Musical Terms, Definitions, and Meanings

Updated on May 10, 2020
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To give a meaningful musical performance, artists must learn and incorporate certain terms shown in the music. This awakens the imagination.

Musicians Must Learn Musicianship, Musical Terms and Definitions

Author. teaching music theory and musical terms to music major students.
Author. teaching music theory and musical terms to music major students. | Source

Music's Road Map and Signals Are Musical Terms

Music plays a center role in the lives of many people. The more knowledge we gain about how music works, the more we can appreciate it and enjoy all types of music.

To help you evolve to a better understanding of musicianship, as well as increase your emotional response to the music itself, I've listed a few of the most used musical terms and definitions. For those of you who play an instrument, these musical terms are your instruments language.

Common Terms, Definitions, and Meanings Found in Music

  • Half Step. The distance between adjacent piano keys, either black or white, going up or down.
  • Whole Step. Two half steps or from one key to another with one key, white or black, in between.
  • Sequence. A successive transposition and repetition of a phrase at different pitches.
  • Tune A melody.
  • Una Corda. The muting (or damping) mechanism on a piano.
  • Jig. A lively English dance, originating in the 16th century; it became the gigue.
  • Jazz. A strongly influential musical form, emerging shortly after World War 1 from black communities in America, incorporating many styles, including blues and ragtime. Taken up by commercial musicians, it was disseminated into the wider musical culture.

Originally highly improvisational in character and played only on a small group of instruments, it developed into several forms, such as swing and bebop, and became popular as a form for big band ensembles.

It was a huge influence on the composers of the interwar period, many of whom wrote in a jazz idiom. Similarly, many musicians whose origins were in jazz produced works that have proved lasting in the context of art music, most notably George Gershwin.

  • Acapella. Without instrumental accompaniment.
  • Allegro. Lively, fast, cheerful or brisk.
  • Appassionato. Passionately.
  • Binary. A musical form in two sections. AB.
  • Canto. Chorus, Choral or Chant.
  • Contralto. Lowest singing female voice.
  • Augment. To make larger, to increase in size. In music an augmented 5th would be to raise the 5th tone a half-step higher.

As the musician and student become familiar with musical terms the confidence rises to a new level and the music takes on a new, sometimes passionate, feeling for both the musician and the audience.

The Conductor Is the Father of Musical Expression

Heinrich Bender, conductor.
Heinrich Bender, conductor. | Source

Basic Sounds And Silence Are The Raw Materials of Music

Sounds and silence are the basic raw materials of music It soothes, excites, calms, moves, motivates, speaks, refines, describes, stirs, celebrates, heals, connects, expresses, reaches and satisfies. The soul of music is released through the expressive interpretation of notes, patterns, and rhythm. Music is both complex and simple at the same time. Music is the master and musicians are its slaves.

The serious musician must read notation flawlessly, live within the rhythm and heartbeat of its pulsing meter. Musical interpretation is left to he who creates it. The conductor is the “Father” of musical expression and signals musicians in the orchestra to play together, loud, soft, slow, fast, start and stop. Every single musician and vocalist must know not only how to play every note flawlessly but follow the conductor with expression.

How boring music would be without emotion. Music sets up anticipations and then satisfies them. Musicians breathe feelings into a piece by introducing minute deviations in timing and loudness. Every deviation from an anticipation tends to weaken subsequent anticipation and thereby undercut the impact of further deviations. A momentary shift in tempo brings a tinge of emotion.

All emotions are either negative or positive. Negative emotions arise when experience falls short of anticipation. But we experience a feeling of well-being when small positive emotional events occur continuously, and we become depressed or irritable when a train of small negative events occur. So we can see how music generates emotion.

Sounds and silence are the basic raw materials of music It soothes, excites, calms, moves, motivates, speaks, refines, describes, stirs, celebrates, heals, connects, expresses, reaches and satisfies. The soul of music is released through the expressive interpretation of notes, patterns, and rhythm. Music is both complex and simple at the same time. Music is the master and musicians are its slaves.

The F Clef Also Known as the Bass Clef

The F Clef (bass clef) includes 2 dots, one above the line of F and one below the F line.  In piano music this F is located  by placing finger 1 left hand on middle c, b, with finger 2, a, with finger 3, g with finger 4, and f with finger 5.
The F Clef (bass clef) includes 2 dots, one above the line of F and one below the F line. In piano music this F is located by placing finger 1 left hand on middle c, b, with finger 2, a, with finger 3, g with finger 4, and f with finger 5. | Source

More Definitions for Standard Musical Terms for All Music Lovers

  • Downbeat—the beat with the strongest accent, at the beginning of a bar.
  • Dynamicsthe loudness or softness of music, indicated by a system of gradations; from softest to loudest, these are pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff. The extremes have been extended in both directions.
  • Espressivoexpressively.
  • Sopranothe highest female voice.
  • Staccatoabbreviated and detached notes.
  • Timbrethe tone "color" of an instrument, voice or register.
  • Key Signaturethe sharps or flats at the beginning of each line of music to indicate the key of the music.
  • Moderatomoderate tempo.
  • Movementa separate section of a large work.
  • Musicologythe theoretical and historical study of music
  • Middle Cthe C more or less at the center of the piano keyboard (about 262 vibrations per second).
  • Riffa repeating motif or refrain in a modern pop song or jazz piece.
  • Monotonethe repetition of a single pitch.
  • Chantunison of singing of sacred texts in a free rhythm similar to the rhythm of speech.
  • Crescendoa steady increase in volume.
  • Whole Tone Scale—a scale where each note is separated by the interval of a whole tone. The whole-tone scale comprises six degrees per octave. A prominent example of the whole tone scale that made its way into pop music are bars three and four of the opening of Stevie Wonder's 1972 song "You Are The Sunshine In My Life."
  • Major and Minor—The real difference between a minor and a major chord is the third (just to remind, a basic chord is tonic + third + fifth). Minor and major thirds are just a half step away from each other, but this tiny little difference dramatically changes the emotional quality of a given song part. It is common to hear something like this:

    “The minor third makes the chord more sad. On the other hand, the major third makes it happier”.

  • MF—Mezzo Forte. This italian term means medium loud.

G Clef or Treble Clef

The G Clef crosses the G line 4 times.
The G Clef crosses the G line 4 times. | Source

Common Musical Terms

Whether it's a petty insult or a profound insight if it's about music you may want to know all you can when it comes to understanding musical terms.

  • Accent--An emphasis or slight punch at the beginning of a musical sound.
  • Fanfare--A musical work used as an announcement often played by the brass section in an orchestra.
  • Harmony--The simultaneous combination of pitches, especially when blended into chords that are pleasing to the ear.
  • Key--A group of pitches based on a particular tonic, and comprising a scale, regarded as forming the tonal basis of a piece or section of music.
  • Theme--The most important melody at any specific time in a musical work. There can be one main theme in a work or many themes.
  • AB form--A musical plan that has two different parts or sections.
  • Accompaniment--A vocal or instrument part that supports or is the background for a solo.
  • Al fine--To the end.
  • Alto--Lowest of the female voices.
  • Augmented--The term for a major or perfect interval which has been enlarged by one half-step, e.g. c-g, (an augmented fifth,) or c-d, (an augmented second). Also used for a triad with an augmented fifth, e.g. the augmented tonic triad in C major, C+, c-e-g.
  • Bridge--A section of a song that connects other sections.
  • Canon-- The strictest form of imitation, in which two or more parts have the same melody but start at different points. Canons are constructed from a single theme and a deceptively simple set of rules. The form, in the hands of a master like J.S. Bach, is a model of logical as well as musical beauty.

“Don’t give notes. Give the meaning of the notes.”

–Pablo Casals, cellist

Why Learn Musical Theory?

As a piano instructor, I find that students who learn musical theory benefit in the following ways:

  • Hastens the learning process. An example would be in learning scales in different keys. The student will recognize a particular scale in the body of the music. Because he has practiced the scale, he plays it fluently immediately, therefore saving hours of practice.
  • Learning intervals. With a good knowledge of intervals, the student becomes a good sight-reader.
  • A knowledge of music theory is essential for getting better-paying gigs.
  • Knowing theory boosts confidence.
  • The creative process is set free for improvising and interpretation.
  • All well-trained musicians excel in knowing theory.
  • Group playing demands a knowledge of musicianship.
  • Understanding how music works are the foundation for all instrumentalists.

Playing Music Using Different Instruments

Musical terms keep instrumentalists on the same page.
Musical terms keep instrumentalists on the same page. | Source

Final Thoughts

Every musician including the vocalist has a personal responsibility to follow suggested musical terms as they perform. The composer has noted on the music, the tempo, dynamics and expressive interpretation for a reason. He wrote the music and added musical terms (directions) to help others interpret the composition.

Keep learning musical terms and definitions. Once you find the meaning of a musical term, apply it to your playing. As you incorporate this habit, you'll be performing your masterpiece the way the composer intended as well as bringing an emotional and gratifying experience to your listener.

Can you imagine a full symphony orchestra all playing Beethoven at a very soft dynamic, except for one French horn, playing as loud as thunder?

Of course, he should be watching the conductor as he directs the orchestra to play loud or soft - fast or slow. One major reason for orchestral rehearsals is to make sure every musician is following the written dynamics and musical terms given in the music.

Artists final and most important responsibility is to interpret and create, thereby bringing life to the music itself.

Music itself is another languagebut its language is universal.

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

Plato

Questions & Answers

  • What is moderato?

    The musical term, Moderato" refers to a pace in musical rhythm. Think of a walking tempo, not too fast or too slow.

  • What is the term for something played in a flexible tempo?

    A flexible tempo is described as rubato which means "robbing time" in music or playing with expressive and rhythmic freedom, It was born and used during the Romantic period by Chopin, Schumann, and other composers.

  • How do you write an emotional song?

    Most country songs are based on emotion. Listen to the lyrics and how they tell a story. We all have stories in our memory bank. Draw upon these, especially the sad ones. Once you have your lyrics, add a simple melody. You may even find that the melody comes to you as you work on the lyrics.

    Your own experiences make the best songs. Write about your feelings. Feelings are emotional and powerful. Writing takes practice and lots of it. The "bridge" is usually the part of the song that people remember the most so write a strong bridge or chorus.

  • What is the music term describing getting softer?

    The correct term is decrescendo or diminuendo.

  • What does "oynamis" mean?

    It means to hop, bounce or leap.

© 2011 Audrey Hunt

Comments

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    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      5 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Thank you, Abigail. Im happy to know my article is helpful. It's important to understand the meaning of musical terms, especially for singers and anyone that plays an instrument.

    • profile image

      Abigail 

      5 months ago

      The lesson is really beneficial

      What is swap

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      16 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Samuel,

      Thank you so much for reading my article about musical terms and meanings. Your comments are positive and wonderful to hear!

      Audrey

    • profile image

      Samuel Efretuei 

      16 months ago

      Very beneficial and I've gain alot

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      16 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Leo Borquaye

      Thank you for reading my hub and taking the time to leave a comment. I wrote this article to help others understand the meaning of musical terms. You have confirmed that my goal has been met. I'm glad you have found this hub helpful and that you have benefited.

      Audrey Hunt

    • profile image

      Leo Borquaye 

      16 months ago

      much helpful

      i have benefited alot

    • profile image

      Bill 

      2 years ago

      In the definition of “whole tone scales”...R???

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Katie - Hello, you beautiful lady. You are giving your girls one of lifes most precious and lasting gifts - music. How blessed they are to have you for their mother. Not just for the music you give them, but for who you are. Nature's Best!!! That is you! Lovely Katie :)

    • katiem2 profile image

      Katie McMurray 

      9 years ago from Westerville

      This is very helpful as my girls advance in the world of music and instruments terms and definitions plus the meanings of musical terms is very useful. Thank you for the very thoughtful and careful guide. :) Katie

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      fibo777 - I love being educated...I continually read and study to feed my mind. Sure do appreciated your comments.

      Now, I am off to see what I can learn from fibo777!

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Hello, hello - You are a music lover and that is just wonderful! Musical terms and definitions can help us all to not only better understand music, but to also gain an awareness and appreciation for musicians, conductors etc.

      Thank you dear friend...

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      AskAshley - well, I think you are "one of the greats" and really do appreciate your reading and commenting on my hubs. Thank you, my new friend. I will see you soon. :)

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Mentalist acer - Talk about being creative with the spoken word - you are the expert! Love, love, love your comments.

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Micky - It means everything to me to be a good and helpful teacher. So you very nice comment and thank you is most welcome and appreciated. Love you, Micky!

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Daniel - I think a found a tear or two distracting my eyes from these amazing words. And I know that you mean every word you write. How blessed I am to have found you on HP. I just left one of your hubs and my goodness - you are one creative writer! Listen up, hubpals, be sure to visit Daniel Carters hubs. Thank you again!

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      9 years ago

      Thank you for this and Herbie Hancock. Thank you for teaching as you do. God bless!

    • fibo777 profile image

      fibo777 

      9 years ago from UK

      Got some nice free education from the hub. Thank you. I know where to go if I need to find what some music term means. Useful hub!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 

      9 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      Obviously a gifted teacher and a find writer. Glad that many people will benefit from your experience and insights. Definitely referring friends and music students to your hubs. Thank you!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Thank yo, vocalcoach, for much pleasure. You are such a wonderful writer and capable to explain these musical terms in a easy understandable way. I love music, especially classical, but not having had high school, I never was taught any of this. It wasa plasure to read.

    • AskAshlie3433 profile image

      AskAshlie3433 

      9 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

      Voted awesome! It is nice to hear the greats! Thanks for the chance.

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      drbj - Would you believe that I am also listening to the same "Rhapsody in Blue" as I sit here typing? I am thrilled that you are enjoying this video. Thank you dear friend, for your constant support. You are a blessing to me!

    • vocalcoach profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Reggie - You ask a frightening question...I can tell you that just from my personal experience with hundreds, even thousands of today's most popular artists, less than roughly 3-5% can read music. (Percentage may be even greater.) Thanks Reggie, for reading and commenting on my hub. Have a beautiful day!

    • ReggieD06 profile image

      ReggieD06 

      9 years ago

      Vocalcoach,

      Thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge on the "science" of music. The majority of us can certainly relate to the emotional character of music, but not many of us understand how truly technical music is. I wonder what percentage of today's most popular artists lack the ability to read music.

      Thank you again for the lesson, Vocalcoach. This hub was very informative. Take care.

      Reggie D.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      Thank you, Audrey, for taking the time to make us all more educated in relation to musical terms, etc.

      But most of all, thank you for including the amazing "Rhapsody in Blue," which I am playing as I type. George is one of my favorite composers.

      PS - you're one of my favorites, too! :)

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      9 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      This Hub was a 4/4 Crescendo in 1/2 excitement,vocalcoach.;)

    working

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