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Classical Music Glossary

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A Capella: Expression indicating that the vocal part is sung without musical accompaniment.

Adagio: Italian adverb (at ease) Rather slow tempo, between Lento and Andante.

Allegretto: Italian adverb (quite cheerful) Rather lively tempo, between Moderato and Allegro.

Allegro: Italian adverb (gay, cheerful) Lively tempo, between Allegretto and Vivace.

Aria: (Aria in Italian) An aria is a melody played or sung by a soloist, often accompanied
by an instrumental ensemble. It is in the Opera that we find arias most frequently.

Andante: Italian adverb (going) Moderate tempo, between Adagio and Moderato.


Barcarolle: Musical form whose accompaniment follows a ternary measure (in three beats) and which recalls the slow movement of a boat.

Bass: The lowest range of the instrumental and vocal register. Ex: the role of Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Bass continuo: Process related to the Baroque period, consisting of the bass instruments (the “basses”) continuously playing a set of notes from a harmony encrypted by the composer. The high instruments are then added to this low-sound carpet, in harmony with it. See Ostinato


Cadence: From the Italian Cadenza (Fall) This musical term refers to a melodic phrase or simply a few chords whose purpose is to punctuate a piece, like the end of paragraphs or chapters in literature. There are many types of cadenzas, depending on what the composer wants to express, and whether he wants to conclude or simply make a transition between two passages. The most common cadences: perfect, broken, avoided…

Canon: musical form based on imitation, close to the fugue, where the theme, in a counterpoint, develops from one voice to another in a harmonious shift.

Cantabile: From Italian, singing. Notation encourages the musician to stamp what he plays, that is to say, to make his musical phrase brilliant.

Cantata: Secular or religious musical piece, for one or more voices accompanied by an instrumental ensemble.

Clef: Symbol placed at the beginning of the staff to indicate the pitch of the tones inscribed on it. Ex: Treble Clef, Bass Clef, C Clef etc.

Coda: Word of Italian origin (Tail) A coda designates the final measures of a movement or a piece. It takes up a theme already heard previously in the work.

Colorature (Coloratura): From the Latin colare, “to adorn”. Refers to a virtuoso voice capable of producing complex vocalizations. Associated today with the great sopranos or mezzo-sopranos. It is the most difficult but also the most prestigious role in an opera. Maria Callas, and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf are historical models. The role of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute is a good example.

Concerto: Word of Italian origin Musical form generally composed of 3 movements (a fast, then a slow, and a fast again), in which the soloist(s) (violin, piano, flute…) dialogue with an orchestra. This form took off during the Baroque period and reached its peak during the Classical and Romantic periods.

Crescendo: Nuance inviting to amplify the sound produced by the instrument.


Diminuendo: Nuance inviting to diminish the sound produced by the instrument.


Fugue: a form of contrapuntal musical writing where different parts take up the same theme in an entangled way. This gives the impression that the melody is leaking from one voice to another, hence the term fugue.


Gavotte: Ancient dance originating from Lower Brittany, of moderate tempo. Popular during the Renaissance and at the Court of France.


Humoresque: Romantic musical genre characterized by a certain fantasy and good humour.

Instrumentarium: refers to all the musical instruments used for a work


Largo: Italian adverb (wide) Very slow and majestic tempo.

Legato: Expression indicating that notes of a melody should be interpreted in a flowing, linked way.

Lento: Italian adverb (slow) Slow tempo, between Largo and Adagio.

Lied: (Meaning Song in German) A Lied is a poem sung by a single voice and accompanied by one or more instruments. Schubert is considered the great master of the Lied, thanks to works such as his brilliant Ellens Dritter Gesang, better known as Schubert’s Ave Maria.


Mazurka: Dance originating from Poland, well-paced, fast and in three beats. Unlike the waltz, whose strong beat falls on the first beat (ONE two three), the mazurka is characterized by a strong beat on the second beat (one TWO three). In France, it is naturally Chopin who gave his letters of nobility to this musical genre.

Measure: Pulse structure, which infuses a rhythm into the melody. Concretely, it is a cycle made up of a first strong beat, and X weak beats that follow, before resuming the strong beat. Ex: ONE, two, ONE, two… Or ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three…

Mezzo: antecedent designating an “in-between”, a happy medium. Ex: “Mezzoforte”, noted “mf” on a score, means “between the piano nuance and the strong nuance”.

Moderato: Italian adverb (moderate) Moderate tempo, between Andante and Allegretto

Motet: Musical composition, with one or more voices, accompanied by instruments or not, often religious, written on a text in Latin.


Nuance: Solfeggio sign indicating to the musician at what level of volume to play his notes.


Opera: dramatic work set to music whose words are sung.

Oratorio: dramatic lyrical work whose subject is most often religious. Invented by the Italian religious order of the Oratorians in the 16th century.

Ostinato: composition process consisting in repeating the same rhythmic or melodic structure “obstinately”, as an accompaniment to the main themes of a work. Very often used for basses (left hand on the piano, double basses in the orchestra). Ravel’s Bolero is a canonical example.


Polka: Dance that finds its origins in the current Czech Republic. Rhythmic and lively, in two beats, this dance found a master in classical music in the person of Johann Strauss II.

Prestissimo: Italian adverb (very fast) Very fast tempo.

Presto: Italian adverb (fast) Fast tempo, between Vivace and Prestissimo.

Pizzicato: Italian adjective (pinched) Technique specific to string instruments (violin, viola, cello, etc.) consisting of playing the strings with the fingers and not the bow. Popularized by Niccolo Paganini.


Rhapsody: Composition for one or more free-form instruments (without constraints as for a fugue, a sonata, etc.).

Recitative: narrative part declaimed in a cantata, opera, etc. It’s a chant that aims to get as close to normal speech as possible, to allow the action to move forward.

Requiem: mass for the deceased whose liturgical service is broken down into several parts, the most famous of which are the Kyrie, the Sequentia (where we find the Dies Irae, generally), the Offertorium, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei. The most famous Requiem are by Mozart, Verdi, Fauré.

Register: For an instrument, this is all the notes it can emit, from the lowest to the highest. For a voice, we speak of registers to designate the different levels of note pitch (bass, treble, etc.)

Rondo: musical form widely used in classical music, based on the alternation between a refrain and verses (A/B/A/C/A/D…).

Rubato: Italian adjective, “stolen”. A term relating to the musical expression: the musician bends the rhythmic rigour of the measure to speed up certain notes or slow them down, in order to produce a striking emotional effect. Process adored by the romantics, by Frédéric Chopin more particularly. However, to be consumed in moderation to play the baroque.

Scherzo: (Joke, in Italian) A scherzo is a lively, joyful piece, characterized by its pleasant, even entertaining side.

Sonata: multi-movement composition for one or more instruments. Traditionally opposed to the cantata, because the sonata does not include voices, it is a form close to the symphony, with however fewer instruments than the latter.

Soprano: refers to the voice whose range is on the highest staff (on the classical scale: “above” basses, tenors, altos).

Spiccato: In the playing of the violin, a kind of jumping consists of removing and placing the bow between each note.

Staccato: Expression indicating that the notes of a melody must be interpreted in a detached, even choppy way.

Symphony: multi-movement composition for orchestra. Basically almost synonymous with music, it is difficult today to give precise limits to the definition of the symphony. However, note that it is generally opposed to monody (one instrument) and vocal music.


Tempo: The pace of execution of a work. The different tempi are exhaustively described in this glossary (Andante, Allegro, Moderato, Presto, etc.)

Time: Unit of measurement of musical duration, relative to the rhythm of a piece. To be distinguished from the tempo, which sanctions the pace of execution. In music theory, 1 beat = 1 quarter note = 1/2 half note = 2 eighth notes = 4 sixteenth notes etc.

Tenor: Musical range located between the treble (soprano) and the bass (bass), but lower than the “alto” voice. This is the highest range for a male voice. Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo are prestigious representatives.

Tessiture: The scale of notes that can be emitted by a voice, in a homogeneous way.


Variation: Process aimed at producing a musical phrase from a known theme, by adding substantial modifications to it: this can be a rhythmic modification (we space out the notes, we play them more quickly), melodic (we add or remove notes, but we recognize the theme), harmonics (we change key for example). Mozart’s Themes and Variations, including the famous “To you, I would say Mom”, are canonical examples.

Vivace: Italian adverb (vivacious) Very lively tempo, between Allegro and Presto.


Waltz: A very popular triple-time dance whose letters of nobility were forged in Germany and Austria. The emphasis is on the first beat. The Beautiful Blue Danube by Johann Strauss is a canonical example.

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