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Music Glossary: 65 Music Terms You Should Know

August 4, 2023
music terms

There are tons of music terminology and definitions every aspiring musician encounters sooner or later. 

And that can seem like a completely different language to a beginner. 

But most of these terms are not as complicated as they sound, especially if you already have a basic understanding of music. 

So for today’s article, we compiled a list of the most important music terms every musician should know.

With this basic music glossary, you’ll create a solid foundation to build upon. 

So let’s begin! 

1. Accent

An accent mark emphasizes a specific note or group of notes in a chord and indicates that a louder dynamic needs to be applied to that particular note. 

2. Accidental

Accidentals refer to notes that are not within a specific key signature.

A sharp (♯) tells you to raise a note up by one half-step, and a flat (♭) tells you to lower a note down by one half-step.

3. Adagio

Adagio is the Italian word for ‘slowly’, and in music, the term refers to a slow tempo. 

4. Allegro

Since it means ‘cheerful’ in Italian, allegro means the music should be played at an upbeat and bright tempo.

hand and piano

5. Alto

Alto is a vocal range assigned to a singer in a choir, but the word is also used to describe a lower female voice.

The alto range of pitches is below Soprano but higher than the Tenor range, so altos are usually female singers. 

6. Andante

The term andante refers to a moderately slow tempo. 

7. Arpeggio

Arpeggio means playing notes of a chord one note at a time instead of striking them all at once. 

The word comes from the Italian word arpeggiare, meaning to play on a harp.

8. Bar

A bar is a unit of time that contains a certain number of beats.

In music notation, a bar is bounded by vertical lines. 

9. Beat

The beat is the basic unit of time; a repeated pulsation determined by the time signature.

Multiple beats make up a bar.

10. BPM

In music, BPM stands for beats per minute.

The term refers to the number of beats that will occur within 60 seconds.

11. Cadence

A cadence is a sequence of chords used to indicate the ending of a phrase. 

12. Cadenza

A cadenza is an improvised or written-out music performed by a soloist at or near the end of a piece of music.  

13. Canon

A canon is a musical form and compositional technique based on the principle of imitation.

In canons, a melody is played and then imitated one or more times.

14. Clef

A clef is a musical symbol at the beginning of a music staff that indicates the pitch of the notes. 

The treble clef notates musical notes above Middle C, and the bass clef is used to notate pitches below Middle C. 

notes of instrumental chords.

15. Coda

In sheet music, a coda is a symbol used to denote where the final passage of a piece begins.

16. Crescendo

A crescendo is a gradual increase in the volume (loudness) of the musical passage. 

17. Da Capo

Da Capo (often abbreviated as D.C.) is a term used to indicate that the musician should go back to the beginning of the piece and play it again. 

18. Dal Segno

Dal Segno is used in sheet music to tell the musician to resume playing the piece from a different section of the piece.

19. Diminuendo

A diminuendo is a gradual decrease in the loudness of the musical passage. 

20. Dissonance

Dissonance is an inharmonious sound or combination of sounds.

21. Dynamics

In music, the term dynamics refers to the intensity and volume level of a musical piece. 

Some of the common dynamic markings in musical notation include forte (loud), piano (soft), mezzo forte (moderately loud), and mezzo piano (moderately soft).

22. Enharmonic

The term enharmonic refers to two notes that have different spellings but sound the same.

23. Fermata

In sheet music, the fermata symbol indicates that a note should be played longer than its standard duration. 

24. Flat

In musical notation, flat means lower in pitch by one semitone or half step. 

25. Forte

Forte is marked by f in sheet music and it refers to louder dynamics. 

26. Fortepiano

In musical notation, fortepiano (fp) indicates a forte followed immediately by piano.

So, a musician should play the notes loudly and then switch to a quiet dynamic. 

27. Fugue

A fugue is a piece of music based on a central theme that is repeated and layered with other voices or instruments.

28. Giocoso

The term giocoso indicates that the musical piece should be played in a lively and playful way. 

29. Glissando

Glissando tells the musician to slide in pitch from note to note.

woman playing violin

30. Glockenspiel

The glockenspiel is a percussion instrument with metal bars that are struck by a hard mallet.

31. Grave

Grave means ‘solemn’ in Italian, and in music, it signifies an extremely slow tempo.

32. Half Step 

A half step is the distance between two notes or the smallest interval. 

33. Key

In music theory, the key is a set of notes on which a piece of music is based. 

And the term tonic note refers to the first note in any scale or key. 

34. Largo

Largo means ‘large’ in Italian, and in musical notation, it signifies a large and slow-moving pace.

35. Leggero

Leggero means ‘light’ in Italian, and in sheet music, it indicates that the musical piece should be played lightly.

36. Legato

Legato means that the musician should play the notes in a smooth and connected way. 

37. Motif

Motif refers to a specific melody or notes used in different ways throughout a piece of music or song.

A motif is also often defined as the smallest independent particle in a musical idea.

38. Natural

A natural note is a note that is neither sharp nor flat.

Natural notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, and they are represented by the white keys on the keyboard of a piano.

39. Nonet

A nonet is a group of nine musicians. 

40. Octave

In music theory, an octave is a distance between one note and another note that’s double its frequency. 

So, if a particular note is one octave higher means that it’s the same note but in a higher section of the instrument.

41. Ostinato

The term ostinato refers to a rhythmic pattern that is repeated throughout a piece of music.

42. Pan

A pan is a term used in audio production to describe the stereo direction of the audio signal. 

43. Pianissimo

A pianissimo is a dynamic marking used to indicate that the musical piece should be played very softly. 

44. Pitch

In music, a pitch is a term for how high or low a note sounds.

Essentially, a pitch refers to the position of a particular sound in the complete range of sound.

45. Pizzicato

Pizzicato is a compositional marking that tells musicians to pluck their instruments.

46. Poco-a-poco

Poco-a-poco means ‘little by little’ in Italian, and in music, it refers to slight variations in tempo or dynamics. 

a man playing piano.

47. Presto

Presto means ‘instantly’ in Italian, and in musical notation, it’s used to indicate a very fast tempo.

48. Quarter tone

A quarter tone refers to a musical interval that is half the value of a semitone and a quarter of the value of a whole tone.

49. Quintuplet

A quintuplet is a rhythmic notation or a group of five sixteenth notes that occur within the span of one-quarter notes.

50. Rhapsody

A rhapsody is a one-movement piece of music based on a free-flowing structure and versatile dynamics. 

51. Ritardando

Ritardando instructs the player to gradually slow down in tempo.

52. Rondo

A rondo is a type of orchestral form or song structure that typically contains multiple repeating sections.

53. Rubato

Rubato refers to expressive and rhythmic freedom.

With rubato, you can choose your own tempo for a part or a phrase of music.

54. Scherzo

Scherzo is a short orchestral piece of music that is usually very lively and playful. 

55. Sforzando

Sforzando is an indication to play a note abruptly and loudly. 

56. Sharp

In musical notation, sharp means higher in pitch by one semitone or half step. 

57. Slur

A slur is a symbol in musical notation indicating that the notes should be played without separation. 

58. Solfege

Solfege (or solfeggio) is a system where pitches of a musical scale correspond to syllables.

The term is also used to describe musical education which includes teaching aural skills, sight-reading, and pitch.

59. Soprano

Soprano refers to a range of pitches in the highest register of tones.

The term is often used to describe the highest female voice type. 

60. Sostenuto

Sostenuto means ‘sustained’ in Italian, and in musical notation, it tells the musician to play the piece in a smooth sustained manner.

61. Staccato

Staccato is a form of musical articulation that signifies a short, brisk note. 

In musical notation and performance, staccato is the opposite of sostenuto. 

62. Tempo

In music, a tempo is the pace or speed at which a piece of music is played.

Some of the most common tempo markings include allegro, largo, andante, and presto.

63. Tremolo 

Tremolo is a technique musicians use to create a trembling sound. 

The trembling effect can be created by playing an individual note or two alternating notes as quickly as possible.

64. Trill

Trill refers to the rapid succession of two or more notes.

The notes played in a trill are usually only a semitone apart.

65. Vibrato 

Vibrato is a type of musical effect where the pitch of a note is moved up and down very quickly and subtly. 

Music Terms You Should Know – Final Thoughts 

Some music terms we explained today are a bit difficult to grasp, but most of them probably refer to the concepts you’re familiar with but just didn’t know the name of. 

Either way, we hope this ultimate music glossary helped you get a better understanding of it all. 

And you can come back to it whenever you come across a confusing music term.

You may also like: Best Online Music Lessons

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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