Musical Terms

notes Click to listen to "Pathétique" by Beethoven.

Adagio (ah - DA - gee - oh) A slow tempo, slightly faster than a Largo, examples include Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Allegro (ah - LAY - grow) A medium fast tempo.

Alto (AL - two) and Contralto (con - TRAL - tow) The lowest-pitched female singing voices (the latter term is most often used in reference to operatic roles).

Aria ( ARE - ee - ah) A solo song sung in an opera or oratorio.

Ballade (bah - LAHD) A melodic piano piece from the Romantic period; the best-know are those of Chopin.

Ballet (bal - LAY) A danced story with instrumental accompaniment.

Bass (base) The lowest-pitched male singing voice.

Cadenza (cah - DEN - zah) An unaccompanied, often virtuosic, solo within a movement of a concerto.

Canon (cannon) A piece in which several voices or instruments perform the same melody but start at different times. One a more "free" parts may be added : Pachelbel's Canon, for instance, has a "ground bass"- the bottom part playing the same notes over and over.

Cantata (cahn - TAH - tah) A sacred choral piece popular during the Baroque period: the most famous are those written by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Chamber Music Compositions for small groups of instruments, usually no more than six.

Concerto (cahn - CHAIR - toe) A piece for solo instrument accompanied by orchestra; concertos have been a favored form since the Baroque era. Examples are Beethoven's "Emperor" and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

Concerto Grosso (cahn - CHAIR - toeGROW - so) A concerto for a small group of instrumental soloists and orchestra.

Counterpoint. A. One or more inderpendent melodies added above or below a given melody B. The combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character: POLYPHONY

Countertenor: see Tenor The highest male singing voice, reaching well into female alto range; seldom used by composers since the Baroque period. To achieve their high range, most countertenors use a special vocal technique called " falsetto".

Crescendo (cresh - EN - doe) Gradual increase of volume from soft to loud.

Etude (EH - two'd) A study piece with exemplary compositional style.

Fantasia (fan - TAY - zha) A free-flowing composition with no pre-set style or form.

Forte (FOUR - tay) Instruction to play a passage of music loudly.

Fortissimo (four - TEE - see -mow) Instruction to play a passage of music loudly.

Fugue (FEW - g) A Baroque piece with a recurring melody against various independent voices, Bach is considered history's greatest master of this form.

Key Signature The instruction to the performers as to the tonality (the key) the piece is to be played in. Major key signatures are bright and "happy" and minor keys are dark and contemplative. Key signatures are denoted with "flats" and "sharps".

Minuet (min - you - ET) A court dance in 3/4 time, adopted in the Baroque and commonly used in multiple-movement works of the Baroque and Classical era.

Movement A "piece" within a larger piece, differing from other movements in musical themes, tempo, and time signature.

Nocturne (NAKH - turn) A dreamlike piece most often for piano; the nocturnes of Chopin are the most popular in Classical music.P

Opera A large theatrical piece involving orchestra, chorus and soloists in a dramatic setting, performed in costume.

Operetta (op - ur - ET - ta) A lighter version of opera in subject and musical style.

Opus (OH - puss) Latin for "work" - abbreviated "op" - denotes the position of composition in the sequence of the composer's complete works.

Oratorio (ore - a - TOR - ee - oh) A large-scale sacred work for orchestra chorus and vocal soloists popular in the Baroque period, Handel's Messiah is the most commonly performed oratorio in modern times.

Overture The orchestral opening piece to an opera or oratorio. Overtures also have been written as independent concert pieces by Romantic and Modern composers. Famous overtures include Rossini's William Tell Overture.

Partiata (par - TEE - ta) A suite for solo instrument popular in the Baroque.

Passion (pe a NEE - see - moe) Instruction to play very softly.

Pizzicato (pitz - i CAH - toe) A technique in string playing where the string is actually plucked with the finger.

Polonaise (paul - oh - NAZE) A Polish dance in 3/4 time; Chopin's Polonaises for piano are the most famous examples of this music.

Prelude (PRAY - laud) A short instrumental piece preceding other movements in a larger work.

Presto A very quick tempo.

Requiem (RECK - wee - um) A musical mass for the dead usually featuring vocalists , chorus and orchestra; Mozart and Brahms all wrote famous Requiems.

.Rondo (RON - doe) A compositional from where the main blocks of music (denoted as A, B, & C) appear in the following sequence: A - B - A - C - A - B - A.

Sarabande (SAR - a - band) A slow Spanish dance in 3/4 time.

Sinfonia (sin - FONIA - ee - ah) (1) An instrumental prelude to a large scale Baroque piece (like an oratorio or cantata) (2) Latin/ Italian for "Symphony".

Sonata Allegro (so - NAH - tah, ah - LAY - grow) or Sonata form. This compositional form is the basis of the vast majority of first movements in instrumental works form the late Baroque period on. It involves three large blocks of music within the same movement:

1) Exposition - the statement of the main themes of the movement

2) Development - the interplay of the themes in a contest or struggle, and

3) Recapitulation - the restatement of the original themes and the conclusion

Sonata (so - NAH - tah) A piece for solo instrument (usually with piano accompaniment) in three or four movements. Some of the most famous examples include Bach's Sonatas for solo Violin, Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 20, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 "Moonlight".

Soprano (so - PRAN - owe) The highest female singing voice.

Suite (sweet) A collection of short instrumental movements.

Symphonic Poem, Tone poem or Symphonic Sketch. A large scale orchestral work, usually in a single long movement, that adheres to a program or story; i Liszt's Les Preludes is an example.

Symphony (SIM - phone - ee) An orchestral work (which occasionally involves singers) of three to four movements that was refined in the Classical period, became all the rage during the Romantic era, and continues to this day as a large-scale orchestral form. Among the most famous are Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Berlioz's Symphonic Fantastique, and Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

Tempo (TEM - po) The "speed" at which a piece is played, from largo (very slowly) to prestissimo (extremely fast).

Tenor (TEN - ur) The highest natural male singing voice, between bass and tenor.

Time Signature the instruction to the performers as to the number of beats per measure (the fundamental rhythmic "cell" of music notation) and the type of note that gets the beat.

Toccata (toe - CAH - tab) A Baroque instrumental piece displaying of the performer's gift as a virtuoso.

Virtuoso (vur - chew - OH - sew) A instrumental performer of Both exceptional technical skills and interpretive insight: pianist Valdimir Horowitz, violinist Jascha Heifetz and flutist James Galway have all been recognized as virtuosos.

Vivace (vee - VAH - chay) A very quick tempo.

Waltz A 3/4-time dance form which reached its zenith in the 19th century; two renowned waltz composers are Johann Stauss and Tchaikovsky.

Classical Music For Families

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Musical Terms


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