginning with the last note and ending with the first.
Rhapsody: An instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation; an ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm; an epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.
Rhythm: The pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats.
Ritardando: Gradually slowing in speed.
Rococo: A musical style of the middle 18th century, marked by a generally superficial elegance and charm and by the use of elaborate ornamentation and stereotyped devices.
Romance, Romanze: Slightly different meanings in different countries, but generally short, lyrical songs, usually with romantic, historical, or legendary subjects.
Romantic, Romanticism: An important movement in literature and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries, essentially a reaction against the intellectual formalism of the Classical tradition, characterized by a call for return to simplicity and naturalism, subordinating form to content, encouraging freedom of treatment, emphasizing imagination, emotion, and introspection, and often celebrating nature, the ordinary person, and freedom of the spirit.
Rondo, rondo form: A work or movement, often the last movement of a sonata, having one principal subject that is stated at least three times in the same key and to which return is made after the introduction of each subordinate theme.
Rubato: An elastic, flexible tempo, allowing slight accelerandos and ritardandos according to the needs of musical expression.
Saraband: A 17th and 18th-century dance in slow triple meter and dignified style.
Scherzo: A movement, usually the third, of sonatas, symphonies, and quartets (rarely concertos) that Beethoven first used to replace the minuet. The scherzo is generally characterized by a quick tempo, vigorous rhythm, and elements of surprise.
Segue: An indication to the performer to proceed to the following movement or section without a break or to continue in the same manner.
Sempre: Always; as in “sempre legato,” legato throughout.
Serenade: Originally, a vocal or instrumental piece performed outdoors in the evening. Today, it usually applies to lighter multi-movement works for winds or scorings intended for orchestral performance.
Sinfonia: (1) Symphony. (2) In the Baroque period a name for orchestral pieces of Italian origin, designed to serve as an introduction to an opera or operatic scene, an orchestral suite, or a cantata.
Sinfonietta: A small symphony, usually scored for a small orchestra.
Sonata: A composition of usually three or four movements for solo instrument, often with piano accompaniment. The normal scheme for the movements is allegro, adagio, scherzo (or minuet), and allegro. A slow introduction sometimes precedes the opening allegro.
Soprano: The uppermost part or voice; the highest singing voice in women and boys; a part for such a voice; a singer with such a voice.
Sostenuto, sostenedo: Sustaining the tone to or beyond nominal value and thus sometimes with the implication of slackening the tempo.
Spirito, spiritoso: Spirited.
Suite: An ordered series of instrumental dances, in the same or related keys, often preceded by a prelude. More commonly, an ordered series of instrumental movements of any character.
Symphonia: Usually, the name for various types of early orchestral music that eventually led to the modern symphony.
Symphonic poem: A type of 19th-century and later orchestral music based on an extramusical idea, either poetic or realistic. Also called a tone poem, a form of program music.
Symphony: A composition for symphony orchestra in the form of a sonata.
Tempo: The speed of a composition or section of a composition as indicated by tempo marks or by the indications of a metronome.
Tenor: the adult male voice intermediate between the bass and the alto or countertenor; a part sung by or written for such a voice, esp. the next to the lowest part in four-part harmony; a singer with such a voice.
Theme: A musical idea that is the point of departure for a composition.
Timbre: Tone color.
Time: Used variously to indicate meter, tempo, or the duration of a given note.
Toccata: A keyboard (organ, harpsichord) composition in free, idiomatic keyboard style. From about 1600 the name was also used for a festive brass fanfare.
Tonality: A system of organizing pitch in which a single pitch (or tone, called the tonic) is made central. A composition organized in this way is said to be in the key of whatever pitch serves as the tonic.
Tone: A musical sound of definite pitch; also, the character or quality of a sound.
Tone color: The quality (“color”) of a pitch as produced on a specific instrument.
Transition: Commonly, a passage (bridge) that leads from one main section to another.
Transposing instruments: Instruments for which music is written in a key or octave other than that of their actual sound.
Tremolo: Usually, a tremulous or vibrating effect produced on certain instruments and in the human voice, as to express emotion.
Trill: A musical ornament consisting of the rapid alternation of a given pitch with the diatonic second above it; to sing or play with a vibratory or quavering effect.
Triplet: A group of three notes to be performed in place of two of the same kind.
Troubadour: Any of a number of 12th and 13th-century poet-musicians of southern France; trouveres were the northern France equivalents of the troubadours.
Tune: A melody or air.
Tuning: Adjusting an instrument to its proper pitch.
Tutti: Italian, “all.” In orchestral works, an indication for the whole orchestra to play a passage.
Variation: The modification or transformation of a musical idea in a way that retains one or more essential features of the original.
Verismo: The use of everyday life and actions in artistic works; introduced into opera in the early 1900’s in reaction to contemporary, idealistic conventions, which were seen as artificial and untruthful.
Vibrato: A pulsating effect, produced in singing by the rapid reiteration of emphasis on a tone, and on bowed instruments by a rapid change of pitch corresponding to the vocal tremolo.
Virtuoso: A person who excels in musical technique or execution.
Vivace: Quick; lively.
Vivacissimo: Very quick.
Vox: Voice, sound, tone color; voice-part; note, pitch.
Waltz: A dance in moderate triple time that originated in the late 18th century as an outgrowth of the Landler.
Word painting: The illustration through music of the ideas presented or suggested by the words of a song or other vocal piece.
Zusammen: Together, e.g., after a passage in which an instrumental group has been divided.