Glossary of Musical Terms

Want to know the difference between a Picardy Third and a Neapolitan Sixth? Scroll through our musical terms (which we are always updating) to find out!

Glossary of Musical Terms

Want to know the difference between a Picardy Third and a Neapolitan Sixth? Scroll through our musical terms (which we are always updating) to find out!

Pro tip: use CTRL-F or CMD-F to search for a term!


Abbreviation for ottava bassa or “at the octave below.” This indication is found below specific notes on a staff and indicates that those notes should be performed one octave lower than written.

          Written                                                                    Performed

12 Bar Blues

The most common form of the blues, it is a twelve-bar chord progression that is repeated throughout the song. A great example of a 12 Bar Blues song is “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard.

A Capella

Group or solo singing without instrumental accompaniment. Some groups use their voices to emulate instruments, while others are more traditional and focus on harmonizing. One of the most popular a capella groups is Pentatonix. Check out this video of one of their most popular songs, “Mary Did You Know.”

A Tempo

A directive to return to the original tempo after a deliberate deviation.

Ad Libitum

Probably more recognizable as “ad lib”, it means “at the discretion of the performer.” It gives the performer control over the passage, for example, changing the tempo of a particular passage, or a part that may be omitted if desired.


Also known as a pickup, it is a note or sequence of notes which precedes the first downbeat in a bar in a musical phrase.


When the notes of a chord are performed one after the other instead of all at the same time.

Chord vs. Arpeggio


A generalizing term used to define music that seems to lack a clear tonal center.


Morning music; a morning concert in the open air performed for a specific individual. This is different from a serenade, which is performed in the evening.


A generic term used to designate the leader of a band. Although this term can be applied to any person that leads a band, it is most often associated with the leader of a military band, concert band symphonic band, or marching band. The bandmaster is generally the director or conductor of the band and can also responsible for the administrative aspects of the organization.


Used as the title of a short light-hearted piece of music, it was employed most notably by Beethoven in a series of such compositions for piano. The descriptive title was thereafter used by a number of other composers.

Bal Musette

A style of French music and dance that first became popular in Paris in the 1880s, usually accompanied by accordions.


The Baritone is the second lowest singing range, and overlaps both Bass and Tenor. The typical baritone range is from A2 to A4, and might extend down to F2 or up to C5. The baritone voice type is the most common type of male voice.


A style of European architecture, music, and art demonstrated from about 1600 – 1750 (following The Renaissance) that is characterized by ornate detail. During this time music became tonal (as opposed to modal) and saw the birth of new forms, including the Opera, Sonata, Oratorio, Suite, Fugue, and Concerto. A few of the major composers during this time include Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Purcell, Scarlatti, and Pachelbel.

Browse Baroque Sheet Music.


The lowest singing range and typically lies between E2 to E4. In the lower and upper extremes of the bass voice, some basses can sing from C2 to G4.

Binary Form

Describes the structure of a piece of music that is divided into 2 different sections. The 2 sections are usually labeled A and B.

Block Chords

Also referred to as ‘locked hands’ it is a style of piano playing where both hands are ‘locked’ together, playing chords in parallel with the melody, usually in fairly close position. It is a technical procedure requiring much practice and can sound dated if the harmonies are not advanced enough.


Melody with Block Chords

Blue Note

A flatted note, especially the third or seventh scale degree, recurring frequently in blues or jazz as a characteristic feature.

Blues Scale

A Pentatonic scale with one more note (added in the scale). This note is known as a blue note and it is the flattened 5th in the case of the Minor Pentatonic Scale or the flattened 3rd in the case of the Major Pentatonic Scale.

C Major Blues Scale

A Minor Blues Scale

Bongo Drums

A pair of permanently attached small single-headed drums the larger of which is tuned about a fifth below the smaller drum.

Borrowed Chord

Also called mode mixture and modal interchange, it is a chord borrowed from the parallel key (minor or major scale with the same tonic). For example, a song in C Major could “borrow” chords from C Minor.

Key of C Major

Parallel Key = C Minor

In C Major, there are no sharps or flats, so the Fm Chord is being “borrowed” from C Minor to create a different sound.

Borrowed Division

The practice of “borrowing” the subdivision of one meter into another meter. For example, borrowing the subdivision of simple time and inserting it into compound time, or vice versa.

Breath Mark

Also known as a luftpause, it is a symbol used in musical notation. It directs the performer of the music passage to take a breath or to make a slight pause. This pause is normally intended to shorten the duration of the preceding note and not the tempo; in this function, it can be thought of like a grace rest. It is usually indicated by a comma-like symbol.


A note lasting two times as long as a whole note (a double whole note). It is usually indicated as:


A break or interruption in music, notated by two diagonal lines ( // ). The break can be of any length at the discretion of the conductor.


A progression of at least two chords that concludes a phrase, section, or piece of music.


A box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces (generally thin plywood) with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements such as brushes, mallets, or sticks.


A compositional technique, based on the principle of strict imitation, in which an initial melody is imitated at a specified time interval by one or more parts, either at the same pitch or at some other pitch.

The oldest known type of Canon is called a Round. We are going to demonstrate it with the melody of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat”. Notice how the same melody is repeated on each line (two bars after the previous entrance) so that the parts are overlapping. Grab some friends and try to sing or play through it!


A quick, improvisational, spirited piece of music.

Chromatic Scale

A musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone above or below another.


A symbol that is placed at the left-hand end of a staff, indicating the pitch of the notes written on it. There are many types of clefs, but the four most common are Treble, Bass, Alto, and Tenor.

Treble Clef

  • Also known as the G Clef
  • Notates the higher registers of music

Bass Clef

  • Also known as the F Clef
  • Notates the lower registers of music
The Treble Clef and Bass Clef are the two most commonly used by all instrumentalists and vocalists

Alto Clef

  • Places Middle C (C4) on the third line
  • Also known as the Viola Clef
  • Used for the viola, the viola da gamba, the alto trombone, and the mandala

Tenor Clef

  • Places Middle C (C4) on the second line
  • Used for the upper ranges of the bassoon, cello, euphonium, double bass, and trombone

Circle Of Fifths

The relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. Circle of Fifths progressions are considered to be harmonically very strong, in the sense that they pull our ears toward one chord being the tonic.

Learn more about the Circle of Fifths and how to use it.

Common Time / Cut Time

Common Time is the same thing as 4/4 Time. It can be referred to by a “C” symbol, but it is more common to see 4/4. Cut Time, however, is commonly indicated by the symbol “C” with a slash in the middle of it. This means that it is actually 2/4 Time notated and executed like 4/4 Time, except with the beat lengths doubled.

Common Time Symbol

Cut Time Symbol

Compound Meter

Any time signature in which the upper figure is a multiple of 3, such as 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc. Beats are divided into three notes, as opposed to Simple Meter, where they are divided into two.

                 Simple Meter                  Compound Meter

Contralto Voice

A type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type. The contralto’s vocal range is fairly rare; similar to, but different from the alto, and almost identical to that of a countertenor, typically between the F below middle C (F3) to the second F above middle C (F5), although some voices reach beyond.

Contrary Motion

The movement of two melodic lines in opposite directions.

Da Capo

Used as a direction in music, it is a musical term in Italian meaning “from the beginning”. It is often abbreviated as “D.C.”

Deceptive Cadence

A chord progression that seems to lead to resolving itself on the final chord; but does not.

In this particular phrase, you would expect the V7 Chord to resolve to I.

The Cadence is “Deceptive” because it resolves on the Minor vi chord instead.


Commonly abbreviated as “dB”, it is a logarithmic unit for measuring the intensity of sound which corresponds to the listener’s perception of loudness.

Approximate Typical Sound Levels


A sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, such as in the world “loud” or “coin.” Singers must be aware of diphthongs in solo vocal music, but even more so aware in vocal or choral ensembles. Even for the most experienced directors, getting a choir to sing a diphthong in unison is a very tricky task!


Harsh, discordance, and lack of harmony.


The fifth tone or degree of a diatonic scale or the triad build upon this degree. For example, in the key of C Major, the Dominant Scale Degree would be G, and the Dominant Chord would be G Major.

The strongest harmonic progression in tonal music is from the dominant chord to the tonic triad.

In the key of C Major, G is the 5th Scale Degree, making it the Dominant.

The following excerpt displays the Dominant CHORD.

Notice the G Chord has an added 7th, which gives it an even stronger sound and desire to resolve to the tonic.


Used as a direction in music, meaning “sweetly, softly, with tender emotion”.


A directive to musicians to perform the indicated passage of a composition in a sorrowful, mournful or plaintive manner.

Doppio Movimento

A directive to play a specific passage twice as fast. Often used in conjunction with common time changing to cut time.


The variation in loudness between notes or phrases. The most commonly used dynamics are: pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and fortissimo.


Referring to notes, intervals, or key signatures having the same pitch but written in different notation.

Each group of two notes is an example of Enharmonic Notes. Although they look like different pitches, the accidentals raise or lower them to the be the same.


A group of people who perform instrumental or vocal music, with the ensemble typically known by a distinct name. Some music ensembles consist solely of instruments, such as the jazz quartet or the orchestra, while others consist solely of singers, such as choirs and a cappella groups.


A short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of a player.


The initial presentation of the thematic material of a musical composition, movement, or section.

Eye Music

Music that is pleasing or puzzling to the eye, regardless of how it sounds to the ear. In some cases, the music may make no sense to the ear but has a secret puzzle or message when visually analyzed. This music was most common in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.

Fake Book

A collection of musical lead sheets (mostly used in jazz) intended to help a performer quickly learn and perform new songs. Each song in a fake book contains the melody line, basic chords and sometimes lyrics – the minimal information needed by a musician or small group to make an impromptu, extemporized arrangement of a song, or “fake it”.


A grouping of instruments which produce sound in the same manner and are constructed in the same way but in different sizes such as the clarinet family, the saxophone family, the violin family and so on.


A symbol that allows a note or rest to be held for as long as desired.


A directive to a musician to perform the indicated passage of a composition in a proud, haughty, or noble manner.

Figured Bass

A bass line with the intended harmonies indicated by “figures” rather than written out as chords, typical of continuo parts in Baroque music.


A sudden dynamic change used in a musical score, to designate a section of music in which the music should be played loudly (forte), then immediately softly (piano). It is usually indicated by the following abbreviation:


A compositional technique characterized by the systematic imitation of a principal theme (called the subject) in simultaneously sounding melodic lines (counterpoint). One of the most popular fugues is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Ghost Note

A musical note with a rhythmic value, but no discernible pitch when played. In musical notation, this is represented by an “X” for a note head instead of an oval, or parentheses around the note head.


A continuous slide upward or downward between two notes.

Grace Note

An extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.


Graceful, smooth or elegant in style – used as a direction in music.

Gregorian Chant

A monodic and rhythmically free liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church that developed mainly in Western and Central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries.


A Latin percussion instrument consisting of a gourd with grooves cut around its circumference and large holes in the bottom. It is classified as a scraped idiophone. The performer holds the instrument with the holes in the bottom while scraping across the grooves with a stick in a rhythmic fashion.


A Cuban dance from Havana later introduced to Spain. One of the most famous examples is found in Bizet’s Spanish opera Carmen, where Carmen herself sings a seductive habanera.

Half Cadence

See: Cadence. A Half Cadence is any cadence ending on the V Chord. Because it sounds incomplete or suspended, the half cadence is considered a weak cadence that calls for continuation.

Key of C Major

Hand Bells

A percussion instrument, handbells come in various sizes (each size sounding a separate pitch) and are usually played in a set ranging in number from six to sixty. They are usually performed by a group of musicians, either each holding a bell in each hand, or lifting them from a table.

Harmonic Minor Scale

A minor scale that differs from a natural minor scale in that the seventh note is raised one semitone both ascending and descending.


An early stringed keyboard instrument that produced tones by means of plucking strings with quills rather than by striking them with hammers, as in the modern piano. The range of the harpsichord is generally about four octaves; it was most popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, in the classical era it was eclipsed by the piano.


German or “Primary Voice”, it is used to indicate that a certain instrument or part is carrying the melody. in opposition to Nebenstimme. Nebenstimme (German for secondary voice) or Seitensatz is the secondary part (a secondary contrapuntal or melodic part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme). The practice of marking the primary voice within the musical score/parts was invented by Arnold Schoenberg.


A rare type of high tenor voice, predominant in French Baroque and Classical opera until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In range, it is equivalent to the alto and was normally written in the alto clef.


In music, Hemiola is the ratio 3:2.  In pitch, Hemiola refers to the difference between two strings that create the interval of a perfect fifth. In rhythm, Hemiola refers to three beats of equal value in the time normally occupied by two beats.


A technique used in medieval music in which two or three voice parts are given notes or short phrases in rapid alternation, producing an erratic, hiccuping effect. The notes from each part make up the overall melody, though they are not sung at the same time.


Also called Extemporization, it is the creative activity of immediate, “in the moment” musical composition.


A directive to a musician to perform the indicated passage of a composition in a pressing or chasing manner.


The difference between two pitches. Intervals can be classified as: Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished, and Perfect.

  • Major and Minor intervals are the intervals created by the key signatures in Major or Minor Keys without any added augmentation or diminished tones.
  • Perfect Intervals are used when referring to Unison, 4ths, 5ths, and Octaves. These intervals are very strong and are given the name “Perfect” because whether they key signature is Major or Minor, these intervals stay the same.
  • Augmented Intervals are wider by one semitone (half-step) than perfect or major intervals.
  • Diminished Intervals are smaller by one semitone (half-step) than perfect or minor intervals.

Though these intervals can be used in various ways, Augmented 4ths and Diminished 5ths are the most common uses of Augmented/Diminished Intervals.

Key of C Major


The rearrangement of notes in a triad or seventh chord so that different scale degrees are in the lowest position of the chord. See: Seventh Chord

Triad Inversions

  • Root Position: The Root or Scale Degree 1 is in the Bass
  • 1st Inversion: The 3rd Scale Degree is in the Bass
  • 2nd Inversion: The 5th Scale Degree is in the Bass

Key of C Major

The numbers next to the Roman Numerals indicate inversions.
6 = First Inversion
6/4 = Second Inversion

Seventh Chord Inversions

  • Root Position: The Root or Scale Degree 1 is in the Bass
  • 1st Inversion: The 3rd Scale Degree is in the Bass
  • 2nd Inversion: The 5th Scale Degree is in the Bass
  • 3rd Inversion = The 7th Scale Degree is in the Bass

Key of A Minor

7 = Root Position
6/5 = First Inversion
4/3 = Second Inversion
4/2 = Third Inversion


A directive to a musician to perform the indicated passage of a composition in an agitated manner, as if irate, angry, or passionate.


A musical technique using a repeating rhythmic pattern, called a talea, in at least one voice part throughout the composition.

Isorhythm in the Treble Clef.


A lively, improvisational, athletic style of dancing performed to syncopated music which originated in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.


A lively style of dance popular especially in the 1940s and 1950s, performed to swing music or rock and roll.


German for tone-color melody, it is a musical technique that involves splitting a musical line or melody between several instruments, rather than assigning it to just one instrument, thereby adding color and texture to the melodic line. Listen to the first minute of the piece to hear a demonstration.

Leading Tone

Also referred to as subtonic, it is the seventh note of the scale where there is a strong desire to resolve on the tonic. See: Scale Degrees.

Ledger Lines

The short, horizontal lines added to the top or the bottom of a staff for the indication of notes too high or too low to be represented on the staff.


In a smooth, flowing manner, without breaks between notes. Standard notation indicates legato either with the word legato or by a slur (a curved line) under notes that form one legato group.


See: Motif. A short, constantly recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

For example, if you’ve ever seen Lord of the Rings, there is a theme associated with the Hobbits that occurs throughout all three movies, and even into ‘The Hobbit’ series as well.

Concerning Hobbits” – Lord of the Rings


The text on an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical.


German for “song”. Lieder in the plural is used more specifically to indicate songs in the great German tradition of songwriting exemplified by the work of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and others.

Lieto Fine

Italian for “happy ending” the Lieto fine was a major characteristic of Opera in the 17th and 18th centuries.  During this time period, it would have been extremely rare to find an Opera ending in tragedy.


An instrument popular in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. The lute is a plucked string instrument of the guitar family, it has a short, fretted neck, a rounded back, and a large body something between oval and pear-shaped.

Lydian Mode

The mode represented by the natural diatonic scale F–F (containing an augmented 4th). It can also be thought of as a major scale with a raised 4th scale degree.

F Lydian Scale

C Lydian Scale


A vocal music form that flourished in the Renaissance. Generally written for four to six voices, madrigals are usually set to short love poems. The madrigal is characterized by word-painting and harmonic and rhythmic contrast. In the madrigal, each line has its own tune, rather than the entire composition having a single tune with harmonic accompaniment.


A musical direction indicating a note, chord, or passage is to be played with strong accentuation.

Melodic Minor Scale

A minor scale modified by raising the sixth and seventh scale degrees when ascending, then restoring them to their original pitches when descending.


One with an abnormal fondness of music; a person who loves music.

Messa Di Voce

A musical technique that involves a gradual crescendo and diminuendo while sustaining a single pitch.


The middle-range voice type for females. It lies between the soprano and contralto ranges. The typical range of this voice is between A3 to A5, though some voices may reach even further. Although this voice overlaps both the contralto and soprano voices, the tessitura of the mezzo-soprano is lower than that of the soprano and higher than that of the contralto.


A slow, stately ballroom dance for two in triple time. Originating in France, it was a popular dance among European aristocracy until the end of the 18th century.


Refers to a type of scale, coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviors. Modes can be confusing and hard to master, so we’ve written a separate Guide to Musical Modes | Tip and Tricks to Memorize Each Mode.


The act or process of changing from one key to another.


An ancient instrument used for performing and teaching as well as tuning and experimentation. It consists of a single string stretched between two fixed bridges. A third movable bridge is placed between the two fixed bridges which can adjust the length of the vibrating string, thus changing the pitch produced by plucking the string.


A short musical idea.

This idea will appear often in a piece of music, sometimes exactly the same and sometimes changed. When a motif returns, it can be slower or faster, or in a different key. It may return “upside down” (with the notes going up instead of down, for example), or with the pitches or rhythms altered.


A symbol [♮] that cancels the effect of a sharp or a flat.

Neapolitan Chord

A major chord built on the lowered second (supertonic) scale degree. It can also be called a Phrygian II, since in Minor Scales the chord is built on the notes of the corresponding Phrygian mode. It most commonly occurs in first inversion so that it is notated either as ♭II6 or N6 and is normally referred to as a Neapolitan sixth chord.

Neutral Clef

A symbol located at the beginning of a musical staff used to indicate that none of the instruments reading the notation have a definite pitch.


A short composition of a romantic or dreamy character suggestive of night, typically for piano.

Nocturne in Eb Major, Opus 9, No. 2 – Frederic Francois Chopin

Nonharmonic Tone

A tone or note that is not a part of the chord that is sounding. For example, the F in the excerpt below would be considered a nonharmonic tone because it does not belong in the C Major Chord that is sounding.

There are many different types of nonharmonic tones, depending on how the notes are approached and delivered. The traditional types are as follows (each has an abbreviation it is associated with):

  • Passing Tone (p). Ex. 1 Approached by a step and then continues by step in the same direction. This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).
  • Neighbor Tone (n). Ex. 2 Approached by a step and resolved by a step. This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).
  • Incomplete Neighbor (in). Ex. 3 Approached by a rest (or by nothing) and resolves by a step.This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).
  • Suspension (s). Ex. 4 A note that is repeated or held from the previous chord and then resolves down by step to a chord tone. This nonharmonic tone is usually accented (occurring on the beat). *See Suspension
  • Retardation (r). Ex. 5 A note that is repeated or held from the previous chord and then resolves up by step to a chord tone. This nonharmonic tone is usually accented (occurring on the beat).
  • Anticipation (an). Ex. 6 Approached by a step and then remains the same. It is essentially a note from the second chord played early. This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).
  • Pedal Tone (ped) Ex. 7 A repeating tone that usually occurs in the bass, and normally changes between harmonic and nonharmonic. This nonharmonic tone is usually accented (occurring on the beat).
  • Appoggiatura (ap). Ex. 8 Approached by leap and resolves stepwise (normally in the opposite direction). This nonharmonic tone is usually accented (occurring on the beat).
  • Escape Tone (e) Ex. 9 Approached by step; then resolves by leaping (normally in the opposite direction). This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).
  • Cambiata or Changing tones (cam). Ex. 10A  pair of notes separated by the interval of a third, approached by step and resolved by step (normally to the note in-between the third). This nonharmonic tone is usually unaccented (not occurring on the beat).

Oblique Motion

The movement of two melodic lines where one voice is stationary as the other voice moves in either direction.


The ocarina is an ancient wind musical instrument—a type of vessel flute. Variations exist, but a typical ocarina is an enclosed space with four to twelve finger holes and a mouthpiece that projects from the body. It is traditionally made from clay or ceramic, but other materials are also used—such as plastic, wood, glass, metal, or bone.

Octatonic Scale

Any eight-note musical scale.


A song written in commemoration and celebration of a particular event, object, or person. Purcell and Handel were important composers of odes in English Baroque music. One of the duties of the Master of the King’s Musick (the most important royal ensemble in England during the Baroque Era) was to compose odes for special occasions such as New Year’s Day, birthdays, deaths, etc.


An ivory horn of Medieval Europe, usually ornately decorated and primarily used as a sign of status and wealth rather than as a musical instrument.


A drama set to music, usually sung throughout, originating in 17th century Italy. Opera is a combination of music, drama, scenery, costumes, dance, etc., to create a complete art form.


Tones used to embellish the principal melodic tone.

The symbols in this excerpt indicate ornamentation.

The symbol in measure two is called a mordent, and the symbol in measure three is called a turn.

This is what the ornamentation looks like when notated.

There are many different types of ornamentation; we just picked two classic types for this example (a mordent and a turn). You can also embellish melodies with your own written ornamentation!


A musical rhythm or phrase that is repeated over and over again. There is an ostinato in the bass clef of this excerpt:


An orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, suites, play, oratorio, or other extended composition. A very famous example is Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”.

This piece has been used in countless films and television shows, including the Looney Tunes!

Parallel Motion

When two voices move in the same direction so that they keep the same interval between them.

An example of parallel 6ths.

When it comes to writing or arranging music, here are a few kinds of Parallel Motion that you generally want to avoid: Parallel 5ths and Parallel Octaves. Though many famous composers have broken this rule, parallel 5ths and parallel octaves are usually avoided by the fact that they weaken the overall harmonic structure.

An example of parallel fifths (measure 1) and parallel octaves (measure 2).


A composition based on a preview work. This was a common technique used in Medieval and Renaissance music but has also made a presence in the 21st  Century with artists like Weird Al Yankovic.

“A Musical Joke” – Mozart

“Eat It” – Weird Al Yankovic

Pedal Point

A sustained note during which the harmony above it changes in some way so that the overall sound becomes dissonant.

Notice how the harmony changes in the upper three voices, but the bass stays the same.

Pentatonic Scale

A scale consisting of five notes within one octave.

Major Pentatonic Scales use scale degrees: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6.

C Major Pentatonic Scale

Minor Pentatonic Scales use scale degrees: 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7.

A Minor Pentatonic Scale


A directive to perform the indicated passage of a composition in a manner that the sound dies away, gradually diminishing in volume, rhythm, and tone.

Perfect Authentic Cadence

A cadence ending in V – I, where both chords are in root position, and the tonic scale degree is the highest note of the final I chord.

Perfect Pitch

The ability to recognize the pitch of a note or to produce any given note without the benefit of a reference tone.

Picardy Third

A major chord of the tonic at the end of a musical section that is either modal or in a minor key.

Key of E Minor

Notice that the G# in the last measure makes the final chord major.


A small flute whose range is an octave higher than that of an ordinary flute.

Pivot Chord

Used for a smooth modulation, it is a chord that is common to the current key, and the one being modulated into.

Plagal Cadence

See: Cadence. A cadence in which the tonic chord is preceded by the subdominant chord (IV-I).

C Major

Poco a poco

An Italian phrase that means “little by little,” and is used with other musical commands to make their efforts slow and gradual.


The combination of two or more keys being played at the same time.


A rhythm that makes use of two or more different rhythms simultaneously.

Prima Donna

Italian for “first woman,” the prima donna is the principal female singer in an opera or concert organization. The corresponding term for the male lead is primo uomo, which is Italian for “first man.”

Primary Chords

Chords built on scale degrees 1, 4, and 5. For example, in the key of C Major, the primary chords are C, F, and G.

Quart De Soupir

The French term for a sixteenth rest.


An American style of music characterized by “ragged” or syncopated rhythms. Popular between the 1890’s and the 1910’s, Scott Joplin was a major exponent of ragtime. By the 1920’s ragtime had given way to jazz.


A gradual decrease in tempo containing less certainty and drama than the ritardando.

Real Book

It can refer to any of a number of popular compilations of lead sheets for jazz tunes but is generally used to refer to Volume 1 of an underground series of books transcribed and collated by students at Berklee College of Music during the 1970s. It got its name to distinguish it from the widely available fake books by providing melody lines, while fake books printed only chords and lyrics of standard songs.

The Real Book is also available in different editions to suit B♭, E♭, and C (concert-pitch) instruments, as well as bass clef and voice editions (“low” and “high” voice, with lyrics included). A band leader can conveniently call out page numbers since each edition is also paginated identically.


A rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech. It is most commonly used for dialogue and narrative in operas and oratorios and is many times found preceding an aria.

Relative Keys

The major and minor scales that share the same key signature. For example, A Minor and C Major.

List of Relative Keys

Relative Pitch

The ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note by comparing it to a reference note and identifying the interval between those two notes. This is different from perfect pitch, where no reference note is needed to determine a note.

Remote Keys

Those keys that have few notes in common. For example, the keys of C Major and F Sharp major would be considered remote.


A term meaning “backward” or “the series is sounded in reverse order.” Retrograde reverses the order of the motive’s pitches: what was the first pitch becomes the last, and vice versa.

Measure 2 indicates Retrograde.


A prominent feature in pop and jazz compositions, a riff is a short ostinato (a short melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic pattern that is repeated throughout an entire composition or some portion of a composition), two to four bars long.


An indication to suddenly and temporarily decrease the tempo; to hold back for dramatic effect. This is different from a Ritardando, where the tempo gradually decreases.


A genre of popular music in America that was an early form of rock n’ roll music in the 1950s. It was derived from hillbilly music (early Country & Western music), western swing, boogie-woogie, and rhythm and blues.


A musical form with a recurring leading theme often found in the final movement of a sonata or concerto.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik KV. 525 IV. Rondo: Allegro – Mozart


The fundamental pitch on which a chord is based, from which the chord takes its name, and to which the other tones of the chord are referred to (the third, seventh, etc.)


Fundamental strokes or patterns that are basic to all drum music and technique. There are over forty such patterns used in the rudimental style of snare drumming.


A slow dance in triple meter, generally found in the Baroque instrumental suite. The dance seems to have been Latin American in origin, imported from Latin America to Spain in the 16th century.

Scale Degree

Refers to the position of a particular note on a scale relative to the tonic (the first and main note of the scale from which each octave is assumed to begin). Degrees are useful for indicating the size of intervals and chords, and whether they are major or minor.

Scale Degrees may be identified in several ways. The most common ways are numbers, roman numerals, and names (referring to function).

Numbers (C Major)

Roman Numerals (C Major)

Roman Numerals (A Minor)

Names (C Major)

Roman Numerals are usually used when referring to chords rather than individual notes.


A vigorous, light, or playful composition, typically comprising a movement in a symphony or sonata.

Scherzo II in Bb Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 – Chopin

Secondary Dominant

An altered chord having a dominant or leading tone relationship to a chord in a key other than the tonic. For a deep dive into Secondary Dominants, check out our article: Intro to Secondary Dominants: What Are They and How to Use Them.

An altered chord is a chord containing at least one tone that is foreign to the key.

To give one example, let’s start with a common chord progression in the key of C Major.

Now, let’s add a Secondary Dominant before the G Major Chord.

Why G Major? Secondary Dominants are most commonly used when approaching Dominant Chords (V Chords), though they are not bound to them.

The chord we are approaching is G Major, which is the Dominant Chord in our tonic key (C major). To find the Secondary Dominant, we need to find the Dominant (in G Major) of the Dominant

(in C Major), which is D Major. Notice that D Major also uses an F# instead of the F Natural the key of C Major uses. This is what makes D Major an altered chord in the key of C Major.

G = V (Dominant) in C Major

D = V (Dominant) in G Major

Remember that V is the Roman Numeral used for the 5th scale degree (also called the Dominant) in any key. That’s why the Roman Numeral Analysis for Secondary Dominants looks like a fraction. It is simply saying that this chord is the V of the V Chord.

Finally, let’s use some inversions to give the progression a smoother sound. Give it a try!

Remember that Secondary Dominants can be used in other ways as well! You can approach other chords besides the V (Dominant Chord). You can also use the vii diminished chord as Secondary Dominant. Check out these examples, and then get to experimenting!

Example in D Major

Example in G Major


Also called a half step or a half tone, it is the smallest musical interval commonly used in Western tonal music, and it is considered the most dissonant when sounded harmonically. It is defined as the interval between two adjacent notes in a 12-tone scale. For example, C is adjacent to C♯; the interval between them is a semitone.


A melodic or choral figure repeated at a new pitch level.

Seventh Chords

Chords consisting of a triad plus a note forming an interval of a seventh above the chord’s root. Though there are different types, when not otherwise specified, a “seventh chord” usually means a Dominant Seventh Chord: a major triad together with a minor seventh. However, there are several different types of Seventh Chords:

Major 7th Chord Intervals: Major Third, Major Third, Major Third

Dominant 7th Chord Intervals: Major Third, Major Third, Minor Third

Minor 7th Chord Intervals: Minor Third, Major Third, Minor Third

Half-Diminished 7th Chord Intervals: Minor Third, Minor Third, Major Third

Diminished 7th Chord Intervals: Minor Third, Minor Third, Minor Third

See: Inversions.


An indication to make a strong, sudden accent or emphasis on a note or chord. It is usually represented by this symbol:

Simple Meter

Meters that divide the beat into two equal parts. For example, 4/4 Time is an example of simple meter because a quarter note (The beat) can be divided into two eighth notes.

 Simple Meter                  Compound Meter

See: Compound Meter.


A directive to perform the indicated passage of a composition with a relaxed tempo, to become slower.


Indicates to play two or more notes in one physical stroke, one uninterrupted breath, or (on instruments with neither breath nor bow) connected into a phrase as if played in a single breath.


An exercise used for sight-reading vocal music in which each scale degree is assigned a coordinating syllable.

  • The most standard form of solfege is a Fixed-Do System. This means that the syllable “do” is always coordinated with the first scale degree of whichever key you’re in.
  • A less common form of solfege is the Moveable-Do System. In this case, the syllables are always assigned to the notes in a C Major Scale (where “C” would be “do”), regardless of the key.

In the case of raised or lowered scale degrees, the solfege syllable vowel changes to an
“i” for sharping, and “e” for flatting. The exception is when flatting “re”, in which case you go to “ra”.

To learn more about Solfege, check out our article: Solfege: What Is It, And How Is It Used?


An instrumental musical composition typically containing three or four movements in contrasting forms and keys. One of the most popular Sonatas of all time is Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”.


The highest female singing voice. The typical soprano voice lies between C4 and C6, though many voices can reach beyond.


A musical direction indicating that a note or passage be sustained or lengthened.

Sostenuto Pedal

Larger pianos typically have three pedals–the sostenuto pedal being in the middle. This pedal will sustain only those notes that are being held down when the pedal is depressed, allowing future notes played to be unaffected. It is commonly abbreviated “S.P.”


A bowing technique for string instruments in which the bow appears to bounce lightly upon the string. The term comes from the past participle of the Italian verb spiccare, meaning “to separate”.


A vocal style that combines elements of song and speech.


A style of playing notes in a detached, separated, distinct manner, as opposed to legato. Staccato is indicated by a dot directly above or below the notehead.


A musical direction that indicates progressively quickening in tempo.

Strophic Form

Also called verse-repeating or chorus form, it is the term applied to songs in which all verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music. “Amazing Grace” would be an example of a Strophic Form song.


The fourth tone of a major or minor scale.

Music which modulates often modulates into the subdominant when the leading tone is lowered by a half step to the subtonic (B to B♭ in the key of C). Modulation into the subdominant key often creates a sense of musical relaxation; as opposed to modulation into dominant (fifth scale degree), which increases tension. See: Scale Degree.


A means of creating tension by prolonging a note while the underlying harmony changes, normally on a strong beat.

This particular kind of Suspensions is called a 4-3 Suspension because the suspended note is 4th above the bass (G) and it resolved to a 3rd above the bass (F#).


A disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of downbeat rhythm with emphasis on the subdivision or off-beat.

Observe this excerpt of music.

Now look at the same excerpt wit the beats drawn in and notice all of the notes being played outside of the beat (on the off-beat).


A percussion instrument similar to a gong. Typically thinner than a gong, the tam-tam has a smaller rim and no protrusion in the center. Either flat or saucer-shaped, the shape and construction produce a great difference in sound. It has no discernable pitch or fundamental note, simply a crash of dissonant frequencies.


The tenor is the highest type of male voice, typically comfortable between C3 to C5. Tenors generally have greater control over their falsetto (head voice), allowing them to reach notes well into the female register. Those who can sing higher than the average tenor are often given the title “countertenor.”


A term indicating how fast or slow to play/sing a piece of music.  The most commonly used tempo terms (from slowest to fastest) are as follows:

  • Larghissimo – very, very slow (24 bpm and under)
  • Adagissimo
  • Grave – very slow (25–45 bpm)
  • Largo – broadly (40–60 bpm)
  • Lento – slowly (45–60 bpm)
  • Larghetto – rather broadly (60–66 bpm)
  • Adagio – slow and stately (literally, “at ease”) (66–76 bpm)
  • Adagietto – slower than andante (72–76 bpm)
  • Andante – at a walking pace (76–108 bpm)
  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante (although, in some cases, it can be taken to mean slightly slower than andante) (80–108 bpm)
  • Marcia moderato – moderately, in the manner of a march] (83–85 bpm)
  • Andante moderato – between andante and moderato (thus the name) (92–112 bpm)
  • Moderato – at a moderate speed (108–120 bpm)
  • Allegretto – by the mid 19th century, moderately fast (112–120 bpm)
  • Allegro moderato – close to, but not quite allegro (116–120 bpm)
  • Allegro – fast, quickly, and bright (120–168 bpm)
  • Animato – animated
  • Agitatoallegro plus agitation
  • Veloce – with velocity, speedily
  • Vivace – lively and fast (168–176 bpm)
  • Allegrissimo or Allegro vivace – very fast (172–176 bpm)
  • Presto – very, very fast (168–200 bpm)
  • Prestissimo – even faster than presto (200 bpm and over)
  • Vivacissimo – very fast and lively (172–176 bpm)

Ternary Form

Sometimes called “song form”, is a three-part musical form where the first section (A) is repeated after the second section (B) ends. It is usually schematized as A–B–A. An example of a song in Ternary Form would be Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” (Op. 28 No. 15).


The general range of pitches found in a melody or vocal part.


A scale of four notes, or a series of four notes (usually played one after the other), where the interval between the first and last note is a perfect fourth.

C Major Tetrachord

Theme and Variation

A song form consisting of a melody (theme), followed by variations of that melody. Composers often use theme and variation to write an entire piece or to write one movement of a larger piece. It is most often used in instrumental music.

Through-Composed Form

A type of song form that means that the music is relatively continuous, non-sectional, and/or non-repetitive. A song is said to be through-composed if it has different music for each stanza of the lyrics.


The quality of a musical tone that distinguishes voices and instruments.

Time Signature

A set of numbers (one on top of the other) notated after the clef at the beginning of a piece that indicates how many beats are in each measure and which note value is equivalent to one beat.

  • Top Number = how many  beats are in the measure
  • Bottom Number = what kind of note gets the beat
    • 1 = Whole Note
    • 2 = Half Note
    • 4 = Quarter Note
    • 8 = Eighth Note
    • 16 = Sixteenth Note

3/4 Time means there are 3 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat.

6/8 Time means there are 6 beats in a measure and the eighth note gets the beat.

Tin Whistle

Also referred to as a penny whistle, it is a folk wind instrument similar to the recorder, but usually made of tin. It generally has six finger holes and is prominent in British and Irish folk music.

Tone Cluster

A musical chord comprising at least three adjacent tones in a scale.


Also called the keynote, it is the first note of any major or minor scale. For example, B is the tonic in B Major. See: Scale Degrees.


Quick repetition of the same note or the rapid alternation between two notes.


A useful tool for musicians, it is the process of playing or writing music in a different key.


A group of three notes played inside another note-length; a portion of musical time that’s been split rhythmically into three equal parts.

Tristan Chord

A chord made up of the notes F, B, D#, and G#. More generally, it can be any chord that consists of these same intervals: augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a bass note.

Though this chord is technically an odd spelling of an F half-diminished chord [F, Ab (G#), Cb (B), Eb (D#)] this particular spelling and use of the notes is particular to Richard Wagner. It is heard in the opening phrase of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde as part of the leitmotif relating to the character Tristan, and so it was named after the performance.


A passage for the entire ensemble or orchestra without a soloist.


The second highest-pitched member of the violin family. The viola is similar to the violin in most respects. However, it is larger and is a fifth lower in range.


Performing with exceptional ability, technique or artistry.


A vocal work, whether an exercise or something more musically substantial, that has no words. IT is commonly used to develop flexibility and control of pitch and tone.

Wagner Tuba

A tuba invented by the composer Richard Wagner to be used in his operas. It is smaller than the orchestral tuba and has a range between that of the horn and the trombone. Its somber, majestic tone has inspired other composers such as Strauss, Bruckner, and Stravinsky to include it in compositions.


A ballroom dance that is written in triple time with a strong accent on the first beat.


A term applied to an instrument that is voiced and tuned satisfactorily, with the pitches, tone, and timbre have the desired quality of sound.

Whole Tone Scale

A scale in which each note is separated from its neighbors by the interval of a whole tone.


A style of singing or calling that involves switching the registers of the voice rapidly from head voice to chest voice (or falsetto and natural voice). Forms of yodeling can be found in several cultures, including cowboy singers in the United States such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.