Below is a list of terms used in musical terminology which are likely to occur on printed or sheet music. Many of these terms have an Italian etymology, reinforcing the Italian origins of standard modern musical notation. Most of the other terms are taken from either the French or German languages; these will be indicated by "(Fr.)" and "(Gr.)", respectively. In different countries, the terms you see below may be written in the language of that country.
Unless indicated otherwise, these terms are assumed to be Italian (or English) in origin.
- a, ΰ (Fr.) "at", "to", "by", "for", "in", "in the style of".
- aber (Gr.) "but".
- a cappella in the manner of chapel music, without instrumental accompaniment.
- accelerando gradually increasing the tempo; "accelerating".
- accentato "with emphasis"
- acciaccatura "crushing" A very fast grace note that is "crushed" against the note that follows and takes up no value in the measure.
- accompagnato "accompanied" The accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will.
- adagietto "rather slow."
- adagio "slow."
- adagissimo "very slow."
- ad libitum (commonly ad lib) the speed and manner are left to the performer.
- affettuoso "tenderly".
- affrettando "hurrying," pressing onwards.
- agile "swiftly"
- agitato "agitated."
- al, alla "to the", "in the manner of".
- alla breve two minim (half-note) beats to a bar, rather than four crotchet (quarter-note) beats.
- alla marcia "in the style of a march".
- allargando "broadening," "getting a little slower."
- allegretto "a little lively," or "moderately fast."
- allegro "lively," or "fast."
- als (Gr.) "than".
- altissimo "very high"
- amabile "amiable", "pleasant".
- amoroso "loving".
- andante "moderate tempo," just this side of slow.
- andantino slightly faster than andante.
- animato "animated", "lively".
- apaisι (Fr.) "calmed".
- a piacere "at pleasure". Used to indicate that the performer does not have to follow the rhythm strictly.
- appassionato "passionately."
- appoggiatura "leaning" A grace note that "leans" on the following note, taking up some of its value in the measure.
- a prima vista Playing something at first sight of the sheet music
- arietta a short aria
- arioso "airy"
- arpeggio literally, like a harp. Used to indicate that the notes of a certain chord are to be played quickly one after another (usually from lowest to highest) instead of at the same moment. In piano music this is sometimes a solution in playing a wide-ranged chord whose notes cannot be played otherwise. Music generated by the limited hardware of video game computers uses a similar technique to create a chord from one tone generator. Arpeggios (or arpeggi) are also accompaniment patterns. See also broken chord.
- arco "played with the bow," as opposed to pizzicato "plucked," in music for bowed instruments.
- assai "very."
- assez (Fr.) "enough", "sufficiently". Sometimes used in the same sense as assai.
- a tempo "in time", used on its own to indicate that the performer should return to the main tempo of the piece (after an accelerando or ritardando), also may be found in combination with other terms such as a tempo giusto (in strict time) or a tempo di menuetto (at the speed of a minuet).
- attacca (at the end of a movement): a direction to begin (attack) the next movement immediately, without a gap or pause.
- Ausdruck (Gr.) "expression".
- ausdrucksvoll (Gr.) "expressively".
- avec (Fr.) "with".
- barbaro "barbarous"
- basso continuo a bass part played continuously throughout a piece to give harmonic structure. Used especially in the Baroque era.
- bellicoso "warlike," aggressive
- ben "well" (as in ben marcato = well marked).
- bewegt (Gr.) "moved", "speeded"
- bis "again," "twice."
- Bisbigliando "whispering" a special tremolo effect on the harp where a chord or note is rapidly repeated at a low volume.
- bocca chiusa with closed mouth.
- brillante "brilliantly," "with sparkle."
- brio "vigour"; usually in con brio (see next).
- brioso or con brio "vigorously."
- broken chord a chord in which the notes are not all played at once, but in some more or less consistent sequence. They may follow singly one after the other, or two notes may be immediately followed by another two, for example. See also arpeggio in this list, which as an accompaniment pattern may be seen as a kind of broken chord; see Alberti bass.
- bruscamente "brusquely".
- calando "lowering"; getting slower and softer - rit. and dim.
- cambiare "change" Any change, such as to a new instrument.
- cantabile "singingly."
- capo beginning.
- capriccioso "capriciously"
- cιdez (Fr) "to give way"
- cesura or caesura often called "railroad tracks"; indicates complete break in sound.
- chiuso "closed" calls for a horn to be muted by hand.
- coda Closing section of a movement.
- col legno "with the wood"; indicates that the strings are to be struck with the wood of the bow; also battuta col legno: "beaten with the wood."
- coloratura "coloration" Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line.
- col pugno "with the fist"; bang the piano with the fist.
- come prima like the first (tempo), as before
- come sopra like the previous (tempo)
- common time is the time signature 4/4: four beats per measure, each beat a quarter note (a crotchet) in length. 4/4 is often written on the musical staff as C. The symbol is not a "C" as an abbreviation for "common time", but a broken circle: the full circle at one time stood for triple time, 3/4.
- comodo "comfortable" At moderate speed.
- con "with," in very many musical directions, for example con allegrezza ("with liveliness"), con amore ("with tenderness").
- con amor "with love" Tenderly.
- con brio "with spirit."
- con fuoco "with fire" In a fiery manner.
- con moto "with motion."
- con slancio "with enthusiasm."
- con sordino "with the mute."
- coperti on a drum, muted with a cloth.
- crescendo progressively louder. Cf. diminuendo.
- cut time same as the meter 2/2: two half-note (minim) beats per measure. Notated and played like common time (4/4), except with the beat lengths halved. Indicated by three quarters of a circle with a vertical line through it, which resembles the cent symbol ’. This comes from a literal "cut" of the C symbol of common time. Thus, a quarter note in cut time is only half a beat long, and a measure has only two beats. See also alla breve.
- da capo from beginning.
- deciso "decisively"
- decrescendo, diminuendo or dim. "dwindling" Play with gradually decreasing volume (cf. crescendo).
- delicatamente "delicately"
- dissonante "dissonant"
- divisi (or div.) means literally "divided": in a part in which several musicians normally play exactly the same notes they are instead to split the playing of the written simultaneous notes among themselves. It is most often used for string instruments. (The return from divisi is marked unisono: see in this list.)
- devoto "religiously"
- dolce "sweetly"
- dolcissimo "very sweetly"
- dolente "sorrowfully"
- doloroso "painfully"
- D.S. al coda (or dal segno al coda) "from the sign to the coda": means to return to a place in the music designated by the "sign" (a marking resembling a letter S with a diagonal through it and a dot to either side) and continue until directed to move to the coda, a separate ending section
- D.S. al fine (or dal segno al fine) "from the sign to the end": means to return to a place in the music designated by the sign and continue to the end of the piece
- dynamics refers to the relative volumes in the execution of a piece of music. See dynamics (music).
- Empfindung "Feeling" (Ger.)
- encore "once more" (direction to play section again) (Fre.)
- enfatico "emphatically"
- eroico "heroically"
- espirando "gasping", dying away
- espressivo "expressively"
- estinto "as soft as possible," "lifeless" (literally "extinguished").
- facile "easily"
- feroce "ferociously"
- fieramente "proudly"
- fine "the end," often in phrases like al fine ("to the end").
- flebile "mournfully"
- focoso "passionately"
- forte usually marked with f: to be played or sung loudly. The term fortissimo, or ff, means "very loudly." See dynamics.
- fortepiano 1. loud, then immediately soft (see dynamics); 2. an early pianoforte.
- fortissimo as loudly as possible (see note at pianissimo)
- forzando or fz. See sforzando
- fresco "freshly"
- fuoco "fire"; "con fuoco" means "with fire."
- furioso "wildly"
- gaudioso with joy
- gentile "gently"
- geschwind (Gr.) "quickly."
- getragen (Gr.) "sustainedly."
- giocoso "gayly."
- giusto strictly, exactly.
- glissando a continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a "true" glissando), or an incidental scale played while moving from one melodic note to another (an "effective" glissando). See glissando for further information; and compare portamento in this list.
- grandioso "grandly"
- grazioso "gracefully."
- gustoso "gusto";
- Hauptstimme (Gr.) "chief part", that designates the contrapuntal line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme.
- immer (Gr.) "always."
- imperioso "imperiously"
- impetuoso "impetuously."
- improvisando with improvisation
- in altissimo play an octave higher.
- incalzando "getting faster and louder." (the exact opposite of calando).
- in modo di "in the art of"
- infurianto "furiously"
- intimo "intimately"
- irato "angrily"
- krδftig (Gr.) "strongly."
- lacrimoso "sadly" (literally "tearfully")
- lamentando "complaining"
- lamentoso "mournfully"
- langsam (Gr.) "slowly"
- larghetto "somewhat slowly"; not as slow as largo.
- largo "slowly."
- legato "smoothly"; in a connected manner. See articulation.
- leggiero "lightly", "delicately"
- lent (Fr.) "slowly"
- lento "slowly"
- libero "(I) liberate"
- loco play as written (generally used to cancel an 8va direction)
- lugubre "lugubrious"
- luminoso "luminously"
- lusingando "coaxingly"
- ma "but."
- ma non troppo "but not too much."
- maestoso "in a stately fashion," "majestically."
- magico "magically"
- magnifico "magnificent"
- malinconico "melancholy"
- mano destra [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD).
- mano sinistra [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MS).
- marcato play every note as though it is accented.
- marcia a march; alla marcia means "in the manner of a march."
- martellato hammered out.
- marzial "martially."
- mδssig (Gr.) "moderately."
- MD see mano destra.
- melancolico "melancholic"
- meno "less"; see meno mosso, for example, under mosso.
- mesto mournful, sad
- mezza voce "with subdued or moderated volume," literally "half voice."
- mezzo "half"; used in combinations like mezzo forte (mf), meaning "moderately loud."
- mezzo forte "half loudly" Directs the musician to play moderately loud. See dynamics.
- mezzo piano "half softly" Directs the musician to play moderately soft. See dynamics.
- mezzo-soprano a female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the F an eleventh above middle C. Mezzo-sopranos generally have a darker vocal tone than sopranos, and their vocal range is between that of a soprano and that of an alto.
- mobile "flexible", "changeable"
- moderato "moderate," often combined with other terms, for example, "allegro moderato".
- modesto "modest"
- molto "very"
- morendo "dying away" in tone or tempo.
- mosso "motion"; used in conjunction with "piω" or "meno", respectively, for more movingly or less movingly (about tempo).
- MS see mano sinistra.
- moto "Motion." Usually seen as "con moto," meaning "with motion" or "quickly."
- munter (Gr.) "lively".
- naturale, nat. "resume normal playing mode." This important instruction is necessary to discontinue a 'special effect' such as col legno, sul tasto, sul ponticello or playing in harmonics.
- Nebenstimme (Gr.) "under part." A secondary contrapuntal part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme.
- nicht zu schnell (Gr.) "not too fast."
- nobile "in a noble fashion".
- notes inιgales (Fr.) unequal notes; a principally Baroque performance practice of applying long-short rhythms to pairs of notes written as equal.
- omaggio "celebration"
- ossia Denotes an alternative way of performing a passage often notated with a footnote, additional small notes, or an additional staff.
- ostinato A short musical pattern that is repeated throughout an entire composition or portion of a composition.
- passionato "passionately"
- pesante "heavy and ponderous."
- peu ΰ peu little by little
- pianissimo (pp) a directive to play very softly, even softer than piano. This convention can be extended; the more p's that are written, the softer the composer wants the musician to play, thus ppp (pianississimo) would be softer than pp.
Note: it should be noted that any dynamics in a piece should always be played relative to the other dynamics found in the music. Thus, pp should be played as softly as possible, but if ppp is found later in the piece, pp should be markedly louder than ppp. Likewise, ff should be played as loud as possible, but if fff is found later in the piece, ff should be noticeably quieter. More than three p's is uncommon, because it is hard to distinguish the difference between three ps and ten ps!
- piano marked p, a directive to play or sing softly. See dynamics.
- piacevole "pleasant."
- piangevole "plaintive"; in the style of a lament.
- piω "more"; see mosso for an example.
- pizzicato "plucked," in music for bowed strings; as opposed to arco, which means "played with the bow", and which is inserted to cancel a pizzicato direction.
- pochettino (poch) "rather little."
- poco "a little", as in poco piω allegro ("a little faster"), for example.
- poco a poco "little by little."
- poi "then," indicating a subsequent instruction in a sequence; diminuendo poi subito fortissimo, for example: "getting softer then suddenly very loud."
- portamento 1. generally, sliding in pitch from one note to another (especially in singing; more often called glissando in instrumental music); 2. in piano music, an articulation between legato and staccato, like portato, in this list.
- portato non-legato but not as short as staccato (same as portamento , in this list).
- posato "settled"
- precipitato "precipitately."
- prestissimo "extremely quickly."
- presto "very quickly."
- prima volta "the first time"; for example prima volta senza accompanimento ("the first time without accompaniment").
- primo "first."
- quasi "as if," "almost."
- rallentando (rall.) "progressively slower".
- rapido "fast."
- rasch (Gr.) "fast."
- religioso "religiously"
- repente "suddenly."
- restez (Fr.) remain on a note or string.
- rinforzando (rf) "stressed by extra force"; sometimes like a sudden crescendo, but often applied to a single note.
- risoluto "Resolutely" played in a bold manner.
- ritardando (rit.) "progressively slower."
- ritenuto (riten.) "holding back," or "slower" (usually more so than a ritardando; and it may, unlike ritardando, apply to a single note).
- roulade (Fr.) a florid vocal phrase.
- rubato flexibility of tempo, within a musical phrase, for expressive effect.
- sanft "gently" (Ger.)
- scherzando "playfully."
- scherzo "a joke."
- schneller (Gr.) "faster."
- scordatura an alternate tuning used for the open strings of a string instrument.
- secco "(I) dry"
- sempre "always."
- senza "without."
- senza sordino "without mute."
- serioso "seriously"
- sforzando or sfz A sudden strong accent.
- silencio silence.
- simile "similarly"i.e. continue applying the preceding directive, whatever it was, to the following passage.
- smorzando (or smorz.) smother the notes; "dying away."
- soave "smoothly."
- solo, plural soli "alone"; played by a single instrument. A soli requires more than one player; in a jazz big band this refers to an entire section playing in harmony.
- sostenuto "sustainedly."
- sotto voce soft tones, literally "under voice" used as a direction instructing the singer or instrumentalist to proceed in a more understated or more subtle fashion.
- spiritoso "spiritedly."
- staccato an indication to play with a sharp attack, and briefly. In music notation a small dot under or over the note indicates that the note is to be sounded staccato.
- stanza "a verse of a song".
- strepitoso "noisy".
- stretto faster.
- stringendo with a pressing forward or acceleration of the tempo.
- subito "suddenly."
- sul ponticello in string playing, an indication to bow very near to the bridge, producing a characteristic glassy sound, which emphasizes the higher harmonics at the expense of the fundamental.
- sul tasto in string playing, an indication to bow over the fingerboard.
- tempo "time" The speed of a piece of music.
- teneramente tenderly
- tenuto "held" an instruction to touch on a note slightly longer than usual, but without generally altering the note's value.
- tremendo "frightening"
- tremolo a rapid repetition of the same note, or an alternation between two or more notes. It can also be intended (inaccurately) to mean a rapid and repetitive variation in pitch for the duration of a note (see vibrato). It is notated by a strong diagonal bar across the note stem, or a detached bar for a set of notes (or stemless notes).
- tre corde (tc; sometimes inaccurately tre corda) literally "three strings"; an instruction to release the soft pedal (in piano music). See una corda.
- troppo "too much" Usually seen as "non troppo," meaning "moderately" or, when combined with other terms, "not too much," such as "Allegro non troppo."
- tutti "all together," usually used in an orchestral or choral score when the orchestra or all of the voices come in at the same time, also seen in baroque-era music where two instruments share the same copy of music, after one instrument breaks off to play a more advanced form, and they both play at the "tutti." See also: ripieno.
- una corda "one string" a directive in piano music for the musician to depress the soft pedal, reducing the volume of the sound. In some pianos, this literally results in the hammer striking one string rather than two or three. (For most notes on modern instruments, in fact it results in striking two rather than three strings.) Its counterpart, tre corde ("three strings"; see in this list), is the opposite: the soft pedal is to be released.
- un poco "a little."
- unisono (or unis) "in unison" several players are to play exactly the same notes within the written part, as opposed to splitting simultaneous notes among themselves. Often used to mark the return from divisi (see in this list).
- vibrato A slight variation in the pitch of a note, used to give a richer sound. Often confused with tremolo, which refers either to variation in the volume of a note, or rapid repetition of a single note.
- vittorioso "victoriously"
- vivace "lively," "up-tempo."
- vivacissimo "very lively"
- volante "flying"
- V.S. (volti subito) "turn page quickly". Found often in orchestral parts.
- wolno A Polish word meaning "loose" or "slowly". Found as directive in "The Elephant" from "Carnival of the Animals" by Saint-Saens. Rarely used and hard to find.
(Musical Terminology courtesy of Wikipedia)
If you don't find a word or term in the listing above, try one of the Glossaries
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