In cultures across the world and through time, spanning all different age groups, music has always been an intrinsic part of human life. When discussing music, whether in a casual or in-depth manner, it always helps to be able to speak about it knowledgeably. There are various terms that can convey a more precise meaning about a certain aspect of music, but many of these terms tend to be somewhat technical. Many of the words also tend to be in Italian or French, which adds to the confusion. To get a grasp of music terminology, have a look below at the most important and useful terms to know.
Allegro – An Italian word referring to a quick and lively tempo. It generally has a very upbeat feel to it.
Ballad – Typically a folk song, or a piece of music written to imitate such a song. Sometimes spelled as ballade.
Baritone – A male voice positioned in the middle of the choir’s range.
Baroque – Music ranging from the 1600s to around 1750 is generally described as belonging to the baroque era. Examples of baroque composers include Vivaldi, Bach and Handel.
Crescendo – A gradual increase in volume of the music.
Diminuendo – Usually written in sheet music to indicate that the player should reduce the volume of their playing.
Dissonant – The sound of notes played together that lack harmony. Dissonant chords often convey feelings such as discomfort, doom or anger.
Elegy – A piece of music that expresses grief or sorrow.
Forte – An instruction in sheet music to play loudly; often abbreviated as f.
Glissando – Glissando is a descriptive word for when a slide is performed over several notes.
Harmony – When several notes are played together to form chords in some type of progression, it is known as a harmony. In general, harmonies form a pleasing sound.
Interlude – An interlude is a piece of music that acts as a bridge to join two other pieces or works.
Key Signature – In sheet music, each section typically shows a key signature. The key signature is denoted as a combination of flats or sharps to indicate the key in which the piece should be played.
Largo – Largo, translated literally from Italian, means broad. In a musical context, it is an instruction to play slowly.
Legato – When notes are played legato, they are played smoothly so that they flow together seamlessly.
Metronome – A metronome is a small device that makes a steady ticking sound according to the tempo that it is set at. Metronomes are used to help players practice a piece at different speeds. When people mention playing or recording to a metronome, it simply means that a metronome was set in the background.
Mezzo – Mezzo means half, and it is used in conjunction with other words. For example, mezzo-forte would mean half as loud as normal.
Nocturne – A piece of music that is evocative of night-time moods, usually sleepy or romantic.
Octave – The easiest way to picture an octave is by looking at the keys on a piano. Start at Middle C and count up eight notes to the next C. Each similar interval of eight notes is known as an octave. If a piece is played “one octave higher” it means that the player has to start one octave up from the original starting point.
Piano – In music terminology, piano is not referring to the musical instrument but rather the way in which music is played. Piano means that it should be played softly. The word ‘piano’ can a suffix to indicate the degree of softness. Pianissimo (pp) means even softer.
Quartet – Stemming from the Latin quartus meaning four, a quartet is a group of four musicians.
Rhythm – The pattern or beat that occurs in a piece of music. For example, a waltz is very distinctive by its three-beat rhythm.
Scale – Any series of successive notes played ascending or descending.
Sonata – Typically a classical piece designed for only a soloist, sometimes with a pianist in the background.
Tempo – The speed of a piece of music.
Unison – Unison indicates playing together. A piece or part of a piece might require playing in unison, where multiple musicians would have to play the piece together.
Vibrato – A style of creating a vibration effect when playing or singing.
Vivace - Derived from the Latin word, vivax, this term indicates that a piece of music should be played briskly, in a lively manner.