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Musical Terms, Definitions, and Meanings

To give a meaningful musical performance, artists must incorporate specific terms shown in the music which awakens the imagination.

Author. teaching music theory and musical terms to students.

Author. teaching music theory and musical terms to students.

Studying the Language of Music

Music plays a central 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 music types. Musicians perform better after interpreting musical terms.

To help you evolve to a better understanding of musicianship, as well as increasing 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 the language of your instrument.

Half steps pictured on the piano.

Half steps pictured on the piano.

Common Musical Phrases

  • 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 known as 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.
  • A Capella: Without instrumental accompaniment.
  • Allegro: Lively, fast, cheerful or brisk.
  • Appassionato: Passionately, deeply emotional.
  • 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, confidence rises to a new level and the music takes on a new, sometimes passionate, feeling for both the musician and the audience.

Your fluency in the language of music will come out in your music.

Your fluency in the language of music will come out in your music.

Standard Musical Terms

  • Downbeat: The beat with the strongest accent, at the beginning of a bar.
  • Dynamics: The 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.
  • Espressivo: Expressively.
  • Soprano: The highest female voice.
  • Staccato: Abbreviated and detached notes.
  • Timbre: The tone "color" of an instrument, voice or register.
  • Key Signature: The sharps or flats at the beginning of each line of music to indicate the key of the music.
  • Moderato: Moderate tempo.
  • Movement: A separate section of a large work.
  • Musicology: The theoretical and historical study of music
  • Middle C: The C more or less at the center of the piano keyboard (about 262 vibrations per second).
  • Riff: A repeating motif or refrain in a modern pop song or jazz piece.
  • Monotone: The repetition of a single pitch.
  • Chant: Unison of singing of sacred texts in a free rhythm similar to the rhythm of speech.
  • Crescendo: A 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 only a half step away from each other, but this tiny difference dramatically changes the emotional quality of a given sequence. It's common to hear something like, "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.
Langston Hughes on the importance of music

Langston Hughes on the importance of music

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.
  • Pentatonic Scale: A scale consisting of five tones within the octave.Theoretically, there are infinite numbers of such scales. The one used most often corresponds to the black keys of the piano beginning on any black key.

The Chromatic Scale (12 Tone Scale)

A Chromatic Scale is one in which every half step in the scale is played, ascending and descending. There are no whole steps in Chromatic Scales.

You can begin on any key and play every single white and black key from the first note to the last note.

  • Right Hand Fingering One Octave: 1313123131312
  • Left Hand Fingering One Octave: 1313213131321

These fingerings include ascending and descending patterns. Keep the fingers curved while practicing. Play each key smooth and connected (legato).

Heinrich Bender, conductor.

Heinrich Bender, conductor.

The Importance of Sound and Silence

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.

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.

Raw Materials of Music

Sound and silence are the basic raw materials of music to:

  • Soothe
  • Excite
  • Motivate
  • Speak
  • Refine
  • Describe
  • Stir
  • Celebrate
  • Heal
  • Connect
  • Express
  • Reach
  • Satisfy

Emotions: The Soul of Music

The soul of music is released through the expressive interpretation of notes, patterns, and rhythm. In other words, emotion. How boring would music be without emotion? Music sets up expectations and then satisfies them. Musicians breathe feeling into a piece by introducing minute deviations in timing and loudness. Even a momentary shift in tempo brings a tinge of emotion.

All emotions are either negative or positive. Negative emotions arise when the 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.

Music is both complex and simple at the same time. Music is the master, and musicians are its slaves.

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

–Pablo Casals, cellist

Musical terms keep instrumentalists on the same page.

Musical terms keep instrumentalists on the same page.

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.
The G Clef crosses the G line 4 times. It is also known as the Treble Clef.

The G Clef crosses the G line 4 times. It is also known as the Treble Clef.

What is a Clef?

A clef comes from French, meaning "key." It determines the names of the lines and spaces that make up a staff (or staves).

There are three clefs used in modern music:

  • G clef
  • F clef
  • C 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.

Final Thoughts

Every musician, including the vocalist, is responsible for following 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 piece and added musical terms (directions) to help others interpret the composition.

Keep Learning

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 and bringing an emotional and gratifying experience to your listener.

Keep Creating

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

Music 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.


Questions & Answers

Question: What is a musical scale?

Answer: A scale is a succession of whole and half steps arranged in alphabetical order. The patter is as follows: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. By following this pattern we can begin on any piano key (or a musical instrument) and play a perfect scale.

Question: Why is a bass clef sometimes called an F clef?

Answer: The musical staff is composed of 5 lines and 4 spaces for both the treble and bass clef. The bass clef is called the F-clef because its top curl and two dots highlight the staff's F line.

Question: What is the music term describing getting softer?

Answer: The correct term is decrescendo or diminuendo.

Question: What does "oynamis" mean?

Answer: It means to hop, bounce or leap.

Question: How do you write an emotional song?

Answer: 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.

Question: What is the musical term for getting softer?

Answer: The answer is: piano - soft, and pianissimo - softer.

Question: What is an overture and symphony?

Answer: An overture is a piece of music for the orchestra to play at the beginning of an opera, musical or ballet. A symphony is a lengthy form of musical composition for orchestra, normally consisting of several large sections, or movements, at least one of which usually employs sonata form (also called first-movement form).

Question: What is the meaning of "palando" in music?

Answer: Palando, translated to English means, talking or to talk.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: What is the meaning of cantabile?

Answer: Cantabile indicates a singing effect when playing a musical instrument. The word "Canto" means "to sing". When we sing the lyrics and melody are beautifully connected one to the other. So in affect cantabile indicates a flowing style...smooth and connected.

Question: What is moderato?

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

Question: What is the meaning of DECET?

Answer: Decet: is a composition which requires ten musicians for a performance, or a musical group that consists of ten people.

Question: What does andante mean?

Answer: Andante refers to the speed or tempo that the music is played or sung. The word, andante indicates that a passage is to be played in a moderately slow tempo; faster than adagio but slower than moderato. Think of a walking pace.

Question: What is pizzicato?

Answer: The definition of pizzicato is a note or passage played by plucking strings of a violin, viola, cello, etc.. The plucking is done by the use of the fingers instead of using a bow. This gives a short, staccato sound instead of sustaining the sound. The violin virtuoso Paganini was the first person to extensively use the left hand to pluck the strings while the right hand continued to bow. If you would like to hear how pizzicato sounds, the third movement in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 is a great choice, as the movement title is "Scherzo: Pizzicato Ostinato."

© 2011 Audrey Hunt


Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on December 28, 2019:

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.

Abigail on December 25, 2019:

The lesson is really beneficial

What is swap

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on January 29, 2019:


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


Samuel Efretuei on January 28, 2019:

Very beneficial and I've gain alot

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on January 07, 2019:

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

Leo Borquaye on January 07, 2019:

much helpful

i have benefited alot

Bill on March 21, 2018:

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

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on March 25, 2011:

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 :)

Katie McMurray from Ohio on March 25, 2011:

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

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 22, 2011:

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!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 21, 2011:

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...

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 20, 2011:

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. :)

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 18, 2011:

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

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 17, 2011:

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!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 16, 2011:

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 on February 16, 2011:

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

fibo777 from UK on February 14, 2011:

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 from Salt Lake City, Utah on February 14, 2011:

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, from London, UK on February 14, 2011:

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 from WEST VIRGINIA on February 13, 2011:

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

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 13, 2011:

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!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on February 13, 2011:

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 on February 13, 2011:


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 and sherry from south Florida on February 13, 2011:

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 from A Voice in your Mind! on February 13, 2011:

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