The word opus in a glossary
K-12EducatorsLearnersEnglish Language Arts and LiteracyThe Arts

Music Glossary

Review music terms and definitions with this glossary.


a cappella: sung without instrumental accompaniment.

AB: a form made up of two contrasting sections, each of which may or may not be repeated.

ABA: a form made up of a principal section which is repeated after the completion of a contrasting section.

accelerando: Italian tempo marking meaning to gradually accelerate or speed up.

accent: stress, emphasis, force, or loudness given to a sound or tone.

accidental: the sharpening or flattening of a particular note not indicated in the key signature of a piece; the naturalizing of a note that is sharpened or flattened according to the key signature.

accompaniment: the subordinate music that supports the principal voice or instrument in a piece of music.

acoustics: the science of sound and how it’s produced.

adagio: quite slow.

al fine: to the finish.

allegro: Italian tempo marking meaning vivacious, rapid, fairly fast.

alto: the lowest female voice or unchanged boy’s voice; the range of pitch of an instrument within a particular family of instruments.

andante: Italian tempo marking meaning in a moderate rate, at a leisurely pace, easily flowing.

anthem: a short piece for choir on a religious theme.

aria: Italian word for song, mainly used to describe an opera song for a solo voice with orchestral accompaniment.

arpeggio: playing or singing the notes of a chord consecutively, as on a harp.

↑ Top


balance: the state of equilibrium in which all the component parts of the music create a unified whole.

ballads: songs that tell stories, many dating back hundreds of years; term also served as a title for piano pieces of a vaguely descriptive character.

ballet: form of theatrical dance; combination of music and dancing.

band: any large body of instrumental players (e.g., brass bands, military bands, dance bands, jazz bands, etc.).

banjo: a plucked instrument with a long guitar-like neck and circular soundtable.

bar: a small section of music; bar lines are vertical lines marking off groups of beats into small sections.

baritone: the range of male voice pitch that is deeper than tenor, but not so deep as bass.

bass: the deepest range of pitch of a man’s voice; the range of pitch of an instrument within a particular family of instruments.

bass clef: symbol placed on the five-line staff in traditional notation indicating the pitch of the notes and locating F on the fourth line from the bottom.

beat: the regular repeated pulsation in music.

binary: a form or structure in music that has two distinct and contrasting sections (AB), each of which may or may not be repeated.

bluegrass: a style of music featuring folk instruments; quite rhythmical.

blues: early and basic jazz style of music with a predictable chord structure; not religious and usually slow in tempo.

brass family: French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba; instruments made of long brass tubes curled up in different shapes with cup-shaped mouthpieces into which air is blown and wide, bell-shaped ends where the sound comes out.

↑ Top


cadence: a kind of harmonic punctuation mark (resting place in a musical phrase) that brings a piece or section of a piece of music to a satisfactory close.

cadenza: a section of a concerto movement that is reserved for a soloist. It was originally intended to be improvised upon the tune already heard, but most soloists plan their cadenzas ahead of performance.

call and response: a song style that follows a simple question/answer pattern in which one singer leads and a group responds.

canon: similar to a round, in which each part enters in a specific sequence with the same melody until the piece is brought to a satisfactory end.

chord: two or more notes of different pitch sounding together.

chordal: made up of chords.

chorus: a group of singers.

chromatic modulation: the process of changing from one key to an unrelated key in a composition.

chromatic scale: a scale consisting of successive half-steps.

classical: serious and formal in nature.

clef: a sign to indicate the name and pitch of the notes on the staff to which it is prefixed; the five types are soprano, treble, alto, tenor, and bass.

coda: a few measures or a section added to the end of a piece of music to “round it off” or make a more effective ending.

common time: meter in which a measure consists of four beats with a quarter note as the value of one beat.

compose: to invent or create music.

composer: a person who creates music.

composition: the act of composing or the work a composer creates.

concert: public performance.

concerto: Italian word for an orchestral composition with a major part for one or more instrumental soloists.

conductor: director of a musical group.

counter melody: an alternate melody sung or played with and as a companion to the main melody.

counterpoint: the compositional art of combining two or more simultaneous melodic lines; term means “point against point” or “note against note.”

crescendo: Italian dynamic marking meaning to gradually get louder.

↑ Top


da capo: from the beginning; indication to return to the beginning of a piece.

dal segno: repeat from the sign.

decrescendo: Italian dynamic marking meaning to gradually get softer.

descant: a melodic part pitched higher than and concurrent with the melody.

diminuendo: Italian dynamic marking meaning to gradually get softer.

dissonance: combination of tones that sounds discordant and unstable, in need of resolution.

dotted half-note: In traditional notation, adding a dot after a note increases its value by half; so since a half-note frequently is given two beats, a dot after it gives it a third.

duet: a piece of music for two performers.

dulcimer: an American stringed instrument popularized in the Appalachian region; also called lap dulcimer.

duo: two performers.

duple: double rhythm of two beats to the measure.

dynamics: element of music relating to the degree of intensity or loudness in musical tones.

dynamic markings: words and symbols in a score indicating the degree of intensity or loudness in musical tones.

↑ Top


elements of music: dynamics, form, harmony, melody, texture, timbre, rhythm, tempo.

encore: “again”; when performers perform another piece at audience request after the end of a performance.

ensemble: several performers playing together.

etude: French term for “study”; a piece of music concerned with some aspect of musical technique.

expression: the meaning, effects, and emotion that make the music come alive.

↑ Top


fermata: a pause or hold of variable length determined by the performer or conductor.

flat: a sign indicating that a note should be lowered in pitch by one half-step.

folk songs: songs handed down from generation to generation.

form: the overall structural organization of a musical composition (e.g., AB, ABA, call/response, fugue, rondo, theme and variations, sonata allegro, etc.) and the interrelationships of music events within the overall structure.

forte: Italian dynamic term for “loud.”

fortissimo: Italian dynamic term for “very loud.”

fugue: a form in which a theme is first stated on its own, then imitated by others, with each one joining in a short while after the last.

fusion: the combination of jazz and rock.

↑ Top


gavotte: a Baroque dance of French peasant origin that is sometimes included in instrumental suites.

genre: a type or category of music (e.g., sonata, opera, oratorio, art song, gospel, suite, jazz, madrigal, march, work song, lullaby, barbershop, Dixieland).

gospel: religious style of music; free-form, not in strict time.

gourd banjo: a gourd with a skin head and a long stick with four strings attached; early American instrument brought from Africa.

grand staff: a staff that includes the treble and bass staves and the ledger lines between.

grave: Italian term for an expression of mood that is solemn and slow in nature.

↑ Top


half-step: the smallest distance between two pitches.

hambone: using body percussion to make music.

hammer dulcimer: trapezoidal box instrument with more than 100 strings, played by striking strings with small mallets.

harmony: an element of music concerned with combining notes and parts simultaneously.

home tone: a term commonly used for the first or key tone of any scale; same as tonic.

↑ Top


improvise: to create music spontaneously.

instrument families: four separate groups of instruments into which the orchestra is divided: string, woodwind, brass, and percussion.

instrumental: using instruments only, with no words.

interval: the distance between any two pitches and/or notes.

introduction: the beginning that prepares for the main part of the piece.

invention: fairly short keyboard piece.

inversion: a change according to pitch in the placing of notes within a chord; mirror or upside-down image of a melody or pattern.

↑ Top


jazz: a style of music created in the early 20th century by African Americans, characterized by strong, syncopated rhythms, particular chords and harmonic structures, and a large amount of improvisation.

↑ Top


key: the basic scale and tonality of a composition.

key signature: the sharps or flats placed at the beginning of a composition or line of music denoting the scale on which the music is based.

↑ Top


largo: Italian tempo marking for slow, broad, and stately; also the name of a type of composition.

legato: Italian term for describing a manner of playing that is smooth and connected and has a flowing effect.

ledger line: a short line added above or below normal staff lines to indicate notes of extra-high or -low pitch.

lento: Italian tempo marking for “slow.”

libretto: the words of a piece of music (e.g., opera, cantata, oratorio, etc.).

lullaby: a song to make a baby sleep.

↑ Top


major: tonality based on a major scale.

major scale: a scale built on the formula of an ascending pattern of two whole steps, one half-step, three whole steps, one half-step.

march: a type of military music for marching to.

measure: a rythmic grouping or metrical unit that contains a fixed number of beats.

melodic motif: a short musical phrase used in development or imitation.

melody/melodic shape: an element of music that deals with the organized progression of single tones or pitches.

meter: the grouping in which a succession of rhythmic pulses or beats is organized, indicated by a meter signature at the beginning of the piece. Duple meter has two beats per measure; triple meter has three beats per measure.

meter signature: the indication of the basic rhythm of a bar within a piece. It looks like an arithmetic fraction: The upper number indicates the number of beats to a bar, and the lower number indicates how the beats should be measured.

mezzo: Italian dynamic term meaning “medium”; mezzo forte means medium loud; mezzo piano means medium soft.

MIDI: acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface; standard specifications that enable electronic instruments such as synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, and drum machines from different manufacturers to communicate with one another and with computers.

minor: tonality based on a minor scale.

minor scale: a scale built on a formula of an ascending pattern of a whole step, a half-step, two whole steps, a half-step, and two whole steps.

minuet: a court dance with three beats to a measure.

moderato: a tempo marking for medium or moderate rate of speed.

monophonic: a texture featuring a single unaccompanied melodic line.

movement: complete self-contained part of a larger musical work.

↑ Top


natural: a musical sign that cancels a sharp or flat; a natural note is one that is neither sharpened nor flattened.

nocturne: literally means “night piece”; a musical piece that is generally quiet and reflective in nature.

notation: the representation of musical tones by written characters.

notes: symbols of sound (e.g., whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth). When 4 is the bottom number of the meter signature, a whole note receives 4 counts, a half note receives 2 counts, a quarter note receives 1 count, an eighth note receives one-half count, and a sixteenth note receives one-quarter count.

↑ Top


octave: a Latin term for eight; with reference to the distance between notes of the same letter name, eight notes higher or lower.

octet: eight performers or a piece for eight performers.

opera: musical stage drama that generally is sung throughout.

oratorio: religious opera without stage action or costumes.

orchestra: a performance group of diverse instruments; in Western music, an ensemble of multiple string parts with various woodwind, brass, and percussion parts.

ostinato: a musical phrase that is repeated over and over again.

overture: French term meaning “opening”; orchestral music played at the beginning of many operas and other stage work; a concert overture is an independent composition.

↑ Top


pentatonic scale: five-tone scale; often used as a scale similar to the pattern of the black keys on a piano.

percussion family: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, woodblock, gong, piano, and hundreds of other instruments that make sound when struck, shaken, or scraped.

phrase: a musical thought or sentence; phrase marks are printed in music to help interpret the natural flow of the music.

pianissimo: Italian dynamic marking for “very soft.”

piano: Italian dynamic marking for “soft”; keyboard instrument in which sounds are created by hammers striking strings when the corresponding keys are pressed.

pitch: the highness or lowness of a tone, as determined by the frequency of vibrations per second.

pitch numbers: the numbers 1 through 8 associated with the tones of the scale to assist in music reading and in ear training.

polyphony: Greek term for “many sounds”; interweaving a number of melodic lines or parts; polyphonic is texture in which two or more melodies sound at the same time.

polyrhythm: several rhythms at the same time.

prelude: a short piece that precedes or introduces a more substantial piece; can also describe some piano pieces that are self-contained in their style.

presto: a tempo marking meaning “fast”; prestissimo means “very fast.”

↑ Top


quartet: four performers or a piece of music for four performers.

question/answer: a formal structure where each successive phrase or section is formed as a response to the preceding one.

quintet: five performers or a piece of music for five performers.

↑ Top


ragtime: late 19th-century style characterized by highly syncopated melodies; contributed to early jazz.

range: distance between the lowest and highest tones of a melody or the lowest and highest tones an instrument or voice can produce.

rap: a subgenre of rock in which rhymed lyrics are spoken over rhythm tracks.

recitative: a reciting of words in a song-like way.

refrain: also called chorus; the part of a song repeated at the end of each verse or section.

repeat sign: signifies that the music between double-dotted bars is to be repeated.

rest: a period of silence; rests are indicated by symbols which correspond to the various durations of notes.

rhythm: the element of music that deals with the beat or pulse and the distribution of notes within that beat.

rhythmic durations: whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

ritardando: Italian tempo marking meaning to gradually get slower.

rondo: a piece in which one recurring theme is interspersed with a series of new themes.

round: similar to a canon; a musical piece in which each part joins in turn with the same melody, all following each other until all end.

↑ Top


sacred music: music of a religious nature.

scale: a sequence of tones which progress step by step in pitch and serve as the basis of a composition.

score: a notation showing all the parts of a musical composition.

secular music: music not of a religious nature.

sequence: a pattern within a melody that is repeated at a higher or lower pitch.

sforzando: Italian dynamic marking that means a note or chord should be played with strong emphasis.

sharp: sign indicating that a note should be raised in pitch by a half-step.

signature: the sharps and flats at the head of the staff indicating the key.

slap: a technique for creating sounds in body percussion.

slur: to perform two or more notes legato; also, a curved line placed above or below two or more notes of different pitch to indicate that they are to be performed in legato style.

solo: one performer or a piece of music for one performer.

sonata-allegro form: a form made up of an opening section called theexposition, in which major themes are presented; a middle section called thedevelopment, in which thematic material undergoes a variety of alterations; and a third section called the recapitulation, in which the material of the exposition is restated.

sonata: instrumental genre in several movements for soloists or small ensembles.

soprano: the highest range in pitch of a woman’s voice.

spirituals: religious folk songs of African Americans, often conveying strong feelings and emotions.

staccato: short, detached sounds indicated by a dot over or under a note; the opposite of legato.

staff: the names of the lines and spaces drawn horizontally in sets of five on which notes and rests are notated.

standard notation: music written on one or more staves, using traditional note symbols and clefs to indicate pitch positions.

staves: plural of staff.

string family: violin, viola, cello, bass, harp; the largest family in the orchestra. String instruments have carved, hollow wooden bodies with four strings running from one end to the other. Strings are plucked with fingers (pizzicato) or played with a bow (arco). The bow is made of wood and horsehair. The harp has 46 strings that are plucked or strummed by the hands.

style: the distinctive or characteristic manner in which the elements of music are treated. In practice, the term may be applied to composers (the style of Copeland), periods (Baroque style), media (keyboard style), nations (French style), form or type of composition (fugal style), or genre (operatic style, bluegrass style).

suite: a collection of pieces usually linked by some particular theme or idea.

symbolic notation: the system of expressing musical sounds through the use of written symbols called notes.

symphony: orchestra composition of several movements; also used in reference to a group of instrumentalists.

syncopation: a temporary shifting of the accent in music so that the stress falls between the strong beats.

↑ Top


tarantella: a piece written as a fast and lively dance; originated in Italy, where the dance was supposed to either be caused by the bite of a tarantula spider or be a cure for it.

tempo: the rate of speed of a piece of music.

tenor: the highest-pitched male voice; the range of pitch of an instrument within a particular family of instruments.

ternary: designates a form or structure in music that has three sections, with the first section repeated after the second section (ABA form).

texture: the number of simultaneously sounding lines; the manner in which horizontal pitch sequences are organized (homophonic, monophonic, polyphonic).

theme: the main musical idea.

theme and variations: a compositional form in which an initial theme is stated, then followed by various musical treatments of that theme.

timbre: often referred to as tone quality; the quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument or voice from another.

time: the division of the measure into equal parts.

time signature: the indication of the basic rhythm within a piece (see meter signature).

toccata: a virtuoso composition, generally for organ or harpsichord, in a free and rhapsodic style. In the Baroque period, it often was the introduction to a fugue.

tonality: the term used to describe the organization of the melodic and harmonic elements to give a feeling of a key center or tonic pitch.

tonal syllables: syllables used to facilitate singing or reading of the scale; the commonly used syllables are do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, and do. The practice of reading and singing with syllables is also known as solfege.

tonic: the first tone or key tone of any scale.

treble clef: symbol placed on the five-line staff in traditional notation indicating the pitch of the notes and locating G on the second line from the bottom.

triad: three-note chord.

trio: three performers or a piece for three performers.

tutti: Italian term for “all”; describes a section for full chorus and/or orchestra.

two-part songs: songs written for performance by two distinct voices.

↑ Top


unison: singing or playing the same notes by all singers or players, either at exactly the same pitch or in a different octave.

↑ Top


verse: a section of the song that changes after each refrain.

verse-chorus: a refrain that is repeated.

vibrato: a slight variation in pitch of the sounding note.

virtuoso: a performer of exceptional technical skill.

vivace: Italian tempo marking meaning “very lively.”

voice: the sound produced in humans when air passes over the vocal cords, making them vibrate. The most common singing voice parts are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB).

↑ Top


whole step: a distance of two half-steps in the same direction.

whole-tone scale: a scale made up entirely of whole steps.

woodwind family: flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra-bassoon; instruments played by blowing air into them, either through a reed or reeds that vibrate (as in clarinet, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, and contra-bassoon) or across an opening (as in flute and piccolo).

↑ Top