Musical Terms, Definitions and Meanings

Updated on January 26, 2017
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Respected vocal coach and professional singer, Audrey Hunt lays it on the line when it comes to the responsibility of singing.

The Conductor Is the Father of Musical Expression

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


Music soothes, excites, calms, moves, motivates, speaks, refines, describes, stirs, celebrates, heals, connects, expresses, reaches and satisfies. The soul of music is released through 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 musician must read notation flawlessly, live within the rhythm and heart beat 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 the 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.

Composer George Gershwin

George Gershwin, composer, 1937.
George Gershwin, composer, 1937. | Source

Common Terms, Definitions, and Meanings

  • 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.

7 Important Music Definitions to Know

I hope you enjoyed the video. There are hundreds of versions of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue—this piano duet with the orchestra is just one of my personal favorites.

  • Intonation—singing or playing in tune.
  • Coda—the closing section of a movement
  • Accidental—a sign—a sharp, flat, or natural—indicating the raising or lowering of a note.
  • Seranade—a somewhat lighthearted piece, either a song or an instrumental work in several movements, such as those by Mozart, Brahms, or Schoenberg.
  • Whole-tone scale—a six-note mode that consists only of whole-tone steps (for example, C, D, R, F sharp, G sharp, A sharp, instead of the combination of whole tones and semitones in other modes.
  • Voice—one of two or more parts in polyphonic music.
  • Major—one of the two modes of the tonal system; the other is the minor mode. The sequence of degrees in the major scale is always as follows: whole tone, whole tone, semitone, whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, semitone. Works written in major keys are often felt by listeners to have a positive, affirming character.

Playing Music Using Different Instruments

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

The Time Signature in Music

Time signature - The two numbers that indicate the number of beats per measure of a piece of music, given at the beginning of the first staff or system of staves, and whenever the number of beats changes.
Time signature - The two numbers that indicate the number of beats per measure of a piece of music, given at the beginning of the first staff or system of staves, and whenever the number of beats changes. | Source

Definitions for 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.

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.

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.

Music itself is another languagebut its language is universal.

© 2011 Audrey Hunt


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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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

      katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

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

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 6 years ago

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

    • fibo777 profile image

      fibo777 6 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 6 years ago from Western US

      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, 6 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 6 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

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

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      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 6 years ago


      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 6 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 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

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

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