Glossary of musical terms

If you are learning to read sheet music, or taking piano lessons, you may come across a term you are not familiar with. Your tutor will be able to help you understand the terminology and interpret it correctly according to the piece.

For quick reference, consult this handy glossary of some of the more common musical terms you might encounter as you learn to play the piano.

A CAPPELLA – without musical accompaniment

ACCIACCATURA – a very fast grace note

ACCENT – stress a note, or part of a beat

ADAGIO – slowly

ADANTE – moderately

AGITATO – agitatedly

ALLEGRO – fast and lively

ALTO – high; alto is second-highest voice in the choir

ANTINOMIES – two voices in conversation

ARPEGGIO – separate notes of a chord played one after the other

BASS – low notes; then lowest voice in the choir

BASSO CONTINUO – continuous bass sound

BEAT – a steady pulse or rhythm

BRIDGE – a connection between two parts or themes of a piece of music

CANDENZA – a solo piece in a concerto

CANTABILE – in a ‘sing song’ style

CANTATA – a piece of music intended for recitals in a church

CHORD – two or more notes played together; normally, a chord will have three notes

CODA – the closing section of a movement

COLORATURA – with colour

COMMON TIME – the time signature 4/4

CONCERTO – a piece in which a solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra

CONTOUR – the direction of the melody, ascending in tones or descending

CONTRAPUNTAL – two melodic lines that are played at the same time

CRESCENDO – increasing in volume

DESCRESCEDO – decreasing in volume

DEVELOPMENT – middle section in a piece of music that develops opening motifs

DIMINUENDO – decreasing in volume

DYNAMICS – loud notes, soft notes

ETUDE – a piece of music designed to enable practice of an instrument

EXPOSITION – themes heard for the first time

FORTE – loud

FUGUE – a complex contrapuntal form

GLISSANDO – a continuous slide from one pitch to the next

HARMONY – two sounds played together that complement each other

IMPROVISING – to make something up on the spot

LARGO – broadly, slowly

LEGATO – joined, smooth

MELODY – notes in succession with different pitches

METER – the number of beats in a measure

MEZZO-SOPRANO – a voice range between alto and soprano

MOTIVE – a melody that is repeated throughout a piece of music

MOVEMENT – part of a longer piece of music

OBSTINATO – obstinate, persistent

OCTAVE – eight successive notes that form a scale

PIANO – soft

PIZZICATO – plucked

RANGE – lowest to highest notes

RECAPITULATION – final of a piece of music

REQUIEM – music for a funeral or mass

RHYTHM – the steady beat of music aligned with the tempo

RONDO – a section of music that alternates with two separate sections

SCHERZO – a playful piece or section

SONATA – a piece in four movements

SOPRANO – very high; the highest musical voice

SOTTO VOCE – soft and under-spoken

STACCATO – short, disconnected notes

SYMPHONY – a long work for an orchestra consisting of four or more movements

SYNCOPATION – accenting a weak beat or part of a beat

TACET – silent

TEMPO – the speed of the beat

TENOR – medium; the second lowest musical voice

THEME – a melody that forms the basis of a longer piece

TIME SIGNATURE – the meter and type of note for a section of music

TREMELO – rapid repetition of two notes

VARIATION – a development of a theme

VIBRATO - vibrating

VIRTUOSO – a gifted musician

If you would like to put some of these terms into practise then you will need a suitable instrument to play them on. Why not check out some of our fantastic pianos for sale here.