The following is a list of standard musical terms used by musicians and guitarists. Italian musical terms are often used in music reference material and are their meanings are transcribed in this list. Italian words may have a different meaning when used in a musical context.

The list can never be complete some musicians coin their own words for some musical terms.

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Accent

An accent is an emphasis on one note. Accents come in three types: dynamic, agogic, and tonic. This is the accent symbol <.

Accelerando

Italian. (accel). Directs the musicians to play with gradually increasing tempo.

Accidental

Symbols which are used to raised or lower the pitch of a note by one-half step. Ex: sharps, flats, and naturals.

Adagio

Italian. A slow tempo.

Affrettando

Italian. (affret.) Quickening or hurrying.

Allargando

Italian. Gradually slower, louder, and broader.

Allegretto

Italian. (alltto.) Light and cheerful, faster than moderato, slower than allegro.

Allegro

Italian. A fast tempo. In Italian, the word means lively or merry.

Andante

Italian. A moderately slow tempo. In Italian, the word means walking.

Arpeggation

Playing the notes of a chord one after the other.

Assai

Italian. Very.

B

Bar Line

The vertical lines are drawn across the staff to indicate the measures in a musical composition.

Beam

A broad, straight line connecting two or more eighth notes.

Beat

The steady pulse of the music. Beats form the basis of a sense of musical time.

Blue tone

Blue tones (‘worried’ tones) are tones that are between the diatonic and flatted thirds and sevenths, which characterize the blues scales.

Blues scale

A major scale with a flat third and seventh. It must be remembered that the flat third and seventh were sometimes ‘worried’ notes, thus their pitches did not always correspond to equal-tempered tuning.

Boogie-woogie

A modern blues style created for the instrumental application. Boogie-woogie is characterized by the adaptation of the ground bass principle – a repetitious bass figure that suggests the blues chord progression.

Brio

Italian With vigor and spirit.

C

Canon

A melody that can be sung against itself in imitation. Also called a round.

Chord

A combination of three or more pitches sounding at the same time.

Chordal Texture

A texture in which the musical material is concentrated into chords with relatively little melodic activity.

Circle of Fifths

A clockface arrangement of the twelve pitches in the order of the number of accidentals in the key signature.

Common Time – C

Another name for a 4/4 meter signature, sometimes written as a large capital C in place of a meter signature.

Compound Division

The division of the beat into three equal parts.

Compound Meter

A meter in which the beats have a compound division.

Consonance

A combination of sounds producing a feeling of stability, or of little desire for resolution.

Crescendo

Italian. (cresc.) A gradual increase in loudness.

Cut Time

Another name for the 2/2 meter signature, it is written as a large capital C with a line drawn vertically through it.

D

Da capo

Italian. (D.C.) Repeat from the beginning.

Dal segno

Italian. (D.S.) Repeat from sign.

Degree

One of the notes in a scale. Degrees are usually numbered starting with the tonic.

Decrescendo

Italian. (decresc.) A gradual decrease in loudness.

Diatonic

Anyone of the common scales made of whole and half steps in a particular pattern. The white keys on a piano instrument from a diatonic scale.

Diminuendo

Italian. (dim.) Gradually softer.

Dissonance

A combination of sounds that produce harsh, discordant results, and increase the desire for resolution.

Do

The solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the tonic.

Dolce

Italian. (dol.) Softly, sweetly, delicately.

Dominant

The fifth scale degree of a diatonic scale. The solfeggio syllable Sol corresponds to the Dominant.

Double Flat

A symbol is written to the left of the note head, which lowers the pitch by a whole step. It is double the effect of a single flat. The symbol looks like two flats connected.

Double Sharp

Written to the left of a note, The double sharp raises the pitch of a note by a whole step. It is double the effect of a single sharp. The symbol looks like an X.

Duple Meter

A meter that consists of two beats.

Dynamic Accent

Often indicated with an accent sign, This is an accent created when one note is louder than surrounding notes.

E

Enharmonic

Two tones having the same pitch but different spelling.

Espressivo

Italian. (espress.) With expression.

F

Fa

The solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the subdominant.

Fine

Italian. The end.

Flag

The curved shaded line extending from the head of a stem used to indicate and eighth or shorter note.

Forte

Italian. (f.) Loud.

Fortissimo

Italian. (ff.) Very loud.

G

Grand Staff

Keyboard music is frequently rotated using this combination of the treble and bass clefs. The two staves are arranged treble over bass. A long, curved, thick bar connects the two staves.

Grave

Slow, solemn, deep.

Grazioso

Italian. In a graceful manner.

H

Half Step

The smallest interval on the standard keyboard. The interval between two adjacent keys (incl. both black and white keys) is a half step.

Harmonic Progression

Movement from one chord to the next; a succession of chords or a chord progression.

Harmony

The study of simultaneously sounding tones.

I

Imitation

A melody or melodic group is repeated in at different pitch level.

Improvise

To play on the spur of the moment. To perform without a prepared text or composed material.

Interval

The relationship between two tones.

Interval, Compound

Any interval greater than one octave. Compound intervals are usually expressed as simple equivalents (the “extra” octave is subtracted). ex: A major tenth interval is a simple major third.

Inversion (of a melody)

An ascending interval in a melody becomes as Descending interval (and vice versa) of the same size in the inversion of the melody.

Inversion (of intervals)

The lower tone forming the interval becomes the upper tone (or vice versa).

J

Jazz

A popular music style influenced by the blues, popular song, and another musical genre. Jazz is characterized by highly sophisticated improvised melodic lines over chord progressions (changes) with a steady beat and considerable syncopation.

K

Key

Music that is based on a major or minor scale is said to be in a key. Keys are identified by their tonic.

Key Signature

The arrangement of accidentals at the beginning of a staff. The key signature indicates the pitches that will be most common in a piece of music. Key signatures are associated with particular major and minor scales.

L

La

The solfeggio symbol that corresponds to the submediant.

Largetto

Italian. A tempo slightly faster than largo.

Largo

Italian. A very slow tempo. In Italian, the word means broad.

Ledger Line

A small line written above or below the staff to extend its range.

Leggiero

Italian. (leggo.) Light, delicate.

M

Major Scale

A diatonic scale with half steps between the third and fourth, and the seventh and eighth scale degrees.

Marcato

Italian. (marc.) Maked, accented.

Measure

One unit of meter, consisting of a number of accented and unaccented beats. A measure is indicated in music notation by bar lines.

Melody

An organized succession of pitches.

Meno mosso

Italian. Less quickly.

Meter

The system of regularly recurring pulses, they are most often grouped by periodic accents.

Meter Signature

A symbol placed at the beginning of a composition to indicate the meter of the piece. Meter signatures usually consist of two numbers, the lower indicating the note of value, and the upper the number of these notes per measure.

Meter, Asymmetrical

Meters in which the pulse cannot be divided into equal groupings of two, three or four in the measure. The groupings, instead, are uneven. Examples include, 7/4, 5/4, 11/8.

Meter, Compound

A meter in which the basic pulse may be subdivided into groups of three. Examples include 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8.

Meter, Simple

Meter signatures whose upper numbers are 1,2,3 or 4. Simple meters can be divided into multiples of two(duples).

Mezzoforte

Italian. (m.f.) Moderately loud.

Mezzo-piano

Italian. (m.p.) Moderately soft.

Mi

Mi is the solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the mediant.

Middle C

The C nearest to the middle of the piano keyboard. This note is an important point of reference because it is on the ledger line between the treble and bass on the ground staff.

Moderato

Italian. Moderate speed.

Modes, Authentic

Associated with Gregorian chants. The Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes are considered to be authentic. Each has the final as the first note.

Modes, Plagal

Also associated with the Gregorian chants, The Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and Hypomixolydian modes extend above and below the final.

Morendo

Italian. (mor.) Fading away.

N

Natural

A symbol written to the left of a note head. The natural cancels a previous sharp or flat.

Natural Minor Scale

The basic form of a minor scale. The natural minor contains half steps between scale Degrees 2-3 and 5-6.

Nonharmonic Tone

A tone that does not fit into the surrounding harmony.

Notation, Tablature

Notation using letters, numbers, or a diagram. In the case of guitars, lutes and vihuela the diagrams frequently represent the strings of the instrument.

O

Ostinato

Italian. A short musical pattern which repeats throughout a given passage. Ostinatos are generally a part of the supporting or accompanying material in a piece of music.

P

Piano

Italian. (p.) Soft.

Pianissimo

Italian. (p.p.) Extremely soft.

Pitch class

All notes of the same name on the keyboard.

Poco a poco

Italian. Little by little.

Prestissimo

Italian. As fast as possible. Faster than presto.

Presto

Italian. A very fast tempo. Faster than allegro.

Primary Melody

The most significant melodic idea in a given musical texture.

Q

Quadruple Meter

A meter consisting of four beats.

R

Rallentando

Italian. (rall.) Gradually slower.

Re

Re is the solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the supertonic.

Rhythm

The movement of the music in time. A pattern of different duration over the steady background of the beat.

Ritardando

Italian. (rit.) Gradual lessening of tempo.

Ritenuto

Italian. Immediate reduction in tempo.

Round

A cannon in unison. One singer begins the round. As the first singer reaches a specific point, a second singer begins at the beginning. Rounds are usually in three or four parts.

S

Scale

A summary of the pitches in a piece of music arranged in order from the lowest to the highest.

Sequence, Modulating

A sequence that leads from one total center to the next.

Sforzando

Italian. (sfz.) With sudden emphasis.

Simple Division

The division of the beat into two equal parts.

Simple Meter

A meter that has a simple division of the beat.

Sol

The solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the dominant.

Solfeggio

Italian. A system used to help singers to remember the pitches of a piece or section of music.

Spacing

The interval distance between voices or pitches of a chord.

Staff

A group of five horizontal lines on which music is written.

Subdivision

The division of the beat in simple meter (div. by two) into four equal parts or in compound meter (div. by three) into six equal parts.

Swing

The rhythmic style of most jazz. In swing music, the division of the beats is uneven and there is considerable stress on the notes between beats. The feeling of swing music is compound, but it is usually written in simple.

Syncopation

A rhythm in which normally unaccented beats are stressed either through agogic or dynamic rhythm.

T

Tempo

The speed of the beat in music. Tempo may be expressed in general terms (slow, fast, warp-speed) or in beats per minute.

Tessitura

Italian. The average range of a particular voice or instrument in a composition. If a tessitura is “high,” the notes tend to be in the higher extreme of the total range of that voice or instrument.

Texture

A term that refers to how the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials are woven together in a piece of music.

Theme

A melodic figure or phrase that is the basis for a composition or a section of a composition. Themes can and are repeated many times in many different formats and by many different voices or instruments. *Some very good examples of thematic presentation are the closing credits for any and all of the Star Wars movies. The ending music presents all the themes presented in the movie.*

Ti

Italian. The solfeggio syllable that corresponds to the leading tone.

Tie

A curved line connecting two notes. The tie indicates that the notes are to be played as a single note.

Tonality

A system of tones (ex: tones of the major scale) used in such a way that one tone becomes central and the remaining tones assume a hierarchy based on this interval relationship to the central tone or tonal center.

Tone

A musical sound of definite pitch.

Tonic

The keynote of a piece of music. The tone that is felt to be a point of rest. Music often concludes on this note for a feeling of completeness.

Transposition

The process of rewriting a piece of music or a scale so that sounds higher or lower in pitch. This involves raising or lowering each pitch by the same interval.

Triad

A triad is a three-tone chord. The four types of triads are major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

Triple Meter

A meter consisting of three beats.

U

Unison

Two pitches that are the same. Several singers singing a melody together.

V

Vivace

Italian. Lively, quick.

W

Whole Step

An interval consisting of two half steps.

Resources

1. Music Theory Dictionary. Method-behind-the-music.com. https://method-behind-the-music.com/theory/dictionary/. Published 2017. Accessed June 2, 2020.