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Glossary of Musical Terms


AB formA musical plan that has two different parts, or sections.  See form.  A famous song in this form is Waltzing Matilda

ABA formA musical plan that has three sections, also called Sonata Form.   See form

ABACA form. Also called Rondo form.  See Form.  

A capella.  Choral music sung without instrumental accompaniment.

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Bar. Same as measure. A way of dividing music into small, organized groups of beats. The division of measures is indicated by a vertical line, called the bar-line. Music is usually grouped in 2's (duple meter), or 3's (triple meter).  See meter.

Big bands.  Bands that play swing music.  They were popular in the 1930's and 40's.  See jazz and Duke Ellington.  

Blues.  A slow, sad style of jazz.  See More About Jazz.  

Bridge.  A section of a song that connects other sections of a song.  See verse and refrain.  

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Chord.  Three or more different tones played together.  Click here to here some chords. 

Chromatic. The chromatic scale divides an octave into twelve half steps (all the white and black notes on the keyboard from middle C to the C above it).  This is different than the major scale and minor scale, which only have 8 tones. Listen to Chopin's Etude No. 2 in A Minor to hear how chromatic scales are used in music.

Composer.  A person who creates a piece of music by putting sounds together in his or her own way.  Beethoven was a composer. 

Counterpoint. The art of combining two or more musical lines that are to be played or sung at the same time. These lines may be said to be "in counterpoint" with each other. The term is in some ways like polyphony, although counterpoint is most commonly used for Baroque music.  To listen to Baroque counterpoint, click here to hear Bach's Fugue in G.

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Diatonic. Any octave divided into a seven-note scale (consisting of various combinations of whole tones and semitones). The major and minor scales, as well as the church modes, are diatonic. Diatonic harmony, which is the basis for our tonal system, consists of chords which contain only the notes of a given diatonic scale. (See chromatic.)

Dixieland.  An early style of jazz that was born in New Orleans.  Several players play different melody lines at the same time (see counterpoint) and use lots of improvisation.     

Dynamics. The louds and softs in music.  Piano (soft) and forte (loud) are most common.

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Form.  The overall structure, or plan, of a piece of music.  AB form has two different sections.  ABA form, also called Sonata form  has three sections.  Rondo form is in ABACABA form.   Also see Theme and Variations.  

Fugue.  A musical composition or technique in which the composer introduces a tune (the theme) while other voices enter at different times playing the same theme on higher and lower pitches.  Fugues are usually written for two to four voices.  Bach wrote some of the greatest fugues.  See counterpoint and polyphony.    

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Half step.  On a keyboard, the distance from one note to the next note, black or white.  See whole step.

Harmony. Two or more different tones sounding at the same time. 

Hip HipThe hip hop culture, from which rap music sprang, has its own language, style, and dress.  This culture is constantly changing. The hip hop culture originally consisted of graffiti, break dancing, DJ scratching, and rapping.  See Rap Chronology.  

Homophony (homophonic).  Music in which all voices move in the same rhythm.  Also, a musical texture in which there is a clear difference between melody and accompaniment. (See polyphony.)  The Star Spangled Banner is a good example of the melody and the harmonies moving in the same rhythm.

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Impressionism.  A style of music born in France and inspired by French painters.  This music has fuzzy chords, blurry harmonies, and suggests exotic locations.  See Debussy and Ravel.  

Improvise.  Making up music as it is being performed; often used in jazz.  

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Jazz.  A class of music born in New Orleans around 1900 that uses syncopation, improvisation and scat.  There are many different styles of jazz, including Dixieland, the blues, and  swing.  See Duke Ellington.  Also see More About Jazz.  

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Key. A musical work that is centered around a certain scale or tone is said to have a key.  A piece written in C major will usually end in that key.  Most music is written in major keys or minor keys.  Some pieces are written without a key so that all the tones can be equally important.  

Key signature. The key signature is made up of sharps or flats is usually found at the beginning of a musical composition, indicating the key of the piece.

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Measure. The same as bar.

Melody.  A series of notes that form a tune, phrase, theme, or motive.  Repetition  is what makes a melody stick in your mind.   The melodies you remember are the ones you will like the most.  Some melodies are difficult to remember because they don't repeat.  Other melodies can be remembered easily because they repeat.  This melody by Tchaikovsky is a good example of a repeating melody. 

Meter. The organization of beats,   Also called a pulse.  A waltz is in a triple meter, which is three beats per measure.  A march is in duple meter, which is 2 or 4 beats per measure.  A time signature, usually placed at the beginning of the piece, tells you what the meter will be.   The first beat of a group is generally emphasized. A beat should not be confused with a note; a beat may contain one note, many notes, or may be silent (indicated by a symbol called a rest).

Mode. These are special scales. The major scale and minor scale are modes that we recognize today, but there are many others.  If you played all the white keys on the piano from D to the next D one octave higher, you would have the Dorian mode.

Modulation.  A change of key. It's when the music starts out on a certain set of notes, called a key, then changes to a higher or lower set of notes, which is a new key.

Movement.  Sections of a larger musical work.   A symphony usually has four movements.  A piano sonata has three movements.  

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 NationalismThe love of one's country and the desire to be free from others.  Nationalistic music tells you where the music is from and expresses that country's hopes and dreams.  

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Phrase.  A melodic idea that acts as a complete thought, something like a sentence.  A melody will contain many phrases, just like a story contains many sentences.  This melody has four phrases

Pitch:  The highs or lows of a tone.  A flute has a high pitch.  A tuba has a low pitch.

Polyphony (polyphonic). From the Greek for "many-sounding."  Music in which two or more "voices" are heard at the same time.  This is different than monophonic ("one-sounding") and homophonic ("like-sounding"). See counterpoint and texture

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Ragtime.  An early form of jazz that uses lots of syncopation.  See Scott Joplin.

Rap.   Poetry with a beat.  It may or may not have a melody.  Rap music sprang from the hip hop culture, which initially consisted of graffiti, break dancing, DJ scratching, and rapping. See Rap and Hip Hop

Refrain.  The part of the song that repeats, using the same melody and words.  See verse and bridge.   

Register.  The pitch location of a group of tones.   Tones with high pitches have a high register.  Those with low tones have a low register.  A flute has a high register.  A tuba has a low register. 

Rest.  A symbol for silence in music.  See meter

Rhythm.  The way movement is organized in a piece of music, using beat, no beat, long and short sounds, meter, accents, no accents, tempo, syncopation, and so on.  See meter and time signature

Rock and Roll.  Popular music that was born from jazz and the blues.  It has a strong beat and a melody that repeats often.  

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Scale.  An arrangement of pitches from lower to higher according to a specific pattern of steps. Major, minor, pentatonic, whole-tone, and chromatic are five kinds of scales.  Each one has its own special sound.  Click on their names to hear them. 

Scat.  To sing words on nonsense syllables, used in jazz.  Also called scatting or scat singing.      

Steady beat.  Regular pulses.  See meter and time signature

Swing.  A style of jazz with a lively, steady rhythm that was popular in the 1930's and 40's. 

Symphony.  A large musical work consisting of four movements, or sections.

Syncopation. Hearing beats where you don't expect to hear them. Syncopation shifts the strong beats to the weak beats.  Listen to Maple Leaf Rag to hear syncopation.  (See meter.)  

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Tempo.  The rate of speed at which a musical composition is performed. Tempo is indicated by a tempo marking (usually in Italian), which describes the general speed (and often the mood) of a piece or section. Allegro (fast), andante (fairly slow) and adagio (slow) are common tempo markings.

Texture.  The way melody and harmony go together: a melody alone (monophonic) or two or more melodies together (polyphonic) or melody with chords (homophonic)

Theme. An important melody that occurs several times throughout a piece of music.  The theme is usually a melody or melodic fragment. A single theme may be used as the basis for a set of variations. Most music has more than one theme.

Theme and Variations.  A musical form where the theme is played, then repeated in different ways.  Listen to Mozart's Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  Also see Form.

Timbre.  Tone color.  It's the quality of sound that make one instrument or voice sound different from another. For example, a flute has a different timbre than a clarinet.

Time signature.  A number that appears at the beginning of a piece of music.  The top number tells you how many beats each measure (bar) will have.  The bottom number tells you what kind of a note receives one beat.  In 4/4 time there are four beats per measure (bar) and the quarter note receives one beat.  In 6/8 time there are six beats per measure (bar) and the eighth note receives one beat. 

Tonality. This is a central key in a musical composition. If the music moves to a different key (see modulation), it is expected to return to the original key (called the tonic). Tonality gives the listener a "center," providing a context in which melody and harmony have "meaning."  Atonal music, popular in the 20th century, has no tonal center.  

Whole step.  On a keyboard, the distance from one note to another with a single key between.  See half step.

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Verse.  A group of words in a song.  Songs can have one verse or many verses.  Most of today's popular songs have a verse and a refrain.  Also see bridge.  

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