The Ultimate Music Glossary: Music Terms Every Musician Needs To Know

The Ultimate Music Glossary: Music Terms Every Musician Needs To Know The Ultimate Music Glossary: Music Terms Every Musician Needs To Know

If you're starting your musical journey, it can feel like conquering an entirely new language. However, there's no need to panic -- We've compiled the ultimate musician's glossary, packed with all essential music terms. Let's start decoding!

music terms

200+ Music Terms Every Musician Should Know

Without further ado, here are 200 musical terms to enhance your knowledge as an artist. This music terminology won't just help you understand music, it will also help you communicate with other creatives.


AB music refers to a musical composition with two distinct sections. Each letter is used to represent a distinct musical idea. These ideas may repeat in common song forms like ABAB, or they may not with a song form like ABC, where C represents a new musical idea. A song form that is just "AB" is also considered a two-part song.


Acapella refers to a musical piece performed with just the human voice, or without musical accompaniment. This can be used in a choral sense, where the choir is instructed to sing without musical accompaniment. It can also refer to a clean vocal stem to be used in remixes and DJ sets in the world of music production.


This Italian tempo marking signals to the musician that they should gradually increase speed while performing a piece of music. With accelerando, musicians look to the conductor to see the speed at which they should accelerate. The marking doesn't necessarily point to a final tempo.


A marking used in a piece of music to create emphasis on selected musical notes. There are several different types of accent marks. Some examples include staccato or tenuto.


Accidentals are notes that do not exist within a particular key but are played within a piece of music. You'll come across several different types of accidentals. A few examples are sharps, flats, and naturals.


This refers to any instrument that is backing the leading voice or melody in a piece of music. This could be a backing track or an orchestra. Instrumental accompaniment is used to support the main ideas in a piece of music.


The science behind sound. Acoustics can refer to the properties of a space and how sound reacts within it. Understanding your room's acoustics can help you create more professional music.


This Italian tempo marking means slowly. Adagio tells a musician they should perform a song at a slower tempo. The marking can refer to a full piece or just a section within a piece.


Adante means "to-go about" in Italian. It is used to create a "walking pace" in a piece of music. Therefore, an andante piece usually has a moderately slow tempo.

Al Fine

This marking tells a musician to continue performing in a certain way to the end a piece of music. It comes from the Italian phrase, "Da Capo al Fine". This phrase can be roughly translated to "the head until the end".


Allegro is music written under a bright and upbeat tempo marking. It means cheerful in Italian. This can also refer to a brisk tempo.


This is a singing range assigned to a section of a choir. Altos are lower in pitch than sopranos and higher than tenors. Altos are usually female singers.


A short piece of music written for a particular group. Anthems are usually performed in a choir setting. For instance, "The Star Spangled Banner" could be considered an anthem.


Aria means "song" in Italian. The term is used to describe a  vocal solo in opera music performed with instrumental accompaniment. Arias utilize extremely talented solo singers who perform incredibly vocal jumps and leaps across their expansive vocal range.


An arpeggio separates a chord or series of notes into individual notes. This gives each note a plucked feeling, almost as though one were playing harp. You'll commonly see arpeggios written for instruments like guitar or piano.


Atonal music is a piece of music in which no key can be established. You can find this peculiar technique sprinkled throughout 20th-century music. This music may be fairly jarring to listen to since most of the music we consume has a strongly established key.


BPM refers to beats per minute. It's another way of expressing tempo in a piece of music. Different genres tend to reside at various BPMs.


This is a loosely defined term that describes a song designed to tell stories. Artists that commonly write ballads include Adele and Whitney Houston. Modern-day ballads tend to be accompanied by impressive vocals.


A group of multiple instrumentalists or musicians that play musical compositions together. You'll usually see a four-piece band with a drummer, singer, guitarist, and bassist. However, bands can vary greatly in their size and instrumentalists.


A guitar-like instrument that's plucked with a circular soundhole. The banjo got its start in Bluegrass music. Famous banjo players include Earl Scruggs and Alison Brown.


A small section of music. The word "bar" technically refers to the lines used to distinguish measures in music, but "bar" and "measure" are often used interchangeably colloquially. The song structure is often referred to using bars, i.e a verse has 8 bars, the chorus has 4, etc.


Barcarolle refers to a "boating song" that was typically performed by gondoliers in Venice. This is a traditional Italian folk song. You can hear an example of Barcarolle here:


This is a male singing voice in the middle range of the vocal spectrum. Some famous baritone singers include Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Baritone can also describe the second-lowest pitched instrument like the baritone saxophone.


This period of music spans from 1600 to 1750. It includes famous classical music composers like Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel.  The baroque period is defined by European art and ornate details.


This can refer to the stringed instrument with a lower town or low-end guitar. Bass also characterizes the lowest singing range. True bass singers are fairly rare.

Bass Clef

This clef is used on the staff to help communicate lower notes to musicians. It is used by cello, bass, and bassoon instrumentalists. The bass clef has a C-shaped symbol.

Basso Continuo

This specific type of bassline was created throughout the baroque period of classical music. It notated chords and allowed musicians to fill in the blanks according to the established key structure. It's usually used on a keyboard instrument.


A repeated pulsation in music that changes in pace based on the tempo and time signature of a song. Notes are used to represent different types of beats. Eighth notes, quarter notes, and whole notes all represent different beat values.


This slow composition can also be referred to as a lullaby. Berceuse usually have a simple melody. These soothing compositions were popularized in the 19th century.


A music or orchestra composition that has two distinct sections. The binary form was popularized during the baroque period. These compositions are usually structured as AABB.


This rhythm-based genre features folk instruments. The Bluegrass genre defined American roots music. It can be traced back to the 1940s in the Appalachian region.


This style of music is considered the origin of Jazz. Blues music was fairly slow in tempo and relied upon a predictable chord structure. This music originated from African-American spirituals created around the 1860s.

Brass Family

This family of instruments is made up of long brass tubes formed into different shapes. Air is blown into cup-shaped mouthpieces to produce sound. Some brass family instruments include the trumpet and the tuba.


A cadence is a sequence of chords that evokes a particular emotion at the end of a musical composition or musical phrase. The cadence of a song describes the relationship between two final chords. Modern pop music only uses 1 or 2 types of cadences most of the time.


This musical marking gives an instrumentalist or singer the opportunity to perform a solo that doesn't necessarily adhere to the original piece's structure or tempo. A cadenza looks like an arch with a dot underneath it. It usually has a "free-wheeling" rhythmic quality based heavily on improvisation.


A canon is a piece of music in which one melody is played by a group of instruments or musicians or vocalists and the same melody is repeated on a delay by a different group of instruments. This overlapping musical structure makes for a unique sonic experience. One of the most famous canon's is Pachelbel's Canon.


This refers to a lengthy choral work that focuses on a solo voice along with the instrumental accompaniment. Cantanas can also incorporate a full choir as a part of the musical piece. This style of music was developed in 17th century Germany.


This comes from the Italian word caprice. A capriccio is a lively piece of music that's usually free in form and short. Some capriccio composers include Bach and Frescobaldi on the keyboard.


This is a French song created from Middle Ages to the 20th century. A chanson is primarily driven by lyrics. You can find chansons throughout the late medieval and renaissance art periods.


This is a Lutheran hymn in which music moves in block chords. Bach is one of the most well-known chorale creators. A song can be considered a chorale if two or more voices are assigned to a voice part.


A chord is one or more notes are played simultaneously. Chords typically contain notes within the same key. Most chords are based on a particular key or family of notes.


A chromatic scale describes moving from one semitone to the next. This is in contrast to the diatonic scale, which is mainly based on whole steps. Chromatic scales move in a step-wise fashion.


A clef is a symbol written on a composition that determines the notes that will be played within a particular piece. You can find a clef on the left-hand side of a piece of music. The three main types of clefs include a treble, bass, and C clef.


A sheet music symbol that denotes where the final passage of music starts. The coda symbol looks like a circle with a cross running through it. In Italian, coda means "tail".


A type of singing that's considered highly decorated and skilled. This type of singing is performed by strong soprano singers. One famous coloratura example is 'Caro Nome' from Verdi's Rigoletto.


Compression is a type of processing used throughout the recording, mixing, and mastering process. A compressor aims to even out the overall amplitude of a processed signal bringing up the lowest sounds and lowering the highest sounds. There are several types of compressors, including side chain compressor s, multiband compressors , and glue compressors.


This type of instrumental music is contrasted by a small group of musicians or an ensemble. Concertos originate from the late Baroque era. They typically have a three-movement structure.


A countertenor is a male singer that shares a similar range of a typically female alto. This can sometimes be used to refer to falsetto range, though these terms are different technically speaking. Some famous countertenors include Andreas Scholl and Klaus Nomi. Note that this range is fairly rare.


Crescendo is used to notate a gradual increase in volume in a piece of music. It looks similar to a "lesser-than" symbol. It derives from the Italian word meaning "grow".


DAW stands for digital audio work station . This is what producers use to create music electronically. Examples of DAWs include Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro.

Da Capo

This sheet music marking tells the band or orchestra to go back to the beginning of a piece of music once reaching the da capo. It is abbreviated as D. C. This marking helps save valuable space in sheet music.

Dal Segno

This sheet music marking communicates to the instrumentalists to resume playing the piece from a non-adjacent section marked by a star-like symbol. It's derived from the Italian word for "from the sign". This is another marking that helps composers save space on sheet music.


This dynamic instruction notates a gradual decrease in volume in a piece of music. It kind of looks like a "greater-than" symbol. It's considered the opposite or crescendo.


This is a stand-out voicing in a piece of music that is usually pitched higher than the original melody. You can also think of a descant as a counter-melody. You'll commonly find descants within church melodies.

Dotted Half-Note

Adding a dot to a note increases the value of a note by half. Therefore, a dotted half note would consist of three beats, since a natural half note consists of two beats. As the name suggests, the dotted half note looks like a traditional note with a dot next to it.


This is similar to decrescendo and notates a gradual decrease in volume in a piece of music. It's similar to decrescendo. It can refer to a short measure of music or the gradual decrease of volume over a full section of a song.


Notes that sound as though they need resolution. Dissonance creates plenty of tension. The greatest amount of dissonance can be found between two adjacent semitones played simultaneously.


This is a piece of music where the main voicing is designed for two distinct performers. There are plenty of examples of duets all throughout history. Some examples include "Don't o Breaking My Heart" or "Love Shack".


A duo is defined by two performers. There are plenty of famous musical duos throughout history. Some more famous examples include Simon & Garfunkel and Hall and Oates.


This is a rhythm in which each measure has two beats. Duple is a specific type of meter. Some time signatures that can be considered a duple are 6/8 and 6/4.

Dynamic Markings

Dynamic markings are used to notate changes in the intensity or amplitude of a piece of music. These are incredibly useful for instrumentalists. Some examples of dynamic markings include piano, forte, and mezzo forte.


Dynamics refer to the overall energy of a piece, usually measured in how loud or soft a piece of music is. Some markings that communicate a change in dynamics include a crescendo and decrescendo. This is an extremely important element in music that can completely change the overall mood of a song.


An EQ or equalizer is used to clean up or enhance frequencies throughout the music production process.  You can use an EQ through subtractive or additive EQ processes. EQs are one of the most valuable music production tools and are used through recording, mixing, and mastering.


A form of music used to express serious reflection, sometimes used as a reflection for the dead. An elegy can be a written poem or put to music. One of the most famous elegy pieces is "Fauré's Elegy".


This is when the audience requests another song after the end of a musician's performance. You'll commonly see this practice at concerts: After the band or act leaves the stage, the audience will chant "encore" until the performer returns with a final song.


This term refers to notes that are technically the same pitch but under a different name. For instance, G sharp and A flat are different notes based on the context that reside at the same pitch. Another example is E sharp and F which are technically the same notes, though you would typically just say "F".


A group of instrumentalists playing together, usually in a small group. For instance, a jazz quartet might be an example of an ensemble. Some famous ensembles include the Arditti quartet or Tambuco.


An Italian word for "expressive". This marking notes that a section of music should be played with extra expression and variety. Expressivo might also encourage physical expression from performers.


This is the French word for "study". These pieces of music are deliberately challenging and designed to improve instrumentalist technique. You can find plenty of etudes by composers like Liszt and Chopin.


Expression is used to describe the qualities of music and effects. Automating expression parameters in a DAW can help an electronically produced beat have more a "live" feel. For instance, you might alter how fast a note a played or with what force to shift the expression.


A continuous loop of usually unpleasant resonance created when the sound coming out of speakers is picked up by a microphone. This resonance loop can be sharp and disturbing to listeners and needs to be broken to stop the sound. Usually, that equates to moving the microphone or amplifier's position.


This is a notation that denotes a pause in music for an undefined length of time as determined by the orchestral composition director. A fermata is also known as a hold. This musical symbol is made up of a curved line and dot underneath it.


A note symbol that takes a natural note's pitch down one semitone. This lowers the sound of a note. For instance, F flat is lower than F natural.


This genre is characterized by storytelling typically passed down from one generation to the next. Folk music usually highlights strong songwriting and acoustic instrumentals. Some famous folk artists include Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.


Song form refers to the particular structure of a track. There are many different ways to write a song that utilize different song forms. Some forms include verse-chorus form and 12 bar blues.


This Italian word and dynamic marking means loud. It is also the root of fortissimo which means extra loud. It is symbolized with an italicized F.


This dynamic instruction tells an instrumentalist to initially play a note or musical section loudly and then continue with a sustained soft dynamic. It is literally a combination of the dynamic terms "forte" and "piano". This instruction is notated with an italicized fp.


A type of music that utilizes two or more voices that are built upon a central theme, repeated at the beginning of a piece. Fugue can also be used to describe a section of a piece. Some famous fugue examples include  J.S. Bach's Fugue No. 16 in G minor.


This is the crossover of jazz and rock genres. It was developed in the late 1960s and blended jazz's harmony and improvisation with a rock structure. Some famous fusion acts include Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.


This refers to a particular category of music. Some genres of music include Pop, Hip Hop, EDM, and Rock. Different genres have various characteristics like a typical tempo range, melodic style, and instrumentation.


This is a lively dance from the Baroque period, sometimes called an English jig. This dance and song form is characterized by a duple meter. It originated from France in the 1650s.


This is the Italian word for playful. It notates that a piece of music should be played lively and cheerfully. You can think of the children's song "Wheels on The Bus" as an example of a song that's played with this tone quality.


This instructs instrumentalists to slide from one pitch to the next, rather than creating a distinction between each note. It's derived from the French term "glisser" which means "to glide". It is notated as a squiggle between two notes.


An instrument that consists of metal bars that are struck by a mallet. This percussion instrument is arranged in a keyboard-like layout. The keys are monophonic and play a single tone.


A religious style of music that doesn't necessarily adhere to a specific tempo. This music is typically associated with Christianity. It usually uses dominant vocals and can be traced back to the early 17th century.

Grand Staff

The grand staff consists of both the treble and bass staves with ledger lines in between. These staff or staves connect through the middle C note which is also known as C4 on a piano. You'll commonly see the grand staff written out for piano music.


This marks an extremely slow tempo below 60 BPM. Grave is an Italian word for solemn. This tempo marking was used in pieces like Adagio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Half Step

This distance is a single semitone. For instance, the two notes C and C sharp have a half step between them. The distance between E and F is also a half step since there is no black key in between them. Moving up half a step is how one creates a chromatic scale.


This is a method of using body percussion to make music. Hambone originated from the African-American style of dance called Juba. This technique uses stomping and slapping to produce rhythm and percussion.


When two or more notes are played simultaneously. Usually, harmonies are created off of the strongest relationship of notes in relation to a melody. A major chord is based on creating harmony with a tonic note and two more notes.


This is a type of composition with a humorous or funny tone. Humouresques originated in Germany. They are typically performed on the piano.

Home Tone

The home tone is also known as the tonic and stands as the strongest tone that defines a particular key. For instance, the home tone in a C major scale is the root note C. The home tone builds all scales and chord progressions within a family of notes.


This is a song of religious worship. Hymns often utilize the same lyrics and rhythm, though melodies can change from one piece to the next. These pieces of music are usually well-known by a group of people.


This style of art and music was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century. This form of music is designed to capture mood and atmosphere above all else through musical expression. One of the most famous impressionism pieces is 'Clair de Lune' by Claude Debussy.


This is the act of creating music spontaneously, usually over some form of repeated instrumental or rhythm. You'll find improvisation all throughout jazz music. Improvisation is usually performed by one instrumentalist at a time while the rest of the group holds the same pattern.

Instrument Families

These are different groups of instruments that are grouped together based on how they are constructed and played. Each instrument within a family shares key similarities. The five instrument families include strings, keyboard, woodwind, brass, and percussion.


An instrumental refers to the backing track of a piece of music, that doesn't include any vocals. It could also refer to a song that doesn't feature a vocalist. Music producers create the instrumental backing of tracks. You


An interval refers to a specific distance between any two notes or pitches. You can describe a musical interval as horizontal, linear, or melodic. Some of the strongest intervals are a perfect octave or perfect fourth.


This term refers to an imprecise expression of pitch. Intonation can be described as sharp, flat, or hitting the natural note with precision. You can also think of innovation in terms of speech. Your voice asks a question differently than the way you express a statement.


An introduction of a piece of music refers to the opening section that prepares the listener for the main body of the song. Some songs have long introductions, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven". Today, having a long introduction is much rarer.


This refers to a change in pitch based on the placement of notes usually within a chordal structure. Anything outside the tonic on the bottom of a chord is considered inverted. So, a C Major chord written as E G C or G E C would be considered an inversion.


This revolutionary style of music was created in the early 20th century by African Americans. Jazz is characterized by syncopated rhythms, chords, strong harmonic structures, and plenty of improvisation.


This type of music is super lively and usually placed at the end of a Baroque piece. A jig is typically in 9/8 time. A famous jig example is the Irish Kesh Jig.

Key Signature

A key is a family of notes that are sonically pleasing when played amongst one another. The key signature is a marking at the beginning of a staff that dictates which key is used in a piece of music. The common key signature, also called common time, is 4/4.


This word means large in Italian. Largo refers to a large and slow-moving pace. One of the best examples of a largo pace is in the second movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 From the New World.


This is the amount of time it takes for your audio signal to convert to your interface in music production. Too much latency can cause a noticeable delay. A high-quality interface shouldn't produce excess latency.


This marking asks that a series of notes is played connected and smoothly, as opposed to distinct and disjointed. The legato marking looks as though the affected notes are tied together. Notes written in a legato can still be individually articulated.


Leggiero is Italian for lightly. The term instructs musicians to play lightly and without force. It's often implied that the dynamics of a leggier piece are piano or mezzo.


A short, repeated musical phrase that serves as a driving force throughout a piece of music. It is a leading motif within a song structure. One great example of Leitmotif is in the "James Bond" theme song.


This instruction asks string-playing musicians to use the wooden side of the bow in a section of music. It translates to "with the wood". This unique technique was used in  "Dream of Witches' Sabbath" in the final movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.


This is a song with a slow tempo, sometimes used to help babies drift off to sleep. Any song can serve as a lullaby, but usually, it's a piece written with a slower tempo and soft singing style. Examples include "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".

Ledger Line

This is a line that's added below or above a musical staff to notate a particularly high or low note. It appears as a line that's separated from the staff. Blank lines are also displayed so the musician can figure out exactly where a note resides.


MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface . This type of communication in music production allows the producer to communicate directly to a DAW through a hardware piece like a controller. Some examples of popular MIDI controllers include the AKAI MPK Mini or the Ableton Push.


Major keys and chords typically have a happier, resonant sound. An easy example of a major scale is C Major which consists of all white notes on the piano -- C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. The formula of a major scale is a whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, and finally half step.


Audio mastering is the final stage in the music production process and helps bring out the best dynamics for a piece of music's intended playback location. During the mastering process, a final mix is compressed according to desired playback outputs. This can be done through an audio engineer or using Emastered's powerful algorithm .


A measure refers to a contained section within a piece of written music. It contains a certain amount of beats which is determined by a song's key signature. The beat contained within a measure is determined by the key signature.

Melodic Motif

A melodic motif is a repeated theme throughout a piece of music. Motifs are often in the chorus, but they don't necessarily have to be. The opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are a great example of a melodic motif.

Melodic Shape

This is the arc or shape of notes created by a musical phrase. A contoured melodic shape helps create more memorable melodies throughout a piece of music. You can describe a song's melodic shape by looking at the movement across a musical phrase.


Meter refers to the patterns of rhythm repeated throughout a composition. Some types of meters include duple or triple. The main two subsets of a meter are simple and compound.


Mezzo means "medium" in Italian.  It's used to describe subsets within larger vocal ranges. For instance, a mezzo soprano has a higher tone than an alto signer, but lower than a soprano. It can also refer to dynamics with a term like mezzo forte.


A minor scale, key or chorus typically has a sadder sound as opposed to major tone quality. Minor keys are notated with a lowercase m or Roman numeral. The most simple minor scale is A minor, which consists of all of the white keys:  A, B, C, D, E, F, G.


This is a type of dance that has three beats per measure. Minuets often have two different sections which originate from ballroom dancing. This style of music utilizes the time signatures 3/4 and 3/8.


Mixing is an important part of the music production process. This occurs before mastering and helps balance out the levels of instruments and other voicings in a track. In order to mix properly, it's important to properly record musical elements since every production stage builds off of the former.


This tempo marking conveys a medium or moderate speed. The term is largely ambiguous and open to interpretation per the conductor. Generally speaking, it's faster than mandate but slower than allegretto.


Monophonic refers to a single voicing in a piece of music as opposed to multiple voices conveyed in polyphonic music. This could also be a song made up of just a solo singer. Folk songs are often monophonic since they were traditionally passed down manually from one generation to the next.


This sign cancels out a sharp or flat notated in a key signature temporarily. It has a distinct sign and appears to the left of the note it's affecting. The natural cancels any previous accidentals, in other words.


This is a style of music that fused together classical music and baroque music in the 20th century. This movement sought to restore the traditional, classical structure. Some famous neoclassical composers include Arthur Berger and Aaron Copland.


This is a type of musical piece that is characteristically quiet and reflective. Nocturnes are typically performed on piano. A famous nocturne example is Chopin's Nocturnes, Op. 9 .


These are symbols that represent sound each holding different time values. You'll find different types of notes like quarter notes, whole notes, half notes, and eight notes which each represent a different time value. Solid colored verses open notes also hold different values.


The distance between two of the same note at higher or lower frequencies. An octave consists of the distance of eight notes. So, a C4 and C5 note are an octave apart.


This is a type of theatrical genre where music is performed and continuous throughout. It's a subset of classical music. Some of the most famous operas include Giulio Cesare and L'Orfeo.


A term used to categorize a composer's works.  Classical music didn't have the unique names songs are given today, instead, works were simply numbered. For instance, Beethoven alone wrote 138 opuses in his lifetime.


A sacred type of large-scale work intended for orchestral accompaniment and voices. This large musical arrangement has discernible characters, a choir, and soloists. Oratorios were popularized in early 17th-century Italy.


A performance group that consists of several families of instruments. The typical symphony orchestra consists of brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds. In its simplest terms, an orchestra is a group of musicians featuring instrumentalists from various instrumental groups.


A repeated musical phrase. An ostinato is similar to a musical motif, though it's usually repeated in the exact same voicing as its original introduction. This phrase is usually short and repeated throughout a piece of music.


Panning refers to the position of a particular sound on the left and right sides of the stereo field. Producers can automate the pan placement of various musical elements to create a more dynamic song. It's also why you might not hear all instrument parts if you were to take out a single earbud while listening to a piece of music.


This five-note scale adopted from Eastern music is seen all throughout western music today. It utilizes 5 notes. In F# Major, the pentatonic scale rests on the same notes as the black keys on the piano. Therefore, the F# Major pentatonic scale is F#, G#, A#, and D#.

Percussion Family

Instruments that produce sound from being struck. Some examples include drums, xylophones, gong, or a piano. You can find hundreds of individual instruments within the percussion family, though only about ten or twenty are frequently used in percussion.


A musical phrase is a sonic thought or sentence. Sometimes, phrase markings are written into a piece of music to help direct the flow of the composition. Typically, a musical phrase has a distinct arc and starts on the tonic note of a piece, though this isn't a hard and fast rule.


This dynamic marking means "very soft". The dynamic marking is showcased as pp in a piece of music.  It's the opposite of fortissimo.


This is the Italian dynamic marking that means "soft". A piano is notated a p in a piece of music. It also refers to the keyed percussion instrument.


This is a particular sound associated with a certain frequency. Pitches can be classified into different notes which make up the musical alphabet, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. There are also more precise pitches in between each of these base notes.


A compositional marking that asks string players to pluck their instruments. This makes the string players pluck the instrument with their hands rather than using a bow. It is notated as pizz in a piece of music.

Poco a Poco

This means "little-by-little".  It commands a gradual transition within a piece of music. Poco a poco could describe just about any compositional direction and is notated as poco in compositions.


Polyphony refers to multiple voices. This is in contrast to a monophonic piece of music, where there is only one voicing. For instance, a piece with polyphony will have parts written for alto and soprano simultaneously.


This is when multiple rhythms are played simultaneously. It is also called cross-rhythm. These complicated beats are usually found in Jazz music.


This tempo marking means "fast".  It is usually placed in music with a fast, upbeat tempo. One example of composition played in this manner is the famous "Flight of the Bumblebee".


A rhythmic notation that asks for the musician to play five notes in the space that a quarter note usually occupies. This is a grouping of five sixteenth notes. This can exist in both simple and compound meters.


This 19th-century music style is defined by highly syncopated melodies. It peaked in popularity between 1895 and 1919. One example of ragtime music is The Entertainer by Scott Joplin.


This is an instruction to gradually play slower. It literally means "to relax".  It is similar to ritardando but technically different.


This refers to the distance between a singer or instrumentalist's lowest and highest possible notes. Altos, sopranos, tenors, and bass voicing all have different ranges. Musicians with greater range can perform a larger amount of songs.


A repeated section in a piece of music. The refrain is often in the chorus, but it doesn't necessarily have to adhere to this rule. In Latin, this term means "to repeat".


A marking used to notate space where music isn't being played within a composition. Rests have different values, just like notes. They have their own marking and also rely on the time signature for value.


An echo-like effect caused by sound reflections against surfaces. Reverb is one of the most commonly used effects within a DAW. There are also several different types of reverb including hall reverb and plate reverb.


An epic, typically long recitation of music or a poem. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" encompasses this definition to a T. Rhapsodies don't necessarily need a typical strong structure since they are essentially poems set to music.


An organization of the strong and weak beats throughout a piece of music. This is one of the main elements of music. Different types of genres showcase various rhythms.


The gradual slowing of a piece of music. This marking is extended by a dashed, horizontal line. When the line ends, the piece can return to its base tempo.


Rondo is used to describe music that is fast and vivacious. This music started as monophonic in the 13th century but evolved to polyphonic in the 14th. You might recognize the rondo “Fur Elise” by Beethoven.


Tempo marking allows a conductor to temporarily stray away from the piece's parent tempo. This provides variation from one performance to the next. One example of Rubato is Chopin's Nocturne in B Flat Minor, Op. 9.


An electronic instrument that's used to process small pieces of audio. This can be a hardware instrument or an electronic component within your DAW. Samplers process audio to create a flipped version of something in music production.


A sequence of notes within the same sonic family. Major and minor scales have radically different sounds. For instance, the C major scale and A minor scale sound radically different despite using the exact same notes.


The notation of a full composition. A score is often used to describe music written for film. However, in musical terms, it's simply the full notated body of work.


A pattern where a melody is played at a higher or lower pitch. A sequence is important since context matters in music. Our ears perceive sounds differently based on what was played before it and what comes after it.


A notation that raises a note up a semitone. Sharps are notated by a hashtag on the left side of the note. A C sharp note is higher than a C note.


To blend multiple notes together. The symbol of a slur is tied over the tops of the slurred notes. In a slur, individual notes aren't articulated.


The phonetic set of notes used to help singers establish strong relationships between individual notes. Singers use this tool to help intuitively build a key off a single note. The solfedge symbols are Do-Rei-Mei-Fa-Sol-La-Ti.


A single performer. This could also be referring to a solo instrument section, where one instrumentalist performs a section of music while the accompaniment is silent.


A genre that's characterized by offering up plenty of space for soloists and ensembles. Sonatas usually consist of two to four movements. A famous sonata is  Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C Major.


The highest voicing. Soprano singers have a range above alto singers and all other lower voicing. A soprano often carries the melody of a piece of music.


This means "sustained" in Italian. Sostenuto commands musicians to play notes past their original values. The notes are played out until otherwise directed by the conductor of the piece.


Notes that are played shorter than their usual values. Staccato notes are played in a short, detached manner. These notes are marked with a dot directly above or below the note.


The staff consists of the lines that a piece of music is written on. You'll find the time signature, tempo, and notes within the staff. Each line on the staff represents a different note name based on the key signature.


This is the plural version of the staff. A full stave is written out for an orchestra or large variety of instrumentalists playing within different ranges of music.

String Family

Instruments characterized by having a carved, hollow wooden body. Strings are strewn across sound holes and plucked to create sound. Some string family examples include violin, viola, and harp.


An orchestral composition consisting of several movements. Symphonies usually have a five-part orchestra. Some famous examples of symphonies include Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 and Brahm's Symphony No. 2.


Shifting the accented rhythms to create an offbeat groove. This can create a unique feel that's not always found in pop music. Syncopation is regularly found in Jazz and Funk music.


Tempo refers to how fast or slow a piece of music is played and is measured in BPM. This is the speed at which something is played. In most Western music, the tempo remains stagnant through a song.


This is the highest-pitched male singing voicing that is placed just below an alto range. Tenors are above the bass range. Famous tenor examples include Ed Sheehan and Sam Cooke.


This is a song form that has 3 sections. Ternary is another name for the ABA form. One famous example is  “The trumpet shall sound” from Handel's Messiah.


This is a main musical idea that usually embeds itself as the focus of a composition or song. A theme is repeated throughout a piece of music. Similar to written composition, themes often showcase the main idea of a song.


Timbre describes tone quality, or how one pitch could be distinguished from another. It's also known as tone color. Every instrument has its own timbre that sets it apart from other musical instruments.

Time Signature

The time signature determines how many beats per measure exist within any musical composition. It consists of two numbers stacked on top of each other. Common time signatures include 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8.


This is a composition intended for a very skilled musician or virtuoso. Toccatas are meant to demonstrate technical excellence. They include elements like high harmonies and quick runs.


This describes the characterization of any particular pitch. It helps describe the relationship between keys, notes, and chords. Tonal music has a specific home key as opposed to atonal music.


This is the first note or parent note of any particular scale. It's the strongest note within a scale and all other chords or melodies are built off of it. The tonic is considered "home-base" within a key.

Treble Clef

This is the clef most used in traditional notation. The treble clef located the G note on the second-lowest line of the staff. Like other clefs, the treble clef can be found on the far left of the staff.


This is when a musician quickly repeats a single note. The fast reputation produces a shaking effect. There are bowed tremolo and string tremolo.


This is a chord that consists of three notes. Triads are the most common chord type in Western music. A triad is usually made up of a tonic, third and fifth.


The rapid succession of two or more notes. In a trill, the notes played are usually only a semitone apart. You can find a prominent example of a trill at the end of Chopin's famous "Waltz in A Minor".


A group of three performers. This could be all singers or a group of three instrumentalists. Some famous trios include Nirvana or The Beastie Boys.


Tutti is the Italian word for "all". Therefore, a tutti section in music is defined by the entire instrument section joining in simultaneously. In most cases, "Tutti" refers to the whole orchestra playing rather than just isolated instruments.

Two-Part Songs

A song that has two distinct sections, sometimes with different keys or time signatures. One such song structure is verse-chorus form. "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder is an example of a two-part song.


Unison is when all instrumentalists or vocalists sing the same melody simultaneously. Often, chorus sections of songs are played in unison. Whenever everyone is singing or playing the same part, they are performing in unison.


VST stands for virtual technology. This can refer to any third-party virtual plugin used when operating a digital audio workstation, or DAW. VSTs can be effect plugins, separate instruments, or even MIDI patterns.


Song verses serve as the main idea of a song, furthering the track's narrative. It is usually placed in between chorus sections. The verses are usually the longest section of songs and rely on the lyrics for momentum.


While verses and choruses are entirely different, verse-chorus refers to a particular type of song structure. This is also known as a two-part song. One example of a verse-chorus composition would be Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car".


This refers to a slight variation in pitch, sometimes deliberately applied to produce a certain sonic experience. Technically speaking, this is the subtle oscillation between different pitches. Vibrato can be achieved while singing, or on an instrument.


This coveted term is used to describe a musician with exceptional skill and talent. Virtuoso is usually used to describe an instrumentalist or conductor. For instance, Yo-Yo Ma would be considered a virtuoso.


This Italian tempo marking commands a "very lively" atmosphere. Vivace usually equates to playing at a more upbeat tempo. An example of a vivace composition is Waltz Op. 70 No. 1 by Chopin.


Refers to the sound made when air passes over the human vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. There are many different types of voices . The most common voicing classifications include bass, tenor, alto, and soprano.


This is a dance that occurs in 3/4 or triple time. Waltzes typically have a strong accent on the first beat. A waltz usually rests somewhere between 84-96 BPM.

Whole Step

A whole step is two semitones. For instance, the note C to D is a whole step. The distance between C# and D# is also a whole step.

Woodwind Family

This is one of the main instrument families. Each of these instruments is defined by its use of a reed. Woodwind instruments, like the flute, piccolo, and oboe, all need air blown into them to produce sound.

Understanding musical terms can be challenging to say the least, but hopefully, this guide makes your process a bit easier. Enjoy learning the language of music!

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