Musical Terms and Concepts
Explanations and musical examples can be found through the Oxford Music Online, accessed through the Potsdam Library page at http://potsdam.libguides.com/music. Click on Music Reference, then Oxford Music Online.
Key terms and concepts
Related to melody:
contour: the shape of the melody as rising or falling
conjunct: stepwise melodic motion, moving mostly by step in intervals of a 2nd
disjunct: melodic motion in intervals larger than a 2nd, often with a large number of wide skips
range: the distance between the lowest and highest pitches, usually referred to as narrow
(> octave) or wide (< octave)
motive: a short pattern of 3-5 notes (melodic, rhythmic, harmonic or any combination of these) that is repetitive
in a composition
phrase: a musical unit with a terminal point, or cadence. Lengths of phrases can vary.
Related to rhythm:
measures or bars: a metrical unit separated by lines in musical notation
meter: groups of beats in a recurring pattern with accentuation on strong beats
non-metric, unmetrical: free rhythm, no discernable time
simple meters: beats subdivided into two parts (2/4, 3/4, 4/4)
compound meters: beats subdivided into three parts (6/8, 9/8, 12/8)
asymmetrical meters: meters with an uneven number of subdivisions (7/4, 5/8)
mixed meters: shifting between meters
mensurations: used in music from 1300-1600, the ratios of rhythmic durations
Related to harmony:
chords: three or more pitches sounding simultaneously
triads: three notes that can be arranged into superimposed thirds
extended chords: thirds added above the triad, usually as a 9th, 11th or 13th
consonance: a harmonic combination that is stable, usually in thirds
dissonance: a harmonic combination that is unstable, often including seconds or sevenths
parallel motion: two or more parts moving in the same direction and same intervals, as in parallel fifths
contrary motion: two or more parts moving in the opposite direction
oblique motion: occurs when one voice remains on a single pitch while the other ascends or descends
canon: (meaning rule) one melody is strictly imitated by a second part after a delay in the entrance of the
second part. In order for the parts to end simultaneously, the canon may break down at the end of the
composition. The canonic parts may occur at the unison or some other interval.
round: an exact canon, ending at different times, as in “Row, row, row your boat.”
imitation: two or more parts that have the same or similar phrase beginning and with delays between
entrances (as in a round or canon), but after the beginning of the phrase, the parts diverge into separate
Related to tonality:
diatonic: a seven-note scale with a regular pattern of 5 whole and 2 half steps. Diatonic intervals are found
within this type of scale.
chromatic: using pitches outside of a particular diatonic scale, or using a succession of half steps.
major tonality: pitches are related to a central pitch called the tonic. Major scales are used.
minor tonality: pitches are related to a central pitch called the tonic. Minor scales are used.
modal: refers to music using diatonic scales with Greek names (Western) or non-Western scales
modulation: moving from one key area to another key
atonality: music that is not tonal or not based on any system of keys or modes
bitonality: the simultaneous use of two key areas.
polytonality: the simultaneous use of two or more key areas.
Related to texture:
monophony (noun; monophonic = adjective, as in monophonic texture): literally “one sound” - one melodic line,
without harmony or any accompaniment, which can occur when one person or many people sing a
melody simultaneously. Singing in octaves is considered a monophonic texture.
homophony (noun; homophonic = adjective): one melodic line with a harmonic accompaniment that supports
polyphony (noun; polyphonic = adjective): two or more parts sung or played simultaneously.
heterophony (noun; heterophonic = adjective): multiple voices singing a single melodic line, but with
simultaneous melodic variants between the singers. Heterophony often occurs in non-Western music and
sometimes in folk music.
homorhythms: the same rhythms in all parts, as in the singing of a hymn.
counterpoint (noun; contrapuntal = adjective): like polyphony in that it has two or more compatible melodies
Related to tempo: consult the Oxford Music Online
commonly in Italian from the 17th-18th c., and then increasingly in other vernacular languages
largo, lento, adagio, andante, moderato, allegretto, allegro, presto, prestissimo
qualifying terms: meno (less), più (more), molto (very or much) poco a poco (little by little), assai (very) mosso (motion), sostenuto (sustained), non troppo (not too much)
Related to expression:
terraced dynamics: a sudden and dramatic shift from loud to soft or soft to loud
Releated to timbre: classifications of instruments
chordophone: string instruments
aerophones: wind produces the sound (woodwinds and brass instruments)
membranophone: a vibrating membrane produces the sound (drums)
idiophone: sound is produced from the material (wood, glass, stone, metal)
Related to ensembles:
choir: vocal ensemble
voice ranges: bass, tenor, alto, soprano (from lowest to highest)
choral: music written for a choir
a cappella: choral music without instrumental accompaniment, literally “at the chapel”
polychoral: two or more choirs in a composition, usually with an antiphonal or echo effect
orchestra: large instrumental ensemble with strings
band: large instrumental ensemble without strings
chamber ensembles: trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, octet
Standard ensemble combinations:
string trio: three string instruments
piano trio: piano, violin, cello
string quartet: two violins, viola, cello
piano quintet: piano and a string quartet
brass quintet: 2 trumpets, french horn, trombone, tuba
wind quintet: flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, french horn
Related to text and music:
syllabic: one syllable sung to each note
melismatic: one syllable sung to several notes
sacred: religious music, often for the church liturgy (services)
secular: worldly, non-religious music, usually in the vernacular
vernacular: texts in the language of the people (English, French, Spanish, German, etc.)
Related to musical forms:
Generally capital letters are used to distinguish different sections of a composition. A capital refers to an exact repetition. A lowercase letter refers to the same music but new text. A prime number after the capital refers to a variation of the music from the original section.
strophic: a vocal form consisting of several phrases. The musical form is repeated using different verses
of text, as in a hymn or folksong.
modified strophic: simply means that the repetitions of the sections are varied slightly, but not so much
that they are a significant variation or the original.
bar form: two sections of music, with only the first section A repeated. Many hymns use the far form.
binary form: two sections of music, usually with each A and B section repeated. This is typically used in
dances. When a group dances are combined into a suite, the dances generally all stay in the same key.
processive forms: variation forms:
continuous variations: includes an ostinato -- a repeated bass line or set of chords (usually 4-8 measures)
with continuous variations above the bass pattern. This term is also called a ground bass, a chaconne,
and a passacaglia. These are common in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
sectional variations: a theme and variation set, where usually each section is clearly marked. Generally
in a theme and variations, the theme itself is identifiable. Variation sets are commonly used in the Classical
period as the slow movement of a string quartet or symphony.
fugue: a one-subject (also called monothematic) composition in which the subject is continually restated on
different pitches and in various keys, processing the modulations, fragments or registers of the subject.
Like the other variation forms, there is usually a return to the subject in the original key.
return forms: the initial section returns following a contrasting middle section.
rounded binary: two sections, with a return of A in the second section: |: A :|: B A :| This form is typical of
late Baroque dances and of minuets/scherzos and trios of the Classical period.
ternary: ABA, with new material in the middle section and a return to the first A material (exactly or
varied). The return to the final A section can be recopied in the music, denoted by a phrase above the
music (da capo), or a sign (da capo al segno), which is common in da capo arias.
rondo forms: ABACA, ABACADA, etc. the initial section is contrasted with episodes in different keys and
styles from the original A material. Rondos are typically used as the last movement of a Classical sonata,
string quartet or symphony.
rondeau: a medieval song/dance, ABaAabAB
virelai: a medieval song/dance, AbbaA
sonata form: two contrasting key areas in the first section (exposition) are developed in the middle section
(development) and return in the final section (recapitulation) in the tonic key. The sonata form emerges
from an expanded rounded binary form in the Classical period.
compound forms: any two forms combined to make a new, large form.
two binary forms can be combined (Minuet – Trio - Minuet) to produce a larger ABA structure
sonata-rondo: combines the contrasting rondo sections ABA-C-ABA with the sonata principles of an
exposition, development and recapitulation.
concerto-sonata form: derived from sonata form, but with two expositions (1. orchestra, 2. orchestra and
soloist) and a solo cadenza between the recapitulation and the coda.
through-composed: continuous contrasting sections are composed together without repetitions of
previous material. Ballad songs and improvisatory instrumental pieces, like the fantasia, toccata or prelude
are examples of additive compositions. Some Renaissance genres (mass, motet, madrigal) are typically
Related to genres: compositional types or categories of works
examples of sacred vocal genres:
chant, plainsong or Gregorian chant
examples of secular vocal genres:
examples of instrumental genres:
tone poem/symphonic poem
Nota bene: Instruments, terms, concepts, tempi and expressions often go by different names in foreign languages. It is best to look up unfamiliar words when they are encountered.
Middle Ages (also referred to as medieval music): 600-1420. Generally called the Middle Ages, this long historical era can be broken into several distinct developmental periods and falls between Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance.
Students are encouraged to listen to several examples of each style at online sources available through Classical Music.net, Naxos, or other online sites and to listen for the characteristics given below.
Early medieval music to 850: mainly plainsongs (chants) written in Latin for the church
sacred: worship music for the church, always in Latin
motion: conjunct melodies
text settings: syllabic and melismatic
rhythm: free rhythms based on the syllables of the text
scales: modal, based on the pitches D (Dorian), E (Phrygian), F (Lydian), G (Mixolydian)
ranges: narrow, usually less than an octave
notation: neumes --groups of notes in symbols, showing the direction of the melodic patterns.
musical staff: ranging from one to four lines, c-clefs, no bar lines or meters
accidentals: B-flat only
sources: manuscripts are hand copied on parchment
genres: numerous types of chants (songs in Latin for the church services)
composers: mostly anonymous
Development of polyphony: 850-1300
harmony: perfect consonances (perfect fourths, fifths and octaves)
harmonic motion: parallel, then in contrary and oblique motion
melodic motion: conjunct in each voice part
text settings: syllabic and melismatic, mostly in Latin
rhythm: repetitive rhythmic patterns in compound time called rhythmic modes
notation: modal; signs (neumes) show the groups of notes that form each rhythmic unit
musical staff: four to five lines, c-clefs, no bar lines or meters, no dynamics or expression marks, voice
designations: tenor, duplum, triplum, quadruplum
sources: manuscripts are hand copied on parchment
genres: organum (chant combined with polyphony),
motet (polyphonic settings with new and separate texts added to each voice
composers: Leonin and Perotin (Notre Dame in Paris), Hildegard of Bingen
Development of secular music: 1100-1300
secular: worldly music not written for religious services
texts: vernacular languages - French, German, Spanish, English
texture: mostly monophonic
motion: conjunct melodies
text settings: syllabic and melismatic
rhythm: mostly unmetered rhythms until 1250, metered for dances
ranges: narrow, usually less than an octave
traditions: troubadours (South French), trouvères (North French), Minnesingers (German)
instruments: organs, recorders, sackbuts (trombone), shawm (double reed), vielles (string)
composers: Bernart of Ventadorn, Beatrice of Dia, Adam de la Halle, and hundreds of others
Late medieval music: 1300-1420 —the New Art (Ars nova)
texts: vernacular and Latin
rhythm: complex rhythmic patterns, simple and compound metrical groups, often syncopated
melodic motion: conjunct lines
harmony: consonances: (P=perfect) P4, P5, P8, some thirds
ranges: often an octave in each voice
cantus firmus: a pre-existent melody (chant, for example) used in the lower voice (tenor)
musical notation: mensural; early time signatures (mensuration signs), but still no bar lines
5-line staff with c and f clefs, flats and sharps used on individual notes, and flats at the beginning of a
line apply throughout the line, but not as “tonal” key signatures.
voice designations: tenor, contratenor, triplum, cantus
sources: manuscripts are hand copied on parchment
genres: isorhythmic motets, masses, dance songs (ballade, virelai, rondeau)
composers: Philippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, Francesco Landini
Renaissance ("rebirth"): 1420-1600
texture: polyphonic, often organized by imitation and canons, or homorhythmic
motion: conjunct lines with some wider skips
rhythm: regular pulses, but often without a metrical pulse in vocal music; metrical rhythms and strong
downbeats in dances and instrumental music
harmony: triadic, but cadences on perfect fifths and octaves (some Picardy thirds at cadences – the name
Picardy comes from north French region where many of these composers originated)
ranges: expand to utilize the full SATB registers
genres: growth of numerous sacred and secular genres
vocal: predominant in sacred and secular music
sacred music: sung a cappella
secular music: can be sung with instruments
notation: mensural; early time signatures (mensuration signs), but still no bar lines.
5-line staff with c and f clefs, parts written on individual sections of the page, no dynamic markings
voice designations: tenor, contratenor, cantus, later changing to cantus, altus, tenor, bassus.
sources: music printing develops in 1501 in Italy. Manuscripts also continue to be hand copied.
genres: single-movement compositions, except for the Mass cycle and dance pairs
mass cycle: sacred choral, a capella composition with specific Ordinary sections of the Catholic service
composed as a group, often with the same cantus firmus in the tenor part
motet: sacred choral, a capella composition with words in Latin
chorale: sacred hymn with words in German
chanson: secular polyphonic composition with words in French
madrigal: secular polyphonic composition with words in Italian
Lied: secular polyphonic composition with words in German
ayre: secular polyphonic composition with words in English
canzona: instrumental composition in the style of a chanson
dances: usually in pairs, like the slow pavan and the fast galliard
musical instruments: harpsichord (also called the virginal), clavichord, lute, viola da gamba family (also
called viols), recorders, cornetto, shawm, sackbut. The violin is developed, but is mostly used outdoors.
Instruments are not usually specified for compositions.
ensembles: called “consorts.” A whole consort is an ensemble of the same family (e.g., all recorders, SATB)
and a broken consort is a mixed ensemble.
composers: Du Fay, Dunstable, Binchois, Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Byrd, Morley, Dowland,
Marenzio, Monteverdi, and hundreds or others
Baroque Era: 1600-1750
textures: homophonic, polyphonic, and contrapuntal textures
rhythms: metrical rhythms, strong and weak beat pulses
motives: short ideas become the basis for continuous pitch and register manipulation, often presented
without regular pauses in the music
scales: major and minor scales develop
harmonic rhythm: changes often occur on every beat or every two beats
basso continuo: bass line played by the harpsichord and cello or other solo bass instrument
figured bass: develops c. 1600; number notations that inform the continuo player of the intervals and
accidentals in relation to the bass notes; the realization of the harmonies is improvised.
terraced dynamics: contrasting piano and forte in abrupt dynamic shifts
ornamentation: melodic decorations, often improvised or added from symbols given in scores
affections: music expresses specific emotions
concertato style: contrast is emphasized through alternating groups of voices and/or instruments
polychoral: a composition for multiple choirs or voices and/or instruments
ritornello: instrumental refrain that frequently returns, as in a concerto or between verses of a song
notation: modern symbols, written in score notation with time signatures, key signatures, dynamics (piano
and forte), measures with bar lines, instrument and voice designations.
instruments: the violin family, horns and trumpets (without valves) are not new instruments, but they begin to appear and gain importance in specific ensembles. Harpsichords, and especially organs, become more fully developed as solo instruments. The oboe and bassoon replace the shawm and the dulcian as the principal double reeds.
ensembles: string orchestras are expanded with individual instruments that contrast in timbre to each other
genres: numerous multi-movement compositions
opera seria: Italian opera, serious in nature, in which the narrative (recitative) and reflective (aria)
numbers are all sung, and including staging, costumes, scenery and dramatic acting.
oratorio: work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, based on a sacred story; with no acting costumes or
cantata: a composition for one or more voices and accompaniment
chorale cantata: a work with soloists, chorus and orchestra, incorporating hymns into the composition.
trio sonata: two solo instruments, keyboard and continuous bass instrument
fantasia/prelude/toccata: improvisatory compositions, often paired with a fugue
fugue: paired with an improvisatory composition (fantasia, toccata or prelude)
suite: a collection of dances (allemande, courant, saraband, gigue)
solo concerto: a solo instrument and a chamber orchestra
concerto grosso: a small group of solo instruments contrasted with a chamber orchestra. A multi-
overture: instrumental movement used at the beginning of an opera or oratorio
composers: Monteverdi, Schütz, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Vivaldi, J. S. Bach
Classical Era: 1750-1800
aesthetic: balance, symmetry and formality, reflecting the rational objectivity of the Enlightenment
melody: sometimes tuneful and folk-like; at other times motivically constructed; lyrical themes contrast with
phrasing: periodic, in multiples of 4, usually separated by rests; balanced antecedent-consequent phrase
tonality: major and minor keys, with major more prevalent
texture: homophonic, with occasional counterpoint, especially in developmental sections
harmony: triadic with 7th chords used for color and tension; primary chords (I –IV-V-I) predominate
harmonic rhythm: slow, changing every two to four beats
modulations: to closely related keys (e.g., to IV or V in Major; to III in minor).
accompaniments: broken triadic patterns (Alberti bass); repetitive broken octaves (murky bass)
instrumentation: homogeneous sounds (orchestras with doubling of winds), musical material organized by
families; standardized combinations of instruments within a genre; piano and clarinet (both invented in the
Baroque) added to the repertory
forms: standardized sonata form, theme and variations, minuet & trio, rondo, concerto-sonata
dynamic gradations and expansions: crescendos, diminuendos, piano and forte dynamic (pp & ff very
occasionally); occasional accents on off-beats, sforzandos
sonata, especially keyboard sonatas
composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
Romantic Era: 1800-1900, or nineteenth-century music
aesthetic: freedom from boundaries, including those that separate the arts: music becomes more programmatic, merging with literature, art, and philosophy; programmatic elements reflect this trend; interest in the subjective, including the emotions and the supernatural, in contrast with the more objective and rational Classic.
melody: long, emotional, and memorable, using wide leaps for expression
phrases: of irregular lengths, with less symmetry than those of the Classic
rhythm: displaced accents, shifting and overlapping of duple and triple patterns
texture: homophony predominates, highlighting the melody, but counterpoint appears at times
harmony: more extensive, with chord extensions and greater dissonance
tonality: tonal, but with distant chord progressions and modulations; chromaticism is used extensively; key
areas often change freely within movements; minor mode predominates, in contrast with the Classic
accompaniment: complex, sometimes contrapuntal, with wide ranges and disjunct intervals
dynamics: dramatic, at extremes of the dynamic range; tempi use expressive terminology
meter and tempo: freer meters and tempi
forms: less clearly defined by sections and tonality
instrumentation: larger forces of the orchestra, with a greatly expanded range of timbres that demanded
instrumental evolution (valves for brass instruments, more keys for winds, larger and stronger pianos,
pedaled harps; new instruments, including the tuba, saxophone, and celeste); inclusion of voice and
chorus in later symphonic works
scale: on one hand, short, intimate compositions for piano (character piece) or voice and piano (lied,
chanson); on the other, expansion of proportions of the symphony, chamber music, concerto, sonata,
mass; opera roles demand bigger voices to match more grandiose dramatic concepts
symphonic poem/tone poem
Lied and chanson
mass and oratorio
single-movement character pieces and dances for piano
composers: Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Verdi, Brahms,
Twentieth-century music: 1900-2000
wide range of tonal, modal, whole tone, atonal, serial, and approaches to composition
wide range of harmonic structures: triadic, quartal, clusters
rhythms: polymeters, asymmetrical meters
melodies: disjunct, Sprechstimme (half sung/half spoken)
timbres: non-traditional uses of instruments, global instruments, electronic sounds
mixed media: music combined with film, art, theater
form: traditional and non-traditional structures
expression: ranges from subdued works (Impressionism) to excessive exaggeration (Expressionism)
nationalism and folk elements
return to musical characteristics of earlier periods: Neo-Classicism (including Neo-Baroque elements)
jazz and other African-American influences
composers: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Ives, Barber, Copland, Cage, and Glass.
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