Musical Terms and Concepts

Explanations and musical examples can be found through the Oxford Music Online, accessed through the Potsdam Library page at  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:
beat: pulse
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
     the melody.

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
     performed simultaneously.

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.

repetitive forms:
   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.

additive form:

    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
    chorale cantata

examples of  secular vocal genres:

    solo cantata
    song cycle

examples of instrumental genres:

    tone poem/symphonic poem
    program symphony

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.  


Historical periods, musical styles and principal genres


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, 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
        texture: monophonic
        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
        textures: polyphonic
        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
        scales: modal
        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
        scales: modal  
        ranges: narrow, usually less than an octave
        traditions:  troubadours (South French), trouvères (North French), Minnesingers (German)
          instrumental dances
        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)
        textures: polyphonic
        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

    scales: modal
    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-
          movement composition
        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
     dramatic ones
    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

        opera seria
        comic opera
        sonata, especially keyboard sonatas
        string quartet
        solo concerto

    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        
        cyclic symphony
        symphonic poem/tone poem
        symphonic suite
        concert overture
        chamber music
        Lied and chanson
        song cycles
        music drama
        nationalistic opera
        lyric opera
        mass and oratorio
        piano sonata
        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)
     and Neo-Romanticism
    jazz and other African-American influences

    composers: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Ives, Barber, Copland, Cage, and Glass.

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