Music Notation and Terminology


Miscellaneous Terms

A battuta—with the beat; in strict rhythm.

À quatre mains—for four hands.

Accompagnamento—the accompaniment.

All'unisono—in unison.

Alla breve—2/2 measure.

The term alla breve is also sometimes used as a tempo indication, to show a rate of speed so great that a half-note has a beat, i.e., only two beats in a measure—hence twice as fast as before.

Alla capella—usually the same as a capella (see , Sec. 162) but sometimes used in the same sense as alla breve.

Alla marcia—in march style.

Alla zingara—in gypsy style.

Alt—see in alt.

Alto—the lowest female voice. Range approximately g-e''.

The word alto is derived from the Latin word altus, meaning high, the term being formerly applied to the highest male voice, which originally sang (and still does so in many male choirs) the alto part.

Animato come sopra—in animated style as above.

Antiphony (antiphonal)—the responsive singing of two choirs, usually one at either end of the church, or at either side of the chancel.

Arabesque—an instrumental composition in light, somewhat fantastic style.

The term arabesque is derived from the word Arabian, and was originally applied to a style of decoration.

Arioso—in the style of an air or song, i.e., a flowing, vocal style.

Attacca—attack the next division without any pause.

Attacca subito—same as attacca.

Attacca subito il seguente—attack at once that which follows.

Attack—the promptness or firmness with which a phrase is begun.

Bagpipe—A Scotch instrument on which the tone is produced by a combination of bellows and reeds. Its characteristic effect is the continuous sounding of a low tone (sometimes several tones) while the melody is being played on the higher reeds.

Barcarole (or barcarolle)—a boat song. Also applied to a vocal or instrumental composition in the style of the gondolier's boat song.

Baritone (or barytone)—the male voice having a range between that of the tenor and that of the bass. Approximate range G-g'.

Bass—the lowest male voice. Approximate range E-e'.

Basso—same as bass.

Berceuse—a cradle song.

Binary form—a form in two parts.

Binary measure—a measure having two beats.

Bis—twice. Used to indicate a repetition. (Rare.)

Brace—the sign used to join several staffs, showing that all tones represented on these staffs are to be performed together. The term is often used also in referring to the music written on staffs so joined; as—"Begin with the upper brace."

Broken chord—a chord whose tones are not all sounded simultaneously, as e.g., in an accompaniment group.

Broken octave—an octave whose tones are sounded one at a time instead of simultaneously.

Cacophony—harsh, discordant, unpleasant, especially incorrect combinations of tones. The opposite of euphony.

Cadenza—A brilliant passage, usually in an instrumental composition, introduced just before the close of a movement. The cadenza was formerly improvised by the performer, (thus giving an opportunity of displaying his technical skill), but since Beethoven, composers have usually written their own cadenzas.

Cantabile—in a singing style.

Cantando—same as cantabile.

Canto—the highest voice part; i.e., the soprano part.

Note the derivation of canto, cantabile, etc., from the Latin word cantus, meaning a song.

Carol—a hymn of joyful praise, usually sung in connection with Easter or Christmas festivities. The word carol meant originally a dance, hence the happy character of songs of this type.

Catch—a round set to humorous words.

Chromatic (noun)—a term somewhat loosely applied to any tone not belonging to the key as indicated by the signature. Many teachers are replacing the word chromatic in this sense with the term intermediate tone, this term being applicable whether the foreign tone is actually used for ornamental purposes as a chromatic, or to effect a modulation. Thus e.g., "F is the intermediate tone between F and G in the key of C."

Clavichord—an instrument with keys, resembling the square piano in appearance. The tone was produced by forcing wedge-shaped pieces of metal against the strings, thus setting them in vibration. The clavichord was one of the immediate predecessors of the piano, much of the music written by Bach being composed for it, although this music is now played on the modern piano.

Colla voce—with the voice: i.e., play the accompaniment according to the soloist's performance rather than strictly according to the rhythm indicated in the score.

Colla parte—same as colla voce.

Coloratura—florid passages in singing. Also applied to the style of singing employed in rendering such passages. (See , Sec. 171.)

Consonance—A combination of tones agreeable to the ear and requiring no resolution to other tone-combinations in order to give the effect of finality. The major triad C—E—G is an example of a consonant chord.

Contralto—same as alto.

Con variazioni—with variations.

Direct—a sign () placed at the end of the last staff on a page, to indicate what the first note on the next page is going to be. This sign is now practically obsolete.

Dirge—a funeral chant. The dirge is named from the first word of a chant used in the "office for the dead," which begins—Dirige Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (Direct, O Lord, My God, my way in Thy sight).

Discord—an ugly, unharmonious combination of tones.

Dissonance—a harmonic combination of tones giving rise to the feeling of incompleteness or unrest, and therefore requiring resolution to some other combination which has an agreeable or final feeling. (cf. consonance.) The diminished triad C—E—G is an example of a dissonant chord.

Divisi—divided. An indication showing that the first violins, or the sopranos, or any other body of performers ordinarily sounding in unison are now to divide into two or more parts.

Duet—a composition for two performers. (From the It. word due—two.)

École—a school or style of composition or performance.

Etude—a study. Also an instrumental composition in the style of a study, but intended for artistic performance.

Euphony—agreeable tone combinations; the opposite of cacophony. (From the Greek word meaning well-sounding.)


Fanfare—a trumpet call.

Fantasia—An instrumental composition not based on any regular form.

Fiasco—a complete failure or breakdown.

This use of the word fiasco (which means in Italian a flask, or bottle) is said to have reference to the bursting of a bottle, the complete ruin of the bottle being compared with the complete failure of a performance.

Gamut—all the tones of a scale.

Glissando—playing a scale on the keyboard by drawing the finger along over the keys, thus depressing them in very rapid succession. The word is derived from the French word glisser—to glide.

Harpsichord—one of the immediate predecessors of the piano.

Humoresque—a capricious, fantastic composition. (Cf. fantasia.)

Idyl—a short, romantic piece of music in simple and unaffected style.

In alt—pitches in the first octave above the treble staff. Thus e.g., "C in alt" is the C represented by the second added line above the treble staff.

In altissimo—pitches in the octave above the alt octave.

Instrumentation—see orchestration.

Interlude—a short movement between two larger movements.

Loco—place; i.e., play as written. (See , Sec. 46.)

Lunga trillo—a long trill.

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